Zambia's motormouth has got drive

When I met Michael Sata in a Lusaka restaurant in January 2011, he arrived in good time and the expatriate staff greeted him warmly—if a little too fawningly.

Not for nothing is the veteran politician known as “King Cobra” for his venomous tongue and forthright manner. His cellphone chirped continually during our friendly meeting, the 74-year-old finding himself at the centre of a controversy over Barotseland’s mooted secession. The callers all, without fail, received a tongue-lashing.

His style and the prospect of change appeals to Zambian voters. Leading his party, the Patriotic Front (PF), Sata was elected Zambia’s fifth president on September 22, roundly defeating the incumbent, Rupiah Banda of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), with 43% to 36% of the vote. The one-time policeman and British Rail station-sweeper tapped into the ethnic vote of his northern Copperbelt brethren and into the discontent of urban Zambians who have not seen the country’s recent growth translate into improved living standards.

At independence in 1964, there were 300 000 formal sector jobs for Zambia’s three million people. By 2011, there were fewer than 500 000 such jobs for nearly 13-million people, with widespread unemployment, especially among the youth, about two thirds of the population.

The principal reason for this is more than 30 years of lost economic growth.

In 2010, Zambia managed to reproduce its 1972 record of 720 000 tonnes of copper. It has taken the industry that long to recover from the ruinous nationalisation policies of President Kenneth Kaunda’s one-party government.

Privatisation followed five years after the advent of multiparty democracy in 1991 and a long, slow process of getting the industry back on its feet ensued. In the late 1980s, keeping Zambian Consolidated Copper Mines alive cost the government $1-million a day. Unsurprisingly, it was starved of fresh investment. As the copper price picked up in the 2000s, on the back of Chinese demand, the industry not only righted itself but drove Zambia’s growth over 5% during the 2000s to 7.6% in 2010.

Even so, Sata’s supporters have voted for accelerated, radical change. On the record, there is much also to fear from Sata himself. He is known to support Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s seizures of land and business. “What Robert Mugabe has done is sensible,” Sata was reported as saying after casting his vote in Lusaka during the 2006 elections. “He hasn’t roasted any white persons. He has just taken back what belongs to them [Zimbabweans].”

‘Western puppet’
Sata also disparaged Zimbabwean opposition leader Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, describing him as a Western puppet “financed to cause trouble in Zimbabwe”.

Ironically, in addition to the Copperbelt turnaround, another reason for Zambia’s recovery has been the influx of farming and entrepreneurial skills from Zimbabwe. Not for nothing is Mugabe called Zambia’s “honorary minister of agriculture and tourism”.

Sata has also been tough on the widespread and burgeoning presence in Zambia of Chinese people, who were seen to have a special relationship with the Banda regime. During the 2006 election contest with Levy Mwanawasa and, two years later, following the president’s death, Sata ran against Banda on a populist anti-Chinese platform, even threatening to establish formal ties with Taiwan.

Such rhetoric was not a feature of his 2011 campaign. Indeed, for all the blustering about Mugabe, Sata’s official pronouncements, at least on mining, and in the run-up, were sensible: he called on Banda’s government to reinstate the “development agreements” governing investments by mining companies, agreements abrogated in Banda’s ill-fated attempts to impose a windfall tax on profits in 2008.

To some extent, Sata’s rhetoric has vacillated depending on his audience. To some he has not only praised Mugabe but also promised new state enterprises, tax cuts and a cap on foreign mine ownership. This taps into popular, though misguided, resentment from those who believe Zambia has sold assets which in recent years provided up to 90% of the country’s export earnings too cheaply. Sata also promised to develop Zambia within 90 days—now adjusted to a promise to “initiate development” within this time. 

But the polemic should not disguise the enormous positive change Sata could make if he uses his mandate for good.

In 2010, we at the Brenthurst Foundation worked with the Banda government at its request on establishing the terms for a fast-track development strategy. This “Enterprise Zambia” focused on changes the government could make to encourage investment and bring growth. For example, in government services, we argued for the creation of 24/7 customs posts at key crossing areas and, in agriculture, for the establishment of an extension service linked to the private sector. To encourage diversification, we proposed value addition in tourism and agriculture. In mining, we mooted the establishment of a practical regime for retaining existing investment, beneficiation and expansion.

But little was implemented. Despite Banda being affable and likeable, his government was not a high-energy administration.

Sata is high energy. If he can recognise the difference between being a candidate and a president, and that the rules of arithmetic and geography remain the same whatever the government, then he could accelerate development. If not, Zambia’s fortunes will depend on a lively parliamentary opposition: at 68 seats, Sata’s PF is outnumbered by the 83 seats of the MMD and the United Party for National Development combined.

Rather than forcing mining companies, against prevailing competitive conditions, to further beneficiate ore and give up ownership, Sata could instead lead a further stage in the country’s recent mining boom if he set achievable production targets. For example, to double copper output to 1.5-million tonnes by the time of the next poll in 2015.

Overall, Sata’s election and the parliamentary outcome is proof of the extraordinary democratic progress Zambia and sub-Saharan Africa have made in two decades. Hopefully, the same sort of patience will be exhibited in the economic domain, ensuring pragmatism over populism.

Greg Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation

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