Election Day in Lusaka, Zambia

The mood is tense today. People are anxiously awaiting election results as they slowly trickle in from the nine provinces. Few buses are operating and most stores in town are closed for fear of outbreaks of violence. Election day, however, proceeded smoothly.

**Note: This picture was taken at 7 in the morning on election day at a local market polling station near Mulungushi Village in Lusaka.

Election Day

Polls opened on September 20th, 2011 at 6 in the morning. By the time I reached one of the polls at 7 in the morning, there was a long queue of about 100 people. I visited three polls in Lusaka until they closed at 6:30 in the evening. The polls were located in relatively middle class, suburban neighborhoods. I use “middle class” loosely because even well-to-do Zambians with stable jobs, residing in a gated home, may find themselves living from paycheck to paycheck because they have to financially support 12 to 14 people in their family. However, they are “middle class” in comparison to those who live in compounds and some villages beset by immense poverty. I was warned by my Zambian friends not to enter the shanty compounds to observe the election process for fear that some of the young men would become violent since they started drinking beer early in the morning.

Voting Process

One of the polls I observed was located on campus at the University of Zambia (UNZA). The Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) officers, dressed in bright orange vests, allowed me to enter the voting stations and take observation notes. Around 10 to 12 election monitors from various NGOs, transparency organizations and political parties were present to ensure fairness in the voting and tabulation process. At the university polling station, voters were divided into 12 streams by last names in alphabetical order. They stood in queues and waited. For every 10 voters, around seven were men and three were women. Although demographics show a 1.01 sex ratio and total voter registration was split equally among the sexes, this was not reflected in my observations of the election process. From experience, I have noticed that discussion of politics is a male-dominated activity. Many times when I have visited Zambian homes, as soon as the discussion turned to politics, the women either remained silent or left the room. The exceptions are the younger generation (the few teenagers not influenced by MTV and American pop culture) and UNZA students, who tend to be politically vocal and active.

Over 50 percent of the voters I saw were “youths,” – the “youth” bracket in Zambia encompassing age 18 to 35. It must be noted that “youths” comprise about 30 percent of the total population. Around 50 percent are 14 years old and under, constituting the next generation of voters in 2016.

Voters reached the front of the line, where their voter registration and national registration cards were verified against a list of Zambian national names with accompanying photos. The ECZ officer doing the verification loudly announced the voter name, NRC number and page and line number of their location on the list. Voters then proceeded to the next ECZ officer who prepared their ballots and stamped them. Voters were given three ballots – presidential, parliamentary and local council ones. The ballots included names and colored photos of each of the candidates. After receiving the stamped ballots, voters proceeded to voting booths which ensured that their votes would be cast in private. After casting their votes, they then proceeded to place each of the ballots in one of the three large plastic bins. The plastic bins were sealed on all sides.

Voices of Contention

Printing of the ballots, which took place in South Africa, and the provision of colored photos on the ballots proved to be a major source of contention among the voters I talked to. I stood around at each of the polling stations (100 meters away per ECZ regulations) to listen to conversations and talk with friendly voters. A group of men gathered near the UNZA polling station. They had voted and were complaining about the process. I approached them and they revealed skepticism of the election process. One man said, “Why did they have to go print the ballots in South Africa? Why? They could have done it here in Zambia. You just photocopy the ballots. What’s so hard about that?” Another man argued, “We don’t have the capacity to do certain things here.” He was interrupted by a third man who replied, “What do you mean we don’t have the capacity here? It’s a photocopy. You see, this is the problem with our leaders. We have a leadership vacuum here in Zambia. They give everything to foreigners. We’re a rich country with everything we need, yet there’s nothing left for us Zambians.”

They then complained about the printing of colored photos. The first man asked, “Was that really necessary? Why did they waste money on colored photos?” The two men in agreement insisted on the problem of the leadership vacuum in Zambia while the third man pointed out that there was a serious lack of human and technological capacity. They continued to argue while I asked questions and took notes. Three hours later, this small group had become a large crowd of 10 to 12, as more men (mostly UNZA alums) joined us in the discussion. Several of the men insisted that they wanted to stay at the polling station until it closed to guard against any suspicious activities. They were already informed of an incident in Lusaka where a man had been caught with pre-marked ballot papers. Locals reacted and stoned, burned and destroyed five vehicles.

Voter Stories

One general pattern I observed all three polling stations was the huge voter turnout. At the third polling station, which was at a local basic school, queues had dwindled but that’s because it was evening and polls were about to close. Overall it seems, in Lusaka, Zambians were exercising their right to vote. Later on, when I took the bus and walked home, I greeted and asked each pedestrian I encountered, “Did you vote?” Every single one, except for one older man on a bike, said they voted. The man, a bricklayer by profession, said he did not vote because he did not trust any of the politicians. “They never fulfill their promises,” he told me.

Repeatedly, voters told me, “We’re ready for change. Our people have been suffering for too long.” In the morning, I met a young lady who told me she wanted to become a teacher because she had a passion for teaching and inspiring young children. She was born with HIV and lost both parents by the age of 5. She lives with her grandmother and revealed to me that life had been one struggle after another for her. She told me she was not planning to vote, but changed her mind because she thought it might make a difference. “I want change. That’s why I’m here,” she said. Another young man I spoke to said the same thing. Over and over again, people talked about the suffering and hardships they have gone through. High rates of unemployment, not having enough money for school, not having three meals a day, lack of sanitation, electricity and clean, running water, and having to wait at the clinic for seven hours to be seen are pervasive problems they face on a daily basis.

One of the most memorable conversations I had was with a young man, an UNZA graduate, who could not find employment. He worked on a contractual basis, occasionally writing articles and selling them to newspapers. He said, “You know, we Zambians, they say we’re peaceful. I don’t know why, we’re too accepting. But this time, people are fed up. People are tired. We have been suffering for too long. I’m telling you in Lusaka, especially in the Copperbelt, people there have nothing to lose, things will happen if this election turns out badly. We’re fed up and we’re ready for change.”

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