A story -- appocryphal, I would guess -- is told of the day independence came to Tanzania in 1961. By this account, the people of Dar es Salaam queued up at the European banks and explained to onlookers:

"Now that we are free, we have come for our share of the wealth."

They are still waiting for the wealth in Tanzania and in countries all over Africa where political independence, as often as not, has brought a pathetic harvest of economic regression. Chaos, hunger and violence reign in Uganda, a potential garden of abundance in this continent. The economy of Mozambique is a pitiful shambles; food is rationed, nothing works. Zaire is rotten with corruption, exploitation and inefficiencies. A Cuban army occupies Angola, where life is riven by civil war. Zambia, founded on a humanistic doctrine of love and equal sharing, has become an economic paraplegic. The slums and shanty towns of Lusaka make the ghettoes of South Africa bland by comparison. Pickpockets move like piranha through the street crowds. The fear of crime is so great that even the churches are surrounded by high walls with glass shards embedded on top. Food shortages are commonplace, while the great Zambian agricultural potential lies virtually untouched. Renee Dumont, a French agricultural consultant to the Zambian government, has remarked with exaggeration: "The rich man's pigs eat better than the average Zambian."

Dennis Akumu, secretary-general of an African trade union federation, told New African magazine last year:

"When we were fighting against colonialism, we were partners [with present African leaders]. We had common objectives. We said: "We want to replace this exploitative white government.' We were going to have an African government that would lay strong emphasis on social justice, better income distribution and fair play.

"African governments having taken over, unfortunately many have departed from these promises. Many of them have abandoned better income distribution and have built an elite; in some cases there has just been a change from a white face behind the desk to a black face behind the desk, but doing the same thing. Trade unions, therefore, started questioning: 'This is not what we fought for! Really, we fought for something better than this.'"

In a gloomy moment, a Western diplomat in Nairobi told me: "If you look at it with your head and not your heart, there is no hope for Africa." He was depressed by uncontrolled birthrates that threaten to double the population every 15 years, by the "outright Kleptomania" of many governments, by the inability of African countries -- some of them richly endowed with land and climate -- to feed themselves.

On the latter problem -- food -- Dominique Malaishu, economic adviser to Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, wryly observed, "We have so talked about agriculture that talking seems to be an end in itself." Later, he suggested that Malawi had something to teach Africa about food. "They do some things very well in Malawi," he said.

Malawi?

It is a small country on Zambia's eastern border which few Americans have heard of or could locate on a mental map. It has been a modern pariah in Africa, a little rogue elephant swimming against the economic and political tides. Vague doctrines of socialism or Marxism or "humanism" infuse its neighbors. But Malawi is aggressively capitalistic.

To most African nations, South Africa is the Great Satan. Not so with Malawi. It denounces apartheid but maintains with the Pretoria government open and intimate econmic and diplomatic relationships. This defiant iconoclasm is carried further in Malawi's economic and political ties with Israel and Taiwan, countries that are anathema in much of Africa.

Moreover, Malawi is avowedly "pro-western" and "anti-communist" in contrast to its "nonaligned" sister states. It has in common with most of those sister states a one-party political system that is tightly controlled by a permanent ruler. Tanzania has Julius Nyerere. Mozambique has Samora Machel. Zambia has Kenneth Kaunda. Malawi has His Excellency the Life President Ngwazi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, a physician of 80 or more years who was educated in South Africa, the United States and Great Britain and who -- to Westerners at least -- is one of the most mysterious and interesting men on the African continent. He is also one of the richest.

American diplomats are bullish on Malawi. "They do everything right," one of them remarked. The people, on the surface at least, are exemplars of the slogan of Banda's political party: "Unity, Loyalty, Discipline and Obedience".

A stern almost biblical, concept of life permeates the society and the policies of government. Its operating premise is contained in the Old Testament admonition that "thou shalt eat the labor of thine hand." The American version is, "Root, hog, or die." This is not a sentimental welfare state. The public assistance budget for Malawi's 6 million people is 60,000 kwacha this year, about $75,000 at current exchange rates. I encountered a beggar at the Blantyre airport, a giggling old woman hopping around on the stumps of her legs. She was the only beggar I saw in the country. A weaving factory has been established near Blantyre for the blind, the deaf and the lame.It is a self-sufficient, profit-making enterprise: "Thou shalt eat the labor of thine hand."

It is not a sentimental political state, either. I listened to the presentation in Parliament of the 1981 national budget. The speaker was the minister of finance, whose peroration vividly illustrated political orthodoxy in Malawi: "There is need . . . for all of us to work very hard in order to help His Excellency the Life President Ngwazi Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda develop this country further. The large volumes of capital which are expected to flow into the country during the coming five years are a reflection of the confidence and trust which the outer world has in the leadership of His Excellency the Life President. With His Excellency the Life President leading and guiding us, the economic turbulences which the country must experience from time to time mainly as a result of external shocks will be transitory and the economy will continue to prosper. We in this House have a responsibility to perform. Prudent financial management of the institutions which His Excellency the Life President has been kind enough to place under our control is one way of showing His Excellency the Life President that we are following his counsel to the letter. Mr. Speaker, sir, honorable members let us all join hands and pray to the Almighty God to give His Excellency the Life President, Ngwazi Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda, long life so that the Malawi nation can continue to enjoy the political and economic prosperity which has been achieved under His Excellency the Life President's wise, dynamic and foresighted leadership."

On the day this speech was delivered, a hapless former minister of the national government, Gwanda Chakuamba, was sentenced to 22 years in prison at hard labor. The principal charge against him was sedition. The substance of the charge was that he attended a regional political meeting, that a speaker at the meeting, Faindi Phiri, praised Chakuamba for his work in economic development and that Chakuamba failed to disavow that praise. The judge at Chakuamba's trial declared: "Such words were both unwarranted and highly scandalous since everbody in this country knows that the development is due to the Life President alone and that such words of praise should only be directed to the Ngwazi."

Phiri, who spoke the words, got four years.

"Unity, Loyalty, Discipline and Obedience." The slogan resonates in my mind and finally I make the connection: Singapore. Or maybe China. Like Singapore, the cities of Malawi -- Blantyre, Llongwqe, Zomba -- are antiseptic in their neatness, in the absence of crime. Mugging will get you 40 years here. One of my American mentors assured me that "in Malawi there is no baksheesh [bribery]," which is the curse of many other African countries. A rigid puritanism inspires public policy. For males, no hair below the nape of the neck. For females, no shorts, no slacks. Skirts must cover the knee. No pornogaphy, no licentious literature is allowed. At the Blantyre airport, a customs official confiscated an African news magazine from my son. It featured a bathing beauty on the cover. Just like Singapore. Or Saudi Arabia.

Singapore has been called a miraculous beehive. Bereft of natural resources, packed in on a tiny island, its people have created one of the most prosperous societies on earth. Malawi is poor, one of the 20 poorest countries on earth by the standards of the United Nations. But there are parallels, nonetheless, especially in the work ethic and in the intensive utilization of meager resources. It has no mineral wealth; nearly two-thirds of the land is unsuitable for farming; it is landlocked. And yet, unlike its more richly endowed neighbors, Malawi feeds itself, and in most years produces agricultural surpluses for export. "Your land is your gold," Hastings Banda incessantly instructs his people, and they treat it as such. In the countryside, it seems that every square inch of cropland is under cultivation -- maize, nuts, cotton, rice, peas, beans, sorghum, tobacco, fruits. The roads are crowded with men and women hauling produce to market -- on their backs, their heads, their bicycles. Someone remarked, appropriately: "They don't spend a lot of time here sleeping under trees."

There is a compelling contrast with Zambia, where most of a rich land lies fallow, where people are fed with costly imported grain from South Africa, where government policies encourage urbanization and the slums, poverty and crime that follow. Government policies here are the opposite. More than 90 percednt of the people remain on the land; urban migration is actively discouraged. There are no safety nets, no subsidies, no social services for the unemployed: "Root, hog or die." So they remain in the rural villages, mining the earth for food. Cash incomes are pitifully low -- less than $200 a year per capita. Farm laborers get less than $1 a day; urban workers average about $50 a month. But there is food and Banda's obsession with agriculture persists. His agricultural budget exceeds the national budget for health. There are subsidies for seed and fertilizer. Markets for crops have been established all over the country. Prices are set to encourage production. "There is probably some malnutirtion here," I was told by an American in the embassy, "but there is no widespread hunger and certainly no starvation which you will find in some of the other African countries."

Root, hog, or die.

I was unable to secure an appointment with the Life President, Hastings Banda. He is not fond of foreign journalists, which adds to the aura of mystery about him.Diplomats see little of him. His presidential palace sits on a hillside outside Blantyre. It is an imposing place from a distance; a second palace is being built for him at a cost of several million dollars in the new capital city, Llongwe. A foreign intelligence officer of good reputation who is located outside Malawi provided me with a few details of Banda's personal life:

He is approximately 80 years of age, is small of stature, abstemious and austere in manner; "Gnome-like and quick to anger." He is a Christian who has never married and whose only close companion for 20 to 30 years has been Cecelia Kadzamira, the official hostess at the palace.

Legend has it that as a youth encouraged by missionaries he walked l,000 miles to South Africa in search of an education at a mission school. From there he found his way to the United States and graduated in the 1930s from Meharry Medical College, at that time an all-black school, in Nashville. He proceeded to Scotland for further medical training and practiced in London for many years. By 1953 he was an active and articulate opponent of British colonialism in his homeland, which was then called Nyasaland. He returned home in 1958 at the invitation of the Nyasaland African Congress and assumed the leadership of the independence movement. He discovered oratical skills that are said, in retrospect, to have "set the country on fire." The British imprisoned him, released him after a time and in 1964 granted independence to the country. Banda was the George Washington of the new nation of Malawi, was elected its first president and in 1971, at the unanimous bidding of the Malawi Congress Party, became president for his lifetime.

There is no reason to doubt that he was a popular choice. Both intelligence and diplomatic informants insist that there is no significant opposition to Banda within the country. They estimate that only about 35 political prisoners are detained, a small number by the standards of this continent. "On a human rights scale of one to ten," one of the Americans said, "I would give Malawi a five." I certainly picked up no anti-Banda sentiment during my brief trip and didn't expect to, given the experience of the unfortunate Gwamba Chakuanda and the reported law that makes it a capital offense to pass "false information" to journalists.

The Life President undoubtedly is a severe and autocratic man with an iron fist. He is said to be involved in virtually every detail of government and he personally serves as the minister of the most important cabinet departments -- agriculture, defense, external affairs and so on. There is no vice president and no credible speculation on who might take his place. Banda's silence on the succession may be good politics in that it prevents squabbling among the leading figures of his government. He pays his ministers a modest salary of $15,000 a year but gives them each a black Mercedes and assists them financially in the acquisition of land and houses. They respond with lamb-like fealty.

Malawi is an aggressively capitalistic society. Its most aggressive and successful capitalist is the Life President. He controls from 35 to 40 percent of the entire economy, which has prompted an American to remark with a smile:

"You may truly say that what is good for Malawi is good for Doctor Banda. Or vice versa."

In my researches on Malawi I have not found anywhere an account of the Banda economic empire or how it was acquired. An American suggested that it was launched on capital accumulated during his years of medical practice in England. That may be. But he has also used government agencies to underwrite many of his enterprises. The state-run Agricultural and Marketing Development Corp., for example, has extended loans and loan guarantees of about $36 million to various of his companies.

The parent company is Press Holdings. Through subsidiaries it supplies 85 percent of the bread consumed in Malawi, 60 percent of the general petroleum products and 100 percent of the aviation fuel.One farming operation produces a third of the nations's burley tobacco crop. Another -- General Farming Co. -- is the largest flue-cured tobacco grower in the world. It employs 15,000 workers and produces a quarter of the national crop.There are sugar, coffee and timber plantations, a 64,000-acre cattle ranch, hotels, supermarkets, department stores, a national hardware and building supply chain, steel plants, banks, insurance companies, brick, tool, textile, plastics and electronic factories. The company is also into breweries, a gin distillery, real estate, construction, imports and exports.

On the face of it, you have here a classic example of the "kleptomania" to which my Nairobi friend referred. It is reminiscent -- on the face of it -- of the Somoza family operations in Nicaragua. But there are significant disimilarities. In places like Mozambique or Zambia many if not all of the enterprises of Press Holdings -- retail shops included -- would be owned and run by government bureaucracies called "parastatals." The parastatals have been colossal failures. They lose money, are badly run and are tainted, in many cases, with scandal and corruption. That is not the case with the Banda companies. They are profitable and efficient. Samora Machel in Mozambique is said to be so disgusted with his "parastatals" that he has asked their former Portuguese owners to come back and run them. Similar sentiment is growing in Zambia, where the bankruptcy of state enterprises is causing political and popular discontent as well as economic hardship.

The other saving aspect of Banda's aggrandizement is that he has kept the wealth at home. The Americans insist that he has no foreign bank accounts and no foreign investments. Furthermore, he has no natural heirs and has supposedly willed his entire estate to the Malawi Party Congress. When he goes to his reward, the farms and factories and other enterprises will be left behind, intact.

The problems that now afflict Malawi and most of the new African nations will be left behind, too -- primitive or nonexistent public services, high birth rates and short life spans, authoritarian political systems, limited resources, capricious and inappropriate spending policies and longterm dependency on donor states.

Still, Malawi today, as Dominic Malaishu suggested, has something to teach its neighbors. The message is: Two cheers for capitalism.