Zambian elections: Poverty, prosperity and potholes

Kafue is a bleak and dusty town 45 kilometres southwest of the Zambian capital of Lusaka. Although not far from Kafue National Park, the country’s largest and oldest animal reserve that claims to have the greatest diversity of wildlife of any national park in Africa, few tourists bother to stop at the town.

Its windswept and almost deserted main business street, which straddles the Lusaka-to-Livingstone road, feels like something out of the American Wild West, offering up a miserable selection of bare-shelved stores and a clutch of dingy bars.

Louise Redvers travelled to Zambia ahead of the elections to find out what’s at stake and what ordinary Zambians think about their country.

It is hard to imagine that Kafue was a booming town with a large nitrogen plant, a busy train station and a thriving textiles industry 20 years ago. Perched on the north bank of the Kafue River, the transit town was the crossing point for the railway from Lusaka-to-Livingstone on the Zimbabwean border, and home to the famous 427-metre steel Kafue railway bridge, which was erected by Mashonaland Railways in 1906.

Six decades later, when the government of Kenneth Kaunda and the newly independent Zambia wanted to reduce the pressure on increasingly congested Lusaka, Kafue was reborn as an industrial, residential and employment hub. Experts from as far afield as Yugoslavia, Italy, Israel and Japan were reportedly called in to help construct a utopian mix of factories, homes and community facilities.

For some years the town was hailed as a model of African economic and social development. Today, beneath thick layers of dust, the houses and their positioning around a grid and a shopping precinct still bear some physical similarities to the towns built in post-war Britain.

Kafue’s luck ran out in the 1990s with the advent of multiparty democracy, the entrance to power of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) and an aggressive privatisation programme that irrevocably changed Zambia’s economic landscape.

Competition from low-cost imports as well as hard-headed private business decisions that focused on profitability and not staff numbers, as parastatals tend to do, resulted in most of the factories and production lines grinding to a halt. The town’s government-run fertiliser plant, which at its height employed more than 2 500 people, stuttered along at less than 20% of its capacity.

These days few trains pass along the once world-famous line, and poorly maintained tracks mean progress is slow and derailments frequent.

Chinese investment has revived production at a mothballed nickel factory in Mazabuka, a town about 40km west, although work there is suspended at the moment because of land subsidence in the mine. A new India-funded steel-scrap plant in the town has also created some jobs and there is major investment, again from China, in a nearby hydropower plant.
But for most Kafue residents there are few opportunities. Whereas the county’s formal employment rate is estimated at a dismal 10%, Kafue would be lucky to reach half of that.

Longing for change
Away from the main strip, in the residential heart of the town where yellowing three-storey apartment blocks are shaped around a small concrete shopping precinct, women sit on broken chairs beneath cobweb-strewn shutters. They watch children play among the broken glass on the once tarred road, now sandy and full of potholes.

It is just after 11am when we arrive, slightly sweaty from a bumpy hour and a half in a cramped minibus taxi. The town’s bars are already busy. Older men sit in dark corners nursing their drinks while teenagers congregate around pool tables standing in the open. They stop between shots to tell us there is no work in the town and nothing else to do but drink.

“I finished school last year but there are no jobs for me here,” says 19-year-old Francis Chibesa. “I’ve got no work so I am just stuck at home doing nothing. I suppose I’m here drinking more out of frustration than anything else.”

His 22-year-old friend, a keen footballer who gives his name only as “Kaka” (after the Brazilian player), is also waiting for work, having finished high school in 2009.

“I really need to do something,” Kaka tells me. “I need to get money to support my family but instead I’m just at home living off my mother and I’m not comfortable with that.”

Kaka and Chibesa are among the 1.3-million new voters who, following the updating of the electoral register, will be posting their first ballot papers in September in Zambia’s presidential, parliamentary and local government elections. For almost their lifetime these friends have known no other government than the MMD and they say they want change.

President Rupiah Banda, who came to power in 2008 following a by-election after the death of president Levy Mwanawasa, will stand again in this poll. Referring to him, Kaka says: “We’re tired of him, we need some change.”

Chibesa says: “I will definitely be using my vote to call for change. These guys, the MMD, have been in power so long and we need something new and someone different.”

Zambia’s two main opposition parties, the Patriotic Front and the United Party for National Development, will both be hoping to win over the youth vote and capitalise on their frustrations.

The polls are likely to be very close. In 2008 Banda beat his closest rival, Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front, by just 35 000 votes. Post-election analysis noted that failure to update voter registration details meant that many eligible voters were not able to cast their ballots, which some say affected the overall result.

Fifty-year-old Rogers Samukonga will be voting for the sixth time. He is not sure yet who will be getting his support.

The married television repairman, who rents a tiny workshop barely the size of a cupboard in the shopping precinct in the main residential area, says he is still mulling over the candidates and their policies.

“We need economic change and we need to tackle poverty and we need to make the government work better. And we definitely need employment — too many Zambians are not working.”

The father of two moved his family to Kafue more than 12 years ago to take advantage of the rental prices, which were cheaper than Lusaka.

He says the town has gone downhill during his time there and complains about the lack of services and poor-quality healthcare. “As a family, we are making it, but we are only barely making it. Life is hard.”

Whitewash: Residents say the roads in Kafue are being prepared for tarring only because the government wants their votes. (Lisa Skinner, M&G)

Behind the numbers
Before I arrived in Zambia, I had read about the country’s impressive macroeconomic progress, which had been driven by the high price of copper, its main export, and bumper maize harvests.

Between 2001 and last year, the country averaged an annual growth of 5.6%, peaking at 7.6% in 2010, according to the World Bank.

Glossy investment brochures from the government boast of the vast opportunities in mining and construction, and there appears to be no shortage of money pouring into areas such as Copperbelt province and Lusaka, where colourful new shopping malls and conference centres seem to be springing up everywhere.

But little of this boom appears to have trickled down to towns like Kafue or many of the sprawling rural provinces where people struggle to survive on subsistence farming.

“Zambia is doing very well on its economic indicators, but now we have to work hard on our social ones,” says Miniva Chibuye.

She is the co-ordinator of a social conditions project at the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, a leading Lusaka-based Catholic think-tank that has been carrying out extensive grassroots research into Zambian living conditions since the early 1990s.

Chibuye laments the fact that, despite money pouring into the country from foreign investors, formal employment remains stubbornly low while poverty levels remain high.

“There is a big gap between mining investment and improved livelihoods,” she says. “For instance, 45% of our children have stunted growth due to poor diet — how can this be in a country that has such a booming economy?”

Zambia ranks 150th out of 169 countries surveyed by the United Nations Human Development Index (South Africa sits at 110) and, according to the study, 64% of Zambians live in poverty.

Chibuye says the minimum wage was recently raised to between 419 000 kwacha (about R608) and 720 000 (about R1045) a month — roughly a 30% increase.

But, citing studies carried out by the Jesuit Centre, which show that the cost of basic household items alone has doubled in the past five years, Chibuye says the wage increases have not been large enough.

Rogers Samukonga from Kafue says that he is barely earning a living as a TV repairman and his neighbours cannot even afford to buy salt. (Lisa Skinner, M&G)

With so few people formally employed, tax revenues are also very low, which means that those who do have jobs and are working hard to improve their lives have to pay extra to make up for the millions who are out of work.

The Jesuit Centre and other groups are also highly critical of Zambia’s foreign investment framework and corporate tax systems that offer too many incentives for the investor and bring too few benefits for the Zambian government.

Officials defend the low rates of corporate tax and open-door investment policy, saying they have been necessary to attract large international mining companies to Zambia’s mining sector, which had fallen into decay.

In fact, Banda’s ruling MMD is proud of its two-decade management of Zambia and claims the country’s current economic boom is a direct result of its macroeconomic and investment policies.

Billboards and posters around Lusaka boast of new schools, roads and hospitals being built. They are right: there is no question that large sums of money are being spent on upgrading basic infrastructure, much of which has stood untouched since independence from Britain in 1964.

Putting words into action
Although Zambians welcome the infrastructure investment, people like Paul Kasonkomana, a civil society activist who leads a coalition of community health organisations, say the country urgently needs human resources too.

“They have built all these new hospitals but not given thoughts to training staff, so we have hospitals with no nurses,” he says. “Medical consultations are supposed to be free in rural areas, but none of the clinics have medicine in stock. So you have to buy your own and then how is that free? Where I live, women who go into hospital to give birth are told to take their own bucket of hot water and their own disinfectant — that’s how poorly equipped these new hospitals are.”

Kasonkomana says that nurses’ wages are far too low; they get about two million kwacha a month, or about R2 800. He also complains that primary education may be free, but the classes are overcrowded and the teachers underqualified.

“A lot of things are said by this government about what they are doing for the people of Zambia. But when you come down to it, things are not improving at all.”

Kasonkomana believes that the MMD has accelerated infrastructural development in an attempt to win votes, and that roads all over the country are suddenly being tarred to impress people.

As one Western diplomat told the Mail & Guardian: “There have definitely been a lot of improvements and there is this new burgeoning Zambian middle class that is there in shopping malls and eating in restaurants. But really, I feel — and I’m not alone — that this country should be doing so much better. It is one of the few countries in this region that has not seen any conflict but it has not cashed in on its peace dividend.”

Back in Kafue, Samukonga says he wants the government to pay closer attention to people’s basic needs.

“We need medicines in our hospitals, cheaper public transport and affordable food. People here are struggling. My neighbours knock on my door asking for things like salt; it is the cheapest thing and yet they cannot even afford it.

“The government can spend all the money they like building roads,” he says, pointing at the construction team next to his rented repair cabin. “But for those who don’t have the basics, they don’t care. I hear people saying: ‘Can we eat this tarmac?'”

This article is the first in a series of articles about the run-up to Zambia’s elections in September. The travel and accommodation expenses of our reporter and photographer were supported by a grant from the Washington DC-based NGO Freedom House.

With a booming economy, a vibrant political scene and corruption on the boil, we examine Zambia in the run-up to their national elections in September. For news and multimedia on the elections click here.

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