The dangers of characterizing Zambia's election in Zimbabwean political terms

Sep 25, 2011

With the election of Michael Sata as president, Zambia continues to entrench its democratic tradition. It is impossible to ignore the contrast with the slow, reluctant moves towards a free system of elections and routine power transfer in Zimbabwe.

Sata becomes Zambia’s fifth president since independence in 1964, while Zimbabwe remains stuck with its founding president since independence in 1980. It must be pointed out that first president Kenneth Kaunda hung on to power as almost as long as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe before free elections and term limits became the norm in Zambia. Perhaps Zimbabwe’s trailing behind in this regard is partly just to being a younger nation, although there are also arguments for expecting it to learn from the mistakes of other nations and make faster progress.

The grace with which one-term president Rupiah Banda conceded defeat to Sata and the immediacy of the transfer of power were in sharp contrast to the Zimbabwean scenario in which Mugabe acts like an immovable object permanently stuck to the seat of power.

There were no huge ideological issues of difference between the two main competing parties in Zambia, unlike the two in Zimbabwe.

But it is not difficult to guess that the Mugabe government will waste no time in explaining the Zambian election result in terms of Zimbabwe’s own political context. That context involves seeing everything in terms of a group of ‘nationalists’ versus ‘sell outs’ who serve foreign interests.

The state media usually waits to be given its cue on how to spin events by government. But the Sunday Mail seemed to consider it convenient and quite safe to explain Sata’s victory as a win for a ‘nationalist’ who is a kindred spirit of Mugabe’s.

A Sunday Mail reporter related what he said was an interview he conducted of then opposition leader Sata in 2007 in Lusaka. Munyaradzi Huni recalls Sata as being full of praise for Mugabe for radical land reform, and contemptuous of the MDC for criticizing it.

So according to Huni’s reading of the situation, Sata’s victory is good because it affirms Mugabe while rejecting what Tsvangirai stands for. Sata's win in Zambia is a vindication of Mugabe in Zimbabwe! But in typical Sunday Mail style, he is very selective about the possible symbolisms for Zimbabwe of Sata’s victory next door.

For one thing, it is a progression and a deepening of Zambia’s democratic tradition, and of the idea that leaders come and go. Long-ruling leaders and parties can be defeated and gracefully concede without any disaster happening. Huni does not even attempt to touch this obvious lesson for Zimbabwe with a ten foot pole.

Then under Frederick Chiluba, just deposed president Rupiah Banda’s MMD party defeated long-ruling founding ‘nationalist’ president Kenneth Kaunda back in 1991, after he had been in power since independence in 1964.

Huni characterizes the MMD as a ‘western project’ that was formed and sponsored to depose ‘nationalist’ Kaunda. The suggestion is that the MMD was similar to Zimbabwe’s MDC in that respect, and therefore ‘nationalist’ Sata’s win is a loss for the ‘sellout’ MMD. The anomaly of the 20 year rule of ‘sellouts’ has been corrected by Sata’s win, it is implied.

Yet there is no suggestion in Zambia that the 1991 earthquake of regime change in Zambia was foreign sponsored. It is widely accepted in Zambia that the electorate had got tired of Kaunda and was ready, even eager for change offered by Chiluba and the MMD. No one in Zambia accused Chiluba of being a ‘sellout’ to foreigners the way ZANU-PF and the Sunday Mail accuse Tsvangirai and the MDC of being western ‘puppets.’ Huni’s is a very currently Zimbabwean political characterization of Zambian events, but one that has no currency in Zambia.

But even if it did, that would be awkward according to the web Huni is trying to weave. Chiluba turned out to be a corrupt, despotic footnote who the electorate eventually chucked out, though retaining his party in power until last week. However, under the ‘sellout’ MMD Zambia experienced the post-Kaunda economic recovery which today has it boasting of one of Africa’s most dynamic economies.

In Zimbabwean terms, this would be like the MDC beating long-ruling founding president Mugabe in an election, cleaning up the economic mess left by Mugabe and then ruling for 20 years, albeit with several different leaders, before being defeated again by an offshoot of the ‘nationalist’ party of Mugabe.

If one goes along with Huni’s interpretation of Sata’s victory, then it shows that life goes on even if people who are not ‘nationalists’ lose power. And also that the ‘nationalists’ in opposition can regroup and regain power, as Sata has done, if one chooses to primarily view him as a protégé of the Kaunda he broke away from to join Chiluba's party, before forming his own.

If Sata is a ‘nationalist,’ his ‘enemy’ is not the West like ‘nationalist’ Mugabe claims in Zimbabwe. In the tired ‘nationalist/sellout' dichotomy of Zimbabwe, the ‘colonizer’ in Zambia who Banda’s MMD government ‘sold out’ to was/is Zimbabwe’s own ‘best friend,’ China! Huni very carefully avoids mentioning this awkward fact.

The switch from the dominance of western firms in Zambia’s economy to that of investors from China took place under the ‘sell out’ MMD’s watch. One would expect Huni to give the MMD accolades for having ‘rescued’ the Zambian economy from who Kaunda had ‘sold it out,’ the western investors who then withdraw on their own when copper prices collapsed. ‘Nationalist’ Kaunda did not at all threaten western economic interests and was in fact very western-friendly in general.

The ‘nationalist’ versus ‘foreign sell out’ apposition Huni tries to set up in regards to Zambia simply does not exist in that country's political thinking. It seizes the thinking of some in Zimbabwe but simply sounds silly elsewhere. Zambia's people appear to be far more confident and at ease with their country's sovereignty than Zimbabwe's current rulers appear to be with their own country's. Whereas for Mugabe and Company safeguarding Zimbabwe's 'sovereignty' can only happen as long as they are ruling, Zambians have several times now demonstrated that different political actors and parties can come and go without any compromise of that country's basic sovereignty.

Sata has been scathing in his criticisms of Chinese business practices in Zambia, which cause much resentment there, as they are increasingly doing in Zimbabwe. Sata has said Chinese investors will continue to be welcome in mining and other areas, but has also made it clear he expects them to abide by the country’s labor laws, which they have been accused of blatantly flouting, just like they are accused of doing in Zimbabwe, where they however seem to enjoy impunity under the ‘nationalist’ Mugabe government.

So terms like ‘nationalist’ and ‘sellout’ only have meaning within certain known, defined local contexts. If the MDC are going to ‘sell out’ the country to the West, as Mugabe and Company ceaselessly accuse, ‘nationalist’ (Zimbabwean perspective) from a Zambian perspective (increasingly Zimbabwean too) Mugabe might also be accused of being a ‘sell out’ to the Chinese!

On the other hand, Zimbabwe’s uncritical friendliness with China does not make sense to Zambians. They respect that rising power as an important economic partner, but not to the point of failing to cultivate relationships with the West, or of allowing Chinese investors to feel they are a protected class, as many of them are accused of frequently boasting in Zimbabwe. 'Nationalist' Mugabe is protecting the interests of 'colonizing' foreigners in Zimbabwe at the expense of his own increasingly unhappy, grumbling people. Sounds like the very definition of 'selling out!'

China is much more critical to Zambia's economy than it is yet to Zimbabwe's economy. Estimates are
that Chinese investment in Zambia is worth US$2 billion and has led to the direct creation of 20,000 local jobs. Zimbabwe's more diversified resource base and economy may mean Chinese investment will dwarf that in Zambia.

But the point is that even with China's proportionally bigger contribution to Zambia's economy than to Zimbabwe's, this is has not made Sata shy away from criticizing Chinese practices or defending Zambians' aggrieved feelings towards them for their perceived rough dealing. Contrast that to the proportionally smaller Chinese economic footprint in Zimbabwe, which has apparently made Mugabe 'sell out' his 'nationalism' to those Chinese. By his silence about Chinese mistreatment of Zimbabwean workers and barging in to retail sectors ostensibly reserved for locals, Mugabe appears to be in China's pockets in a way Sata has refused to be.

The overall hostility to the West by the Mugabe government has a unique, Zimbabwe-specific origin which does not have a direct correspondence in Zambia. There is no political party there that has any obvious motivation for the western hostility that makes sense to part of the body politic (at least in terms of public rhetoric) in Zimbabwe.

The politics of natural resource-rich countries like Zambia and Zimbabwe will always attract the attention of other countries with an interest in those resources. It is up to the leaders and people of the target countries to make sure that interest is not allowed to become interference. But there are no clear, obvious parallels between the party contestations for power in the two countries.

Zambia has once again showed a level of political maturity which Zimbabwe is very far from doing. Competing political parties are able to freely sell their electoral platforms to the voters, to campaign freely throughout the country, and to be reasonably sure that the election process will be clean, and that the incumbent government will accept the will of the people even if it is against them. In these simple but crucial differences Zambia and Zimbabwe might as well be on different planets, rather than be neighbors.

There are many lessons for Zimbabwe to pick apart from Zambia's largely peaceful political and electoral processes, but they are not necessarily the narrow, conveniently partisan ones Huni tries to portray in his awkward Sunday Mail propaganda piece to curry favor with Harare's current ruling authority.

The Zimbabwe Review


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