Zambia's growth engine starts to chug again

The Kabwe Golf Club is a metaphor for Zambia’s history and fortunes.

Although many of the colonial niceties remain, including parking signs for everyone from the president to the “immediate past captains”, the condition of the tin roof, the size of the potholes in the access road and the unserviceable state of the mowing equipment point to some of the challenges.

Founded in 1913, the club is approaching its centenary with pride, but is uncertain whether its best days lie ahead or behind. The club’s prominently displayed logo of crossed clubs and skull hint to the unearthing in 1921 of a skull of early man (Homo rhodesiensis) by the town’s early mining operations.

Inside its polished floors reflect its whirring ceiling fans, the snooker table carefully covered to protect it from the harsh elements, walls sporting the embossed names of past captains, presidents and champions.
From 1913 until 1977 it was all about Botha, Van Niekerk, Drysdale, Arnott, Wallace and Snook. After that Ngoma, Simwanza and Munkombwe dominate. Now the tournament director is trying to find sponsors for the centenary event, hoping to create a catalyst and interest for new members.

Kabwe, too, is a metaphor for the transition of the past half-century. Just 135km north of Lusaka on the “Great North Road”, the town saw the start of the central African state’s mining industry. Inside Kabwe railway station is a plaque commemorating the finding of lead and zinc deposits in “Rhodesia’s Broken Hill”, as Kabwe was earlier known, in 1903; the railway reached the area three years later. Even though signs abound for the mine school and hospital, the ­underground mine closed in 1995. Today it is the site of dump reclamation and new acid and copper electro-winning plants.

Nearby, the Chinese-funded Mulungushi textile plant stands idle, the only activity the guard, Ben Johnson’s brother, apparently, stirring at the sight of my camera.

Repair and fresh investment
The Chinese also funded the construction of the Tazara railway linking Zambia to the port of Dar es Salaam, offering an alternative to the racist governments of Rhodesia and South Africa to the south. Built between 1970 and 1975 it was then the Chinese government’s largest foreign aid project. But though the $500-million involved was supposedly an interest-free, 30-year loan, to date not a penny has been paid back. The Tazara line is in urgent need of repair and fresh investment—and it’s not the only one.

Tough times, but both the railway and the golf club are in better shape than they were five years ago, when the grass at the latter was knee high and the clubhouse roof had all but fallen in. Kabwe was the headquarters for the southern rail link with Rhodesia and, later, as Zambian Railways Limited, Zimbabwe. It remains the operational centre of ZRL’s concessionaire, Railway System of Zambia (RSZ). Like the golf club and mine, the railway has been through the mill.

As a result, principally, of bad management, the railway was run down by 2000 to the point that there was little option but to find a private operator. The tracks and rolling stock had suffered from years of underinvestment, poor maintenance and general neglect. Of the stock of 4  000 wagons, RSZ says just 1 500 were serviceable, many only barely.

Of more than 70 locomotives, just 40 could be salvaged. But today for the first time in many years, the works at Kabwe have the spares to rebuild the giant 3 600-litre 16-cylinder turbodiesel engines, generators and electric engines of the General Motors locos and are replating and fitting new wheels supplied by Czechoslovakia, South Africa and Romania to the wagons. To date, says RSZ, seven years into the 20-year concession, 17 locos and 600 wagons have been overhauled. It’s a bit like the country.

Independent in 1964, Zambia is approaching its 50th anniversary in better shape than it has been at any time in the past 20 years—not that too many of its people appreciate this.

Recovery
Copper production is again near its 1972 production peak of 720 000 tonnes. It was originally intended to pass the one-million mark in 1975, but a combination of the early 1970s nationalisation and price crash resulted in a fall in production by the late 1980s to just 250 000 tonnes. Privatisation followed and the long recovery started. With a copper price now nearing $10 000 a tonne and fresh investment in big mines, the copperbelt is once more booming.

As a result, Zambia’s economy grew at more than 7% in 2010, making it the third-equal (tied with Ethiopia) best-performing in Africa after the Congo and Mozambique, and in the world top 20. Agriculture is improving in yields and volumes, fundamentally the result of free-market polices. No longer are prices controlled and sales made only to the government. The result? In the past 20 years maize production is up more than threefold to more than 2,5-million tonnes and wheat similarly to 200 000 tonnes.

Zambians speak wistfully of the days when ZCCM and Anglo American ran the mines, when big corporations had a deeper connection, perhaps, with the societies in which they operated and could afford to be less concerned about the vagaries of stock market prices and the short-term views of analysts.

But such social changes are not only the firms’ making. At independence, Zambia had three million people; today it has more than four times that number. The leader of the opposition, Michael Sata, says formal employment has increased only from 300 000 to 400 000 in this half-century.

And there have been many policy mistakes along the way, encouraged by the uncompetitiveness of two decades of one-party rule. “Mistakes were made in the past and we need to correct them,” says Vernon Mwaanga, a precocious foreign minister under Kenneth Kaunda and now chief whip.

“But we are aware today that the private sector is the engine of growth and that government has no business in business,” he says. That the opposition agrees on such key tenets says something about the limited scope for policy manoeuvre, if not about the lessons learned, and explains why Zambia’s domestic politics remains driven by personality and tribe, accusatory and fractious.

Against a backdrop of rising unemployment, with acute joblessness especially among the three-million youth and allegations of widespread corruption, politics is likely to get more so in the run-up to the probable June 2011 presidential election, in spite of the steady change and recovery.

Dr Greg Mills, author of Why Africa is Poor - and What Africans Can Do about It (Penguin), heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation. He first visited Kabwe in 1983 and returned there recently

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