The Politics of Poverty in Zambia

We are approaching the 2001 presidential and general elections and the political situation remains tense. Unemployment, poverty and the lack of viable education and health care has bred outright social discontent and resentment throughout Zambia.

President Frederick Chiluba’s M.M.D. government is still in power and commands majority support in Parliament. The opposition parties remain weak and unable to capture a national consensus, because political allegiance in Zambia is determined by linguistic and tribal affiliations. Thus many of the opposition parties are little known in other provinces or areas. The only notable opposition parties are the U.N.I.P., the Republican Party and the National Party for Democratic Development.

U.N.I.P., after the retirement of Kenneth Kaunda from active politics, is embroiled in a leadership fiasco and stands a slim chance to command a large following. U.N.I.P. has a strong regional support in the Eastern province. The Republican Party, led by the local tycoon and former M.M.D. party stalwart, Ben Muria, has a large following in the Copperbelt and Wapula provinces. The National Party for Democratic Development is led by former LONRHO group chairman in Zambia, Anderson Mazoka. This party has managed to scoop a number of parliamentary seats, mainly in the Southern and Western provinces. Its regional base is the Southern province.

An analysis of Zambia’s political scene reveals that the opposition parties have come to concentrate their election campaigns in the Copperbelt Province, especially in Kitwe. This is because historically this province has come to play a dominant role in Zambia’s domestic politics. The mining town of Kitwe is the hub of the copperbelt, inhabited by a vocal and politically aligned working class population. In this semi-industrial and mining town political consciousness and social discontent seem to be expressed more than anywhere else on the copperbelt.

The demise of the copper-mining giant Z.C.C.M. has had a marked impact on the commercial and industrial sector in Zambia. Economic development of any kind in Zambia depends upon the export potential of Zambia’s mono-copper-mining sector. Thus the privatisation of the copper mining industry has entailed the loss of revenue to the government. There has occurred a startling decline in overall commercial and industrial production in the copper belt mining towns.

The working class on the copper belt have been subjected to untold misery. The public sector has shed its labour force while those who have remained in active employment receive salaries in arrears and work under shoddy conditions. Privatisation of the public and commercial sector has led to widespread unemployment in Zambia. The surrendering of city council housing units to people paying rent to themselves has deprived the city council of revenue and thus led to a decline in community welfare.

The sale of the council houses was a presidential directive and thus political. But the future consequences were not taken into consideration; nor could these consequences be corrected by the government. Urban cities have been turned into villages overnight, characterised by social poverty, child malnutrition and squalor. This voluntary creation of slum townships is a new development in Zambia and has led to the frantic manoeuvres of President Chiluba to retain a large following.

The city townships have been turned in havens of social poverty. Because those who have purchased council houses cannot go back to rural areas when they retire, this tends to have a marked pressure on land in urban areas. Most of the retrenched working class population remain restricted in the townships, where they engage in household commercial activities of one kind or another. The unpaved roads, unlit streets and unmaintained water and sewage systems means that life in these townships remains hard and unbearable.

In an economy characterised by endemic social poverty and unemployment the M.M.D. government is concentrating on handing out hefty amounts of money through well-timed presidential donations to needy members of society. But this is a naked political campaign gimmick which has brought rebuke upon the M.M.D. government and tarnished the charismatic status of President Chiluba. Recently in Kitwe’s Mindolo township a Catholic priest turned down the presidential donation of K10,000,000 from the M.M.D. Member of Parliament for Nkana constituency. It was an incident that shocked and which had never happened before.

Because the M.M.D. government is heavily funded by mining investors like the Anglo-American Corporation, the opposition political fraternity stands a little chance to compete with the M.M.D. in terms of campaign expenditure. Nor does anyone need to be told what purpose the colossal sums of money realised from the sale of privatised para-statal firms has been used for. If the M.M.D. government is unable to find funds for expenditure on education and health, from where does the president get the money he hands out in donations? The widely publicised calls for a third term of office for President Chiluba are merely designed to create an image of his popularity and thus win the confidence of the overseas private investors, since, legislatively, Chiluba cannot stand for a third presidential term.

In its political composition the M.M.D. government retains its linguistic and provincial allegiances as a party of the Wapula province. Linguistic and provincial allegiances determine the strength and popularity of every political party in Zambia. Thus tribalism acts as an impediment to multi-party politics in Zambia, and political domination comes to depend upon the entrenched historical pattern of linguistic and cultural complexities. Political consciousness is more pronounced among the relatively educated and working class in urban areas, more so than among the backward and static rural traditional societies.

Because the M.M.D. is the ruling party, the large following it can command must be attributed more to curiosity than to sympathetic support as such. A large number of people flock to M.M.D. political rallies just to have a glimpse of President Chiluba. But every politically conscious Zambian is aware that the M.M.D. government has disastrously failed to resuscitate Zambia’s ailing economy.