WSF (1998): “Zambia : ‘Democratic’ politicians get fat as bosses starve the workers”

WSF (1998): “Zambia : ‘Democratic’ politicians get fat as bosses starve the workers”

From Workers Solidarity, magazine of the Workers Solidarity Federation, volume 4, number 2, fourth quarter 1998. Complete PDF is here

In 1991, there were elections in Zambia. But this so-called “democracy” is a sham that covers self-enrichment at the expense of working class Zambians who have found themselves tipped from the frying pan into the fire.

After seven years of privatisation, layoffs, government and local and foreign exploitation, 86 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and the country appears to be near collapse.


Between Independence from Britain in 1964, and the 1991 elections, Zambia was under the rule of Kenneth Kuanda, whose State-led economic policies helped destroy the agricultural sector: peasants got low food prices, and so, stopped farming and flooded the cities. The economy was also based almost entirely on the State-owned copper mines. So when world copper prices collapsed in the mid-1970s, Zambia never recovered. Instead, it became dependent on loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The loans however were given on condition that government cut food subsidies, privatise, cut public sector jobs, and cut health and education spending.


Although there was a lot of government control of the economy, this did not make the country socialist, because socialism means workers control of the economy- not a government elite. Kuanda was against workers unity, and stated that “class consciousness is one of the biggest dangers in Zambia”. Under Kuanda, class inequality was high. In Zambia in 1974, the top 5% got 35% of national income. By 1983, the top 5% got 50% of national income (J. Hanlon, Apartheid’s Second Front).


But all the country’s ills cannot be blamed on past policies. The post-1991 government- headed by the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) – is also to blame. Led by Frederick Chiluba, former general secretary of the Zambian Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), the MMD rode to power on a wave of worker demands for an end to one-party rule and protection against IMF austerity programmes.


But Chiluba betrayed this mandate and speeded up the liberalisation of the economy. The cost of basic foodstuffs rocketed: mielie meal went up seven times between 1991 and 1996. In the same period, the value of money declined by 325 percent. Job losses escalated under Chiluba’s privatisation programme, which, critics argue, has seen some viable state-owned concerns shut down and the others sold at fire-sale rates.


Rusty, outdated equipment and silence characterise the once vibrant Copperbelt pits run by the government-run Zambian Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM). Multinationals like Anglo-American, who sold the mines to the government in 1970, are waiting patiently in the wings for ZCCM’s price to fall through the floor.

This should all sound a warning bell to South African workers who put their trust in the elites, whether they are so-called black empowerment bosses, politicians or even some union leaders. Those at the top always serve their own class interest, never the working people.


Now ZCTU is in a state of confusion because those that they elected to power have become the main source of their pain. The predicament they have put themselves in by relying on a greedy elite for salvation is the same problem facing COSATU.


South African business is moving in to buy up the cheap, privatised, Zambian economy. Shoprite now owns the country’s biggest supermarket chain (and workers are allegedly strip-searched if anything goes missing); and white South African right-wing farmers have bought up extensive farmlands in the north, some importing nasty habits like sjambokking workers or pouring acid on them.

As always, these liberal economic policies have only benefited a tiny elite which lives in luxury compounds bristling with satellite dishes and secluded behind three-metre concrete walls topped with electric fencing. These compounds are designed to protect local and foreign oppressors from the popular revolt that they know will one day be visited on them for the damage they have done.


Outside those walls, Zambia is dying: the University of Zambia and Allied Workers’ Union said it had buried five members in two weeks, all from malnutrition-related problems. “We eat perhaps once a day, sometimes once every two days, and drink water in between,” one shop steward said. They had still not been paid their salaries for the previous month and there is every indication the university will be forced to close in 1999 because of a lack of funds.

Zambia owes over R44-billion to foreign governments, the IMF, the World Bank and others. Foreign reserves held by the national Bank of Zambia have fallen more than R756-million since December – to the lowest point in six years – largely due to servicing this debt.

The democratic credentials of the new government are doubtful. Freedom is stifled by a law, which renders any organised group of citizens, even chess clubs, illegal unless licensed by the state and scrutinised at least yearly by police.


All the indications are that Zambia faces imminent collapse: state executions started up again last year after a break of seven years; the state-owned media diverts attention from the gloomy economy by covering the trial of a handful of plotters involved in a pitiful coup attempt last year. Although there is war in next-door “Democratic” Republic of Congo, and in Angola, the Zambian army does not even have diesel for its armoured cars, and many people are not even sure if the air force still exists. If war comes, it will be a bloody battle for Zambia’s minerals. It is the common people in dusty townships like Kalinga-linga who will suffer. Only resistance to the elites who rule the region and to their wars is a way forward.