The history of organized labour in Malawi goes back as far as 1945 when the first workers’ organisation the Transport and General Workers Union, initially called Magalimoto, was set up by two truck drivers cum politicians by the names of Lawrence Makata and Lali Lubani.
A few years later, the following trade unions were established: Commercial and General Workers Union, Building and Construction Workers Union, National Union of Plantation and Agriculture Workers, Local Government Employees Union, Nyasaland Teachers Union and National Union of Mine Workers.
In 1952, the Trade Union Congress of Nyasaland (TUCN) was instituted as a national centre of all trade unions. Due to leadership wrangles some trade unions later pulled out of the TUCN and formed another federation called National Council of Labor (NCL).
In 1964, TUCN and NCL merged to form Trade Union Congress of Malawi (TUCM).
The cordial relationship between the ruling elite and the trade unions who had gallantly fought together alongside other nationalists as a united front in the struggle for self-government and independence of Nyasaland, abruptly turned sour during the cabinet crisis of 1964 barely eight weeks after Malawi became independent on 6th July 1964. Trade unions which had felt greatly sidelined by government since around 1963, took a stance in support of the dissident cabinet ministers.
After the cabinet crisis of 1964, the state relentlessly became hostile towards the trade union movement. For instance, by the end of 1964, fourteen (14) trade unions had been de-registered by the Ministry of Labor. All civil service trade unions were banned and the Teachers Union of Malawi was renamed Teachers’ Association with the intense pressure from the state.
In 1965, Malawi Congress Party (MCP) convention adopted a policy of compulsory affiliation of all trade unions to the party. This entailed that the MCP could meddle into trade union affairs including election of office bearers and ensuring that the trade unions conformed to the vested interests of MCP.
Other prominent trade union leaders like Winston Chisiza were brutally murdered in the wake of cabinet crisis of 1964, while some renowned trade unionists like Susgo Msiska, Charles Msiska, Stuart Nkolokosa, Kelly Zidana and Chakufwa Chihana among others successfully fled into exile.
Where as some trade union leaders and members who remained in the country faced harassment and detentions without trial for sympathizing with dissident cabinet ministers in the wake of cabinet crisis of 1964, other trade unionists were cunningly co-opted into the apparatus of the state as a means of muzzling the trade union movement.
For instance, Richard Sembeleka who earlier on had served as Secretary General for Malawi Railways Workers Union, became the Minister of Labor in 1965. Nyemba Mbekeani who was once the Chairman of the Trade Union Congress of Nyasaland (TUCN), was appointed Malawi’s High Commissioner to United Kingdom where John Ngwiri, another figure with trade union work experience at both local and international level, was deployed as his counsellor.
When Malawi established diplomatic ties with South Africa in 1968, another trade unionist Joe Kachingwe was appointed as the first secretary for the Malawi’s delegation to South Africa and in July 1971, he became Malawi’s first Ambassador to South Africa.