Note: Picture of Michael Sata was taken from Lusaka Times, which counts as public domain.
After much anticipation, Michael Sata was declared Zambia’s fifth president today. There were reports of violence in Solwezi (northwest), the Copperbelt (northern) and even Lusaka in the past few days since Zambians went to the polls on the 20th of September. Riots erupted over the delay of election results leading to suspicion of rigging. Yesterday, there were two power shortages where I live near the university. Even before the power shortages, the main television stations updating us with election results had stopped reporting due to an “exparte injunction imposed on three privately-owned media houses” to withhold publishing anything concerning the elections until results had been verified and finalized. By evening when electricity came back on, it was clear that Sata (and his party, PF) was in the lead. Though there were still 34 constituencies remaining to be counted, he had already obtained 40 percent of the votes while the incumbent Rupiah Banda trailed behind. They had not counted many of the constituencies in Lusaka yet. It was common knowledge that Sata had overwhelmingly swept the urban areas by huge margins. When official results were announced late into the night, immediately, we heard shouting, cheering, people running into the streets to celebrate and dance. Sata had won.
According to Lusaka Times, “Justice Irene Mambilima announced early this morning that with totals completed from nearly all the country’s 143 constituencies, Sata had won with 1,150,045 votes, representation 43 percent of the total. President Rupiah Banda had 961,796 votes, representing 36.1 percent. Eight other candidates shared the remainder.”
Now, what of President Michael Sata, otherwise known as “King Cobra”? He was a minister in the governments of both Kaunda and Chiluba. He used to be in the United National Independence Party (UNIP) under Kaunda and then changed to the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) under Chiluba so some see his move to the opposition Patriotic Front (PF) as simply opportunistic and disingenuous. Yet many Zambians consider him as someone to gets things done. He’s known to look out for Zambians. They remember the time when he was a minister of health and they never ran out of medicines at the clinics or hospitals. Detractors, however, worry that his reputed lack of tact and “political thuggery” will cause embarrassment at home and abroad and in dealing with foreign investors.
There is no doubt Sata is a polarizing figure, especially when it comes to the thorny issue of foreign direct investment. Sata has been known to run on an anti-Chinese platform, allegedly heavily supported by Taiwanese donors. Although this claim has been circulating, it has never been substantiated. When I asked an official whether it was true that the Taiwanese were donating campaign money to PF, he replied with a resounding no. It was to the benefit of Sata to tone down his anti-Chinese remarks, which he followed through this time in his campaign. Many of his supporters perceive him to be their defender, one who looks out for Zambians at a time when it seems investors reap all the benefits at the expense of locals. One thing is for sure: Sata has promised to change the way negotiations are done with the Chinese and work to ensure better work conditions, pay and benefits for Zambians.
However, targeting one group of nationals with xenophobic remarks may backfire. Many Chinese may pull out. Already, I have witnessed and experienced elements of xenophobia among Zambians — a strand of “Orientalism” that once plagued (and still exists in parts of ) the United States. Sometimes, I hear Zambians yell out “ching chong” or ask “why are your eyes like that?” Though there are Japanese aid workers and students and South Korean students learning the local languages — I’ve been told Japan and Korean companies are looking to invest in Zambia as well — the common response among Zambians is that “they’re all Chinese.” I have found myself often having to explain the differences among the nationalities and describe the diversity among Chinese themselves in terms of provincial origin, ethnicity, class, profession, and other ascribed attributes. The British colonial legacy has also influenced many to disparage those with non-European features and what they perceive to be “poor English manners” and English language skills. It seems, in general, one’s fluency in English is a marker of status. Thus, it becomes one of the most significant factors in their perceptions of the Chinese in Zambia. Perhaps, a type of racial hierarchy, maybe not the kind operating in the US but similar, is in effect as well, no thanks to Hollywood.
Of course, the discontent with the way many Chinese investors have handled labor matters is legitimate due to poor compensation and treatment of local workers. It is also undeniable that the majority of Chinese individuals and families in Zambia remain physically isolated and less socially and culturally integrated. However, it is curious and telling that the magnitude of emphasis placed on the Chinese (as an abstract, homogeneous entity rather than a group of individuals with diverse interests and origins) in comparison to the emphasis on the actions and often times, complicity of local officials and elites working in partnership with the Chinese is so much more severe. Why? The glare seems to me quite misplaced. It’s also alarmingly reminiscent of the historical racism against the “inscrutable Orientals” in the United States enshrined in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Why Hilary Clinton and Michael Sata, among others, have chosen to emphasize the role of the Chinese in Zambia and on the continent of Africa also raises a few eyebrows. There is a joke among my Zambian friends that Lusaka has turned into a “province” of South Africa. It’s taken over by South African shops, malls, and companies. In the same vein, India has pledged $2.2 billion dollars of FDI in the next several years. Though China is currently one of the top investors in Zambia, labor issues have emerged in South African and Indian companies as well. It seems these problems are symptomatic of the way laws and policies (including tax benefits) have been implemented to give greater advantage to foreign investors and little or none to locals. One piece of evidence is the exorbitant rates at which local micro-finance firms and banks charge Zambians if they want to borrow money to start their own business — often times at 50 percent interest. Thus, if Sata delivers on his promise, he will work to ensure that Zambians themselves give each other the opportunity to become business-owners and stakeholders.
Only then will the rewards of increasing foreign direct investment ultimately and justifiably flow to Zambians themselves.