Zambia: Still shackled by hunger
The q ue st i on bug gi n g a number of people on both s i des of t he Zambezi i s whet he r i t wa s wor t h celebrating Zambia’s golden jubilee.
It’s not a rhetorical point. It stems from the curious mix: the economic growth rate is a sweltering 7%; l ife expectancy is a mild 57. Not only is t he kwacha (t he countr y’s off icia l currency) losing value, but it is this year’s worst performer in Africa, and joblessness is rampant. More t han half the population languish below the dollar-a-day poverty line (or R300 per month).
During t he i nterregnum, Guy Scott, who has been interim president since the death of Zambian leader Michael Sata (77) on 28 October in London, where he was hospitalised during the country’s 50th independence celebrations on 25 October, is set to invest much time to prepare for the polls (likely in January).
Sata’s death saw the kwacha losing 2.6% against the dollar. The next interregnum ends late 2016 – the date for the next five-yearly polls. Sata’s ruling Patriotic Front (PF) has fared well but it’s now marred by intra-party tiffs. This week things got tense when the 70-year-old Scott axed then reinstated heir apparent and defence minister Edgar Lungu, PF high-up and acting president while Sata was in hospital.
If the plan was to sideline Lungu, who turns 58 this month, the spat has emboldened his presidential ambitions, i f public response to his sacking is anything to go by. However, instead of f lexing his muscles or playing marbles, Scott ought to advance what the PF
stands for: creating an environment t hat i s conducive f or s ocia l a nd economic development.
The former president, whose sharp tongue earned him the ‘King Cobra’ moniker, was seen as unwelcoming to investors. South Africa’s business sector got introduced to Sata when, weeks i nto his j ob, he l ef t First National Bank red-faced by reversing its $5.5m buy of Finance Bank of Zambia owing to a disputed process.
A look further back suggests that post-independence Zambia’s troubles began after a good 10 years of prosperity when it suffered a debilitating 40% slump in copper prices in 1974, an external shock. And, it is notable that as it still the case now (with African Development Bank pegging it at 70%), Zambia’s source of foreign exchange was copper. “The effects of the shock were transmitted to all sectors,” observed academics Manenga Ndulo and Dale Mudenda in a thesis.
With t he countr y of fi c i a l l y i n t he dold r ums i n t he 1980s, t he International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank prescribed what Oxfam ca l l s “a cold s hower” of structural adjustment programme that spanned not only privatisation and market liberalisation but devastatingly huge and rapid cuts in public spending.
Globalising Africa contextualises the unfortunate effects of the IMF programme by noting that from 1990 to 1993, Zambia (now home to 15m people) spent a sorry $37m on primary education – a fraction of the $1.3bn taxpayers there used to service loans.
Kenneth Kaunda, t he founding father, asserted that the programme had t ur ned Zambia i nto a mere existence “to pay the IMF”, reported Ju l i u s E Nya ng ’ o r o i n Be yo n d Structural Adjustment in Africa: The Political Economy of Sustainable and Democratic Development.
That water provision remains poor and l i fe expectancy was, a decade ago, a sorry 37 is, in part, a relic of the past. On the upside, the fact that government interventions have helped add another 20 years, albeit from a low base, in expectancy is doubtless worth celebrating.
Frederick Chiluba, who t urned a promising multiparty democracy into a spaza republic and snatched millions f rom ta xpayers during his decadelong tenure, also deserves blame for worsening both the economy and an already poor standard of living.
Chiluba’s presidency was characterised by paranoia t hat lef t no room for disagreements. He f i red ministers who opposed graft and was tougher on political opponents, bought a judge, spirited taxpayers’ funds to the UK, and, to top it, arrested Kaunda who he said was behind the foiled coup.
“There are those who continue to view [Chiluba] as an icon, a person who f ought f or democrac y a nd workers’ rights,” remarked the Lusaka
Times in a tribute to the former head of state. “However, there are others who saw him as a liability, a plunderer who moved huge bank notes in the dark hours of the night while children were moved in opposites directions in coff ins due to lack of medicines or adequate medical facilities.”
From an economic angle, things got out of control circa 2008, amid the global recession that turned buoyant towns l i ke Copperbelt’s Luanshya, in the north, into less-than-a-dollara- day misery as tens of t housands suffered i nstant l ayoffs. Pawning suddenly became the largest industry.
Copper has lost almost a third of its value since 2011 to trade at $6 800 per ton this week. Until the nation beefs its manufacturing capacity, modernises its agricultural sector, learns from Ian Khama’s Botswana how to turn tourism into hard cash, and, critically, diversifies into an array of other industries, how will it escape the “staggering poverty levels” that Sata always spoke of?
Currently, the economy is too small. There are no jobs. Entrepreneurs can only make so much si nce i ncome levels are depressed in the f irst place. And how will government be able to improve both educational, nutrition and health outcomes with such a slim tax base?
Sata routinely referred to povertyreduction programmes. He also spoke of his party’s goal to create jobs notably for youngsters, who remain at t he periphery of this low-income economy whose GDP sits at $22.4bn – lousy for a country of 15m people. At a $1 500 GDP per capita – it’s dire. It’s a f ifth of neighbouring Botswana’s and a tenth that of Chile, a peer copper-exporting nation.
“My government shall concentrate its efforts on skills training and creating se l f- e mploy ment oppor tu n i t i e s , especially for the youth of our country. The PF electoral victory […] is owed in large measure to our young generation,” said the man whose rise was on the pro-poor PF ticket.
According to official statistics, 75% of the 6.7m working population is “economically active”. On the surface it looks manageable. It’s not.
For one, a third (or 1.7m) of “economically active” are “unpaid family workers”. In other words, they are engaged but don’t have much to show by way of buying power. This does nothing for the stretched ta x base.
Many of t he 5m fortunate to earn wages, whether in the 89% in t he informal sector, pocket f lat envelopes. It doesn’t help that the cost of living is too high in this country. Added to civil service, a host of multinationals (in mining and elsewhere), aid and donor organisations, as well as local fi r ms Zambeef and Zamtel, JSEl isted heavies l i ke MTN, Shoprite and Standard Bank are among t he very few enterprises that offer formal employment.
Somewhere in the mix as ordinary people, i ncluding “unpaid f amily workers” and those unable to attend s c hool as it ’s unaffordable, were debating the merits of the fete, last month – state officials, on one hand, rehash numbers and anecdotes to argue t hat t here is ever y reason to mark the milestone that is Zambia’s half a century of independence.
“I ndependence Day i s not s o important to me,” Richards Sikazwe blogged ahead of t he 24 October mega-party that drew Africa’s political f inest. “What is the point of achieving a nd celebrat i ng i ndependence i f people cannot enjoy the benef its of development?”
For Tiziwenji Tembo a nd her family the answer would probably be a ‘yes’. According to Oxfam’s report,
Even it Up, Tembo, who has lost 11 of her 15 children, now cares for four grandchildren. “Until recently, she had no regular income and she and her grandchildren often went without food. Her children often refused to go to school because t hey did not have uniforms and books, and their fellow students would laugh at them,” t he report says. “Their l ives were transformed, however, when she began to receive a regular pension worth $12 per month, which has enabled her family to eat more regularly, buy school uniforms and repair their house.” However, a story that appeared in
The Post just two weeks ago, suggests much is yet to be done. The paper exposed a sad “bread for sex” scheme in the Southern Province – which borders Zimbabwe. Zanec, a local education NGO, raised the alarm about “teachers at weekly boarding facilities in Southern Province offering pupils bread in exchange for sex,” the paper said. “Such vices have contributed negatively to the increasing number of school dropouts in the country.”
These are the issues t hat Scott and whoever is next in line need to bear in mind. Half a century since the independent nation’s flag was hoisted in 1964, Zambia f inds itself shackled by hunger. Only a holistic approach – from closing the infrastructure deficit, diversif ying t he economy, raising competitiveness, to improving health and education outcomes, and food security – would resonate with people like Sikazwe and those in rural areas, slums or townships like Kalingalinga or Mtendere. Here, the dollar-a-day struggle and desperation are the way of life.