Guy Scott as Zambia’s first white vice president says nothing about events in Zimbabwe or elsewhere

Jan 20, 2012

Chido Makunike

The appointment by new Zambian president Michael Sata of Guy Scott as his vice president has received a fair amount of attention. It is still a rare novelty for a white person to occupy high political office and wield real power in post-colonial Africa. Among others, the UK Guardian postulated that this represents ‘a significant milestone for the development of a post-colonial non-racial order in Africa.’ It may indeed be a sign that African prickliness over the racial indignities of the past is receding, but it may not be as big a deal as speculated, nor applicable to countries with very different social dynamics from Zambia’s.

The Guardian’s ‘post-colonial non-racial order in Africa’ is almost irrelevant given the varied colonial experiences of Africa’s 50+ countries, as well as the different aftermaths. There are no universal statements that can be made about the ‘racial order in Africa.’ For example, in most of West Africa, where there was never a numerically significant European settler presence even at the height of the colonial era, the racial dynamics are vastly different from those in a country with the colonial and racial history of a major settler colony like Zimbabwe.  

Race is simply not a big deal in most of West Africa, compared to Zimbabwe and South Africa. West Africa generally doesn’t have the heightened race awareness of Zimbabwe and South Africa, or of Britain and the US. Colonialism and its indignities are much further back in the colonial memories of West Africa, most of whose countries got their independence in the early 1960s, compared to much more recent change in Zimbabwe and South Africa. The present day white populations of most West African countries are almost statistically non-existent, certainly compared to South Africa, and even to Zimbabwe.

The colonial racial discrimination in most of Africa was not at all of the same scale as that in pre-majority rule Zimbabwe and South Africa. The lingering post-colonial, race-related issues needing redress in Zimbabwe and South Africa are entirely different from those of the majority of African countries that did not have any significant European settler colonies. As a result, there isn’t the same degree of racial hang-ups on any side that there tend to be in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

These are just a few examples of how the very talk of a generalized ‘post-colonial non-racial order in Africa’ is seriously misinformed.

Then there is the flaw of the idea that ‘non-racial order in Africa’ means the greater visibility in politics of people like Scott; that it is for Africans to now ‘prove’ the ‘non-racialism’ of their societies by white appointments. It is not clear, particularly in highly racialized countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa, that the effects of the colonial past are far back enough for the net racial balance to be said to be clearly in favor of the Africans. In South Africa, and until recently in Zimbabwe, the ‘racial order’ still means blacks knocking on the doors of a still economically dominant white community for acceptance, not the other way around!

And if political appointments of whites are all that is needed to show a ‘post-colonial non-racial order,’ the Mugabe who the Guardian and the British in general love to hate could be said to have ‘non-racially ordered’ Zimbabwe long before Scott came onto the political scene in Zambia. Clearly, creating a non-racial society anywhere will take far more extensive societal transformation than the colors of a few appointments at the top. Such appointments can sometimes be little more than tokenism, although there is no suggestion this is the case with Sata’s appointment of Scott. 

The very idea of a ‘non-racial order’ in the countries of southern Africa is as silly as that of a non-racial order in Britain or the US. Non-racial suggests a situation where the society is almost oblivious of a person’s race. This is no more realistic in Zimbabwe or South Africa than in Britain and the US. These countries are multi-racial in various ways, but none of them can be said to be ‘non-racial.’ In countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa, where race was officially and rigidly the most significant group dividing parameter for more than a century, it is inevitable that race will continue to loom large, even as co-existence and multi-racialism become easier and more entrenched. 

Zambia and Zimbabwe experienced the colonial-era Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (for present-day Malawi) that they were all once part of in very different ways. The political and economic power center of this colonial project, as well as where most of the settlers were, was clearly Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. If Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Nyasaland were useful for their resources and their labor, Southern Rhodesia was not only the political, economic and manufacturing heart of the federation, it was for many of the European settlers ‘home.’

The consequences of this were considerable and many. ‘Development’ of all kinds was concentrated in Southern Rhodesia at the expense of the other two countries of the federation. The much greater physical and emotional stake the settlers had in Southern Rhodesia meant that the brand of oppression was much more vicious, the scars and effects on perpetrators and victims alike much deeper.

Malawi and Zambia both gained their independence, largely peacefully, in 1964. Zimbabwe only gained its independence in 1980, after a long, bitter war. That vicious independence war experience alone is a significant contributor to how the post-colonial racial dynamics of Zimbabwe were inevitably going to be very different from those of neighboring countries which did not experience a similar race relations-bruising pre-independence conflict.

This very brief outline of the very different colonial and racial projections of Zambia and Zimbabwe should give a hint of how the two countries ‘post-colonial racial orders’ were going to be vastly, necessarily different..

That Zambia is easy-going about race compared to Zimbabwe, quite apart from Scott’s appointment, is not in doubt, nor should it be, given the different pre and post-colonial racial dynamics of the two countries. Zambia’s white population is an even smaller proportion than Zimbabwe’s, which is now much less than 1%. There simply aren’t even enough whites in Zambia anymore, and certainly not bossing the other races around, for the country to have a ‘race issue’ at all.

Zimbabwe’s whites, said to have been about 4% of the population at their peak, nevertheless owned 80% of the land, which had been grabbed from Africans in previous decades in a way that was always a racial Achilles heal long after independence, even when it was not always evident. This impacted everything in how the races related. Zambia was not left with a similarly explosive post-independence racial legacy.

One would sometimes hear whites in Zimbabwe say, ‘we all get along here,’ but this was largely from their perspective of relative group privilege and relative group dominance, and their consequent group attitudes and behaviors. The lopsided economic relations that resulted from the lopsided political history meant that blacks would smile politely, but many saw race relations from a much less satisfied, much less sanguine perspective. 

The appointment of white persons to official positions is anyway a dubious measure of ‘non racialism.’ Zimbabwe’s very first post-independence minister of agriculture in 1980, Dennis Norman, was as white as Guy Scott. Some time in the last 10 years, white Timothy Stamps was Zimbabwe’s long-serving minister of health. It wasn’t a big deal for whites to occupy ministerial positions, but it is also doubtful that it represented any great leap forward in general relations between the races.

Part of the point of the excitement in some circles about Scott’s appointment in Zambia may be to serve as a sort of rebuke to a Mugabe reviled in those circles for his treatment of Zimbabwe’s white farmers. It is to say ‘look at how progressive and non-racial Sata and Zambia are compared to that awful Mugabe and his highly racialized country Zimbabwe.’ But the manner of trying to do so simply doesn’t stand up to factual, historical scrutiny.   
By most accounts, Scott is somewhat of a maverick, and hardly fits the stereotype of the ‘Rhodie’ white farmer who was disliked and once feared in both pre and post-independence Zambia and Zimbabwe. They were close to Africans, but quite clearly in a strictly master-servant role. Their farms often remained fiefdoms in which the wider reality of majority rule was not much allowed to intrude.

The slow, generational process of changing this was the kind of post-independence progress that could be expected to eventually result in something resembling a non-racial order, not so much the appearance of a few white faces at cabinet and other high levels.   

Scott thrust himself into Zambian public life many years ago, and there was nothing ‘racial’ about his involvement. He was simply a Zambian contributing to his country, his race incidental to his involvement. Zambians got familiar with him as an opposition political activist, as a government minister and as a newspaper columnist. These are levels and types of voluntary public involvement that are still relatively rare for whites in southern Africa. Scott’s appointment as vice president was simply another progression from all this prior civic engagement, not quite the revolution that the British Guardian imagines.

In contrast, Zimbabwe’s white farmers suddenly thrust themselves into opposition politics around 1999/2000, when they perceived that their farms were threatened by Mugabe. The manner of their doing so as a block was inevitably seen as highly racial, as then also became Mugabe’s reaction to them. The rest is history.

A stereotypically ‘Rhodie’ white farmer being appointed minister or vice president in Zimbabwe today would be genuine news in a way Guy Scott’s appointment as vice president of Zambia simply isn’t. Scott long ago established his non-Rhodie credentials to Zambians, which then made it possible and easy for them to see beyond his whiteness. In this respect it is unlikely that he can be said to be common.

Scott as vice president of Zambia is certainly an attention-grabbing appointment, but there are many unique things about it that may mean it is not quite the great leap forward in general race relations, especially outside Zambia, that some make it out to be. Most of that slow, difficult work will have to take place at grassroots level, and will continue to be more difficult in countries with racial histories like South Africa and Zimbabwe than in a country like Zambia.        



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