THE stretch of good road that is Leopards Hill Road in eastern Lusaka is a rich study in contradiction, and it may well hold the key for a continent that has in recent years struggled with internecine conflict that, many feel, poses the biggest challenge to Africa’s growth prospect.
A real estate boom is clearly visible as unfinished townhouses jostle to peek through bored-looking trees, evidence of the deepening roots of Lusaka’s growing middle class. Variety is not too much a concern here—the houses look nearly all the same, but turn-offs from the road lead to among others the American International School, vice president Guy Scott’s farm, the residence of former president Rupiah Banda, and further on, the retirement home of independence leader Kenneth Kaunda.
For the estates built on prime land there is a whiff of order, unlike the haphazard nature of other areas filled with the nouveau riche of other African cities. Zambia’s famed hospitality industry also finds home here, with various quaintly-named hotels and lodges dotted on the stretch, while newly-minted arcades are not too far off either.
Usual decaying state-run stuff
But the motorway is also home to a number of government schools that appear a bit worse for tear, though the blinding dust may have something to do with this. However, it is the endless expanse of graves that catch the eye. Both public and private graveyards co-exist, and the tombstones stretch as far as the eye can see on the horizon, some nearly lapping the side of the road.
Except for a few southern communities, Zambians prefer to bury their dead in vast urban cemeteries. And their occupants are many—the country is one of the most urbanised in Africa, with nearly half of its population living in cities. Reduced costs are only one aspect of it, but the bigger sense is that the predilection seen in other African countries to bury their dead in their ancestral, or settled, homes is simply not here.
This need to have a patch of land that one can call theirs—and be interred on—has bred tribal tensions in many other countries—Kenya noticeably comes to mind—but in this southern African country of 14 million people, land is owned either by the government or customarily administered. If you have money here, you can buy land on leasehold almost anywhere. Few other places on the continent are as generous.
Zambian politics are currently preoccupied with succession intrigue—president Michael Sata has not been seen in public for over two months now—but there is little evidence of the near-daily tribal nuances that dot many countries to Zambia’s north.
Home to 72 tribes— in an interview with Mail & Guardian Africa former president Kaunda counts at least eight others from Whites and Indians to Pakistanis—one of the remarkable features of Zambia’s post-colonial history has been the lack of the deadly inter-community tensions seen in countries with far less diversity.
Kaunda’s 27-year old rule - including a dalliance with a centrally planned “socialist” economy —for which he has few apologies—and a one-party rule stint continues to divide opinion, but few would begrudge him his nation-building efforts, coming off the back of cynical colonial exploitation of the country’s ethnicities. The result is that the locals, many of who speak at least three local languages and freely intermarry, are immensely proud of their “One Zambia-One Nation” national slogan.
Kaunda was also a champion of African integration, one of the vanguard leaders of pan-Africanism in a generation that knew few political boundaries. Many here pine for that era— the advent of “unplanned” multipartyism in the early 1990s was one of the seminal events that amplified existing regional differences, a veteran historian says.
The Organisation of African Unity was the favourite stomping ground of these leaders, who included Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, Uganda’s Milton Obote and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, the latter three who formed the little-known but quietly influential Mulungushi Club.
The healthy peer respect saw them solve issues ranging from Kenya’s so-called Shifta Wars of the 1960s that so vexed Kenyatta, to their provision of training grounds for the liberation struggles in Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa, under the watchful eye of Chinese and Soviet instructors.
Zambia, which attained independence in 1964, was a natural setting for these kinds of activities, and was bombed for its troubles. It to this day retains a proud legacy as a haven for African refugees.
Long China links
It is also the African country, together with Tanzania, that retains the longest post-independence relationship with the Chinese. Much of it stems for the two countries support for Mao Zedong’s battle for Chinese admittance to the United Nations in 1971.
Ordinary Zambian folk appear to mostly appreciate the work of the Chinese, who swarm over nearly all major infrastructure projects, from highways and football stadiums to the copper mines in the northern Copper Belt.
As would be expected flare-ups between the locals and Chinese are not unheard of—a Chinese mine manager was in 2012 killed in a dispute over wages, and grouses of thin pay packets and little skills transfer continue to bubble under the surface, but even the Chinese would admit they are unlikely to find this level of acceptability in many other countries.
Western media however find the country dull, devoid of the headlines they crave, but this tranquility is one many African leaders would bite off your hand for. The upshot is that it has provided a launch pad for robust economic activity as the country looks to wean itself off risky commodity dependence.
As shown by recent history—stability is many times the key ingredient for African economic growth. And despite outside frustration with governance levels, many African countries thrive in spite of the government, on the back of private sector and entrepreneurial activity.
With this in mind, Zambia’s tolerance and embrace of other Africans may be just the model the continent needs—a sort of return to the integration and brotherhood basics of years long gone by.