CAPE TOWN: BEFORE flinging himself into the noisy world of politics, Hakainde Hichilema was a C-suite executive at some of the best-known companies, like Coopers Lybrand and Barclays.
The 53-year-old now heads up the United Party for National Development (UPND)—Zambia’s largest opposition party that hopes to win this year’s elections in August this year.
At the Mining Indaba, Hichilema was a hit among a tough crowd of mining bosses and investors seeking reassurance that things will get better in the struggling copper-rich country.
“It was encouraging to listen to a business savvy politician talk about solutions to fix economic fundamentals in a country with a lot of mining potential,” says Miyelani Mkhabela, an investment analyst at Antswiswa Management Group.
Speaking on a high-powered panel—which featured CEO of Invest Africa, Robert Hersov, and Credit Suisse Securities Johannesburg chairman, Rick Menell—the businessman-turned-politician bemoaned inflexible policies and the government’s lethargy.
“We should be producing 1.5 million metric tons of copper today, compared to the 750,000 metric tons we currently produce. We should have prepared for this slump, we’re over-dependent on copper and we do not beneficiate enough,” said Hichilema.
While the country boasts a rich copper belt, only 1% of copper in is beneficiated in the country, according to Simukali Mulongwe, an engineer in the ministry of mining.
“Only one major company in Zambia beneficiates our copper into electric cables, the rest of our copper is sold off as exports,” he said.
See saw laws
Hichilema also took a swipe at the current government, arguing that in less than 4 years, mining laws have changed at least 3 times in the country—offering no certainty to investors.
More directly, he reminded politicians that they should not get caught in “the trap of politicising the sector”.
By October last year, the Kwacha—Zambia’s currency—had taken an 80% beating against the dollar, after global copper prices hit rock bottom. This was not the end of the
Zambia’s woes as the country’s main power source, the Kariba Dam, virtually dried up.
“We were jilted. Right when the Kwacha was plunging and copper prices were plummeting we ended up with a power crisis. It was an unfortunate mix,” says Zambia’s minister of mining, Chris Yaluma.
Speaking to the M&G Africa, Yaluma said that Zambia’s power crisis prompted the government to cut power supply to mining companies by 30%, making it difficult for them to operate optimally.
Yaluma added that his ministry was working hard on a set of initiatives aimed at keeping mining investors at bay.
“We cannot do much about the low copper prices since it’s a global phenomenon. But we are developing a set of measures, like the deferment of taxes, to keep mining companies in Zambia. The best we can do is encourage investors to do exploration while we build infrastructure and wait for commodity prices to stabilise.”
Who will win in August?
A weakened currency—billed the worst performing in the world in 2015—a power crisis and job losses—these are some of the issues Zambia’s opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema hopes will catapult him into the country’s top office this year.
In last year’s emergency presidential election—following the death of former president Michael Sata—Hichilema garnered 46.67% of Zambia’s votes, losing by a very thin margin to president Edgar Lunga.