Zambia at 50: A story of pride, missed opportunities and rich, if delayed, promise

Kenneth Kaunda is the only African republican president of that 1960s generation who is alive and living in his country.

ZAMBIA is marking 50 years of independence from Britain, affording many of its 14.5 million people the chance for deep reflection on the achievements, and misses, of one of Africa’s more iconic nations.  

“History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it myself,” Sir Winston Churchill, the great British World War II  leader, said. 

His imperialist swagger aside, Churchill also managed to pick up a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953, and while the memoir Zambia’s founding leader Kenneth Kaunda is currently writing out his retirement is highly unlikely to bag him the same accolade, it is certain to provide more than a glimpse into his 27-year rule, one that continues to divide opinion right down the middle.

There are many who say that Zambia’s post-colonial story cannot be one entirely in the image of Kaunda and his hegemonic ruling UNIP, the ‘People’s Party’, and that many other people, not all of them subaltern, helped shape it.

Kaunda though is keenly aware that he was part of a golden set of African founding fathers that had a big, almost God-given, role in shaping the nascent steps of the continent’s independent future.

He is also the only republican president of that 1960s generation who is alive and living in his country, giving him the rare opportunity to reflect on his country’s 50-year journey, a chance none of his peers had.

What is less polemical is that the developmental history of Zambia is near inseparable from the man who oversaw it for over two decades, his nation-building mantra either brilliant or self-serving depending on who is looking at it, but also leaving a sense of some frustration over where the southern African country could have been.

Along Leopards Hill Road

The short winding trip down Leopards Hill Road in Lusaka directs one into the upmarket State Lodge area, where a decent if unimposing house built for Kaunda by Levy Mwanawasa, the country’s third president, stands, the still of the surrounding only broken by the kamikaze swoops of tree swifts and the gentle rustle of the early evening breeze.

The jovial nonagerian says that the house is an “appreciation” by Mwanawasa, whom he says benefited from his free education programmes. It is some distance from the treatment he had to contend with from his successor, Frederick Chiluba, highlighting the undulating—some would say exciting—nature of the country’s political rubric.

Kaunda, now 90 and his famous white kerchief in hand, still dresses as sharply as ever in his trademark suit, which in keeping with the path that he was to ultimately place Zambia on, drew heavy influence from the sartorial style of China’s Mao Zedong.

History though does have a way of judging one kindly after lived memories have dulled; The much-sought after Kaunda is now revered as an African statesman, some way back from the man who imposed one-party rule on one of Africa’s most promising newly independent countries, cracked down stoutly on protesters in the sunset years of his term, and urged an election boycott as Zambia shifted towards pluralism.

Amidst this, it is easy to forget that Kaunda was only a product of his time, and his choices were borne of the geopolitical zeitgeist of the 1960s, a period that saw other newly-free vibrant countries such as Tanzania set out growth plans anchored mainly on popular agrarian transformation, collective hard work and unsurprisingly (together called ujamaa), staunch anti-colonial positions.

That immediate post-independence period was one of a rejection of the colonial inheritance in the search for own identities, what Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and other like-minded independence leaders saw as authentic African traditional socialism.

For the rest of the continent, the 1960s were “honeymoon” years, an age of giddy innocence punctuated with liberation politics and pan-Africanism, and a fierce if contradictory defence of national sovereignty. It was also a period marked by idelological tussles from the Morocco-Casablanca political unity wrangles to the existential nature of the economy, whether free market or state-planned.

Ironically, the economy was markedly lower on the continental priority scale, and it was an orientation that Zambia—and Africa—was to pay for dearly as world polarities shifted on a continent that had overestimated its influence on world affairs owing to its perceived large presence in international organisations, while also understating the role of powerful non-state actors such as the transnationals.  

Cold War politics and “lost decade”

These happy-go-lucky years gradually gave way to the 1970s Cold War politics, and the first signs that Africa’s previously humming economies were headed into the headwinds. 

The World Bank’s Berg Report of 1981, in response to a clutch of pan-Africanist responses such as the Lagos Plan of Action and the Monrovia Declaration, confirmed what many suspected—that Africa’s prospects were dim, with near absent—or negative—growth in per capita incomes; accelerating a reluctant change in mindset from liberation struggle thinking to one of socio-economic reform.

The 1980s remain the “lost” decade for the continent, and the launch pad of Afro-Pessimism, a pervasive donor view that little could be done for Africa. The continent was also running out of hiding places after its “external” crisis narrative of colonialism, western-dominated markets and monopoly capitalism run out of steam. Former Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi was to years later, in 2002, identify the main cause of the continent’s problems as self-inflicted and borne of “systems of patronage closely associated with rent-seeking activities.”

The net effect is that many African countries stumbled into the hands of the Bretton Woods institutions, which promptly prescribed the so-called “structural adjustment loans”, free market-backed import finance loans cobbled up on a 1979 flight to Belgrade by then World Bank honcho Robert McNamara and his deputy Ernst Stern, and which were the heir to the Big Push shock therapy that had found an unsuccessful guinea pig in Russia, among other countries. 

Zambia’s post-independence path fits almost neatly into this general continental growth narrative. At independence from Britain in 1964, the country had arguably the brightest economic prospects in sub-Saharan Africa, on the back of a robust copper industry and agricultural potential.  

As a counterweight to the obstacles faced, from little skill to unfavourable terms of trade, Kaunda in 1968 announced a socialist path that despite early promise, quickly floundered, caught up in the push-back from a spate of rushed nationalisations.   

A deeply religious man, Kaunda holds no apologies for opting for a centrally planned economy. “If you don’t plan your economy, you are leaving everything in the hands of some other people…to complicate your own life,” he told Mail & Guardian Africa in Lusaka. “You are going into darkness, suffering, poverty…and that is not what God wants us to do.” (Read interview with Kenneth Kaunda here)

But a series of miscalculations—and not the often-blamed crash of world copper prices (prices in fact rose over this period) and the oil crisis, led to an economic fix for the country, characterised by shortages in basic goods, and social unrest and disgruntlement as industry declined and unemployment numbers rose.

Analysts  have calculated that the southern African country lost up to $45 billion over 30 years due to the nationalisation of mines, a figure arrived at by calculating the mineral rent Zambia would have accrued had it kept copper production at the 1970 level of 700,000 tonnes, instead of the 230,000 tonnes reached in 2000.

The resultant weakening of the patronage system built up since independence, and donor pressure led to political changes, with the effect that Kaunda was swept out of power in 1991, by Chiluba’s Movement for Multiparty Democracy, which ironically had roots in the ruling party’s inability to dismantle all opposition vesitiges despite the declaration of a one-party state in 1972.

Many note the Zambia was by this point poorer than any time during the First and Second Republics.

Kaunda does however earn plaudits for the orientation of his foreign policy, which positioned Zambia as a frontline state, supporting black liberation movements—including providing stations for Soviet and Chinese officers to train fighters from Angola, South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe—at cost as it suffered reprisal attacks. 

However this position also meant the country, being landlocked, lost out on trade with its main trading partners of the south, leading Kaunda to negotiate with close friend Nyerere for the Chinese-built Tazara railway.

The country’s healthy decades-long dalliance with China (which is quite popular with Zambians), and its later cutback to seek western help, further captured the fluid polarities of the changing world political system, perhaps pushing Kaunda to becoming a strong proponent of the Non-Aligned Movement and an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals.

Farewell Kaunda, and Zambia marches on

If the collapse of the eastern bloc hastened Kaunda’s exit, then the man who ousted him, Frederick Chiluba, built up hope in Zambians of renewed social and economic vigour. It was however not to be, clientelism, corruption and restrictions were soon on the menu again, and as has been noted by many Zambian scholars, at the trade unionist’s departure in 2001 unemployment, disease, malnutrition and infant mortality were at higher levels than at any other time in the country’s history.

The promising Levy Mwanawasa period managed to rouse Zambians again, despite challenges with the now liberalised economy.  There was a period of sustained growth, and a perceptible sense of respect for civil rights taking root. His successor Rupiah Banda’s period received less than glowing references, leading to his election ouster by Michael Sata.

Zambia’s stasis on the Human Development Index shows the Patriotic Front government has however struggled to deliver on policy and could dent its popularity, as it also battles a party leadership crisis. At this point one would forgive Zambians for thinking that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

However, while the past 50 years suggest the country could have been further up, Zambians have a lot to be grateful for going forward—real GDP is expected to grow at an average 7% for the next five years, as infrastructure development and agricultural investment begin to pay off, despite mainstay mining prospects remaining flat. A rebase of the economy earlier this year saw it grow by a quarter, and despite past tempestuous relationships with the International Monetary Fund, future collaborations with the influential bilateral lender look stronger.

The country also continues to be recognised as a peace haven, despite its rich ethnic diversity of at least 72 different communities—that has been the bane of many other countries. ( See: Africa’s future may lie deep in Zambia’s many city graves. Honest)

As shown by recent continental history, stability remains the key ingredient for Africa’s economic growth. For this alone, the Zambian model is one worth giving a second look in for a continent looking to rediscover the integration ideals and brotherhood basics of years long thought gone.



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