/ 12 August 2021

Poverty underscores Zambia poll

Support: An assistant to Danny Yenga (second right), a candidate for the ruling Patriotic Front, hands out a cloth with a picture of President Edgar Lungu during a campaign parade in Lusaka. (Marco Longari/AFP)

Zambian tailor Lovemore Zulu picked out the stitching of a broken zipper, bobbing his head to the tunes blasting from an opposition election campaign parade.

He lives in a small cement brick house with no running water in front of the United Party for National Development’s (UPND’s) office in Matero, a densely populated suburb of the capital, Lusaka.

The UPND, the main rival to the ruling Patriotic Front (PF), is eager to tap into mounting disillusionment in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, where dissent has grown since the last 2016 poll. 

Young party activists in red berets and T-shirts piled into the back of a decorated pickup truck as a motorcade set off into Matero, one of their final shows to woo votes ahead of Thursday’s general election. They were accompanied by balaclava-clad “protectors” armed with machetes.

Despite a ban on mass rallies, it took less than an hour for hundreds of people to join the parade, jogging alongside the vehicles as they shouted “faka (pressure) for change”.

Like most Zambians, Matero residents have suffered during the sharp economic decline under President Edgar Lungu.

“The price of material has increased so much,” said Zulu. “In more than five years, there has been no improvement,” he said, pointing to the second-hand manual sewing machine he is saving up to replace.

But with daily revenue almost halved since he started, the same year Lungu took power, Zulu has lost hope in the PF.

“People have less money,” he said. “Everyone is complaining.”

The UPND’s presidential candidate, Hakainde Hichilema, a sixth-time runner, has already lost twice to Lungu since he was first elected in 2015. Their next stand-off is expected to be particularly tight.

Campaigning has been limited by coronavirus restrictions and marred by violent clashes between PF and UPND supporters, prompting Lungu to deploy the army.

Opposition voters are generally keeping a low profile in Lusaka, a PF stronghold. 

In Matero, a man walks up to an AFP photographer and pulls off his white sweater to show blood-crusted scabs on his right shoulder.

He introduces himself as Jonathan Mulala. He says PF “cadres” attacked him with a bottle the previous evening when, wearing a UPND T-shirt, he went to fetch his sister from a bar where she was having drinks with friends.

The party’s parliamentary candidate for Matero, Tom Michelo, said he had reported at least 40 similar incidents to the police since campaigning started in May.

“This is why we are holding bigger rallies,” he said, because a three-people limit on door-to-door campaigning is “not safe” and leaves people vulnerable to attacks.

Children fought over flyers as women came out of brick and corrugated iron homes, imitating the UPND’s “way forward” gesture: an extended hand with the thumb pointing up.

Michelo stopped at a food market, where he was almost overtaken by the crowd pushing and shoving for regalia. A vegetable vendor reached out to protect his carefully balanced display of potatoes as three women left the scene, disappointed at not getting a T-shirt.

“Our greatest campaign … has been lack of employment,” Michelo said before setting off with a pile of freebies. “The economy is biting.”

PF supporters later clashed with the convoy, injuring about 20 people before soldiers intervened, UPND spokesman Bryan Chafwila said on Tuesday. 

“It’s going to get bloody as we get closer to voting day,” he warned. — AFP