Truth to power

Truth to power

Riots, slowdown and corruption eat away at southern Africa’s promise

Zambia’s president, Edgar Lungu. EPA/Solan Kolli

These are dark days for southern Africa. The last month has seen xenophobic riots and killings in Zambia, once an almost immaculately peaceful country, and the reinstatement of several hundred corruption charges which could be delivered against South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma.

Times have changed in Zambia since its first president, Kenneth Kaunda, galvanised the country’s 72 ethnic groups (not counting European and Indian populations) into a united nation. During his decades in power, he defied the white minority regimes to his south, Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa. He hosted the exile headquarters of the ANC and sheltered the Namibian exile group SWAPO, whose country South Africa occupied in defiance of the UN.

Landlocked Zambia took a terrible hammering as the white regimes controlled its transport links to the sea. From time to time there were military incursions into Lusaka, the capital city – yet the Zambians took it all with a stoicism born of genuine solidarity.

But times have changed. Kaunda’s successors have not developed their own moral stature, and the country has been badly mismanaged.

After President Michael Sata died in office last year, a bitter internal party political struggle saw Edgar Lungu take the helm just in time for a devastating drop in the price of copper, Zambia’s major export, and a regional drought which hobbled the country’s hydroelectric power plants. Cities were subjected to rolling blackouts for hours every day, and the cost of basic goods soared.

In this environment of scarcity, foreign refugee populations – especially Rwandans, who had developed successful small businesses – became targets.

When the rumour was spread that the Rwandans were ritually murdering Zambians as part of their foreign “witchcraft”, deadly riots erupted in Lusaka. They were xenophobic in that there was a target group, but they were also born of deprivation and falling living standards.

Mafia state

All the while, South Africa’s ANC is plumbing new depths of ignominy with its murky blend of liberation politics and craven elite enrichment. Lavish presidential mansions, rampant cronyism, the dismissal of a finance minister who put the nation’s interests first – all these things speak of an African mafia state headed by a personally corrupt godfather.

From bad to worse: Jacob Zuma. EPA/Nic Bothma

That picture was recently given new colour when the High Court declared it was wrong that several hundred corruption charges levelled against the president before he took office had been wrongly dropped by a frightened prosecutor. They could now become active charges again.

In the wake of the Gupta affair, in which an immigrant family of the richest order was seen as having huge financial and political influence over Zuma, the reopening of the case must surely prompt the ANC, for all its self-interest, to think carefully about the future of the country.

Out of steam

Zambia and South Africa are both cracking up after years of neglect, and neither Zuma nor Lungu have come up with technocratic plans to secure the future of their countries. And in between them, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is even more directionless. Everyone is waiting for the old man’s departure so that the country can make a fresh start, but dreading the ugly political power struggle that will surely follow his death.

South Africa needs a new start too, and it may not get one as long as it’s led by the same old ANC. As for Zambia, Lungu faces elections later this year. He will be challenged by the avowedly technocratic opposition leader, Hakainde Hichilema.

At least post-Kaunda Zambia has been led by more than one political party. In that sense, it’s way ahead of Zimbabwe and South Africa, where tired old men cling onto office and its spoils in the midst of collapsing commodity prices, sluggish growth, high unemployment, fraying infrastruture and dire public services. They know that regardless of the state of their countries, they will remain in power for some time to come.

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