"A fricans are great optimists,” Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda once mused to a white friend. “We hate gloom and pessimism—that is why a humanistic outlook accords well with our temperament.” A lovely thought to linger over on a stroll beneath the mauve jacaranda blossoms in Lusaka last week, the 14th anniversary of Zambia’s independence from Britain. But it was a thought easily banished by the gloomy stares from the food queues in busy Cairo Road and by the distinctly pessimistic comments to be heard on every side about Zambia’s economic and political future.
It is not just Kaunda’s admission of what the Rhodesian air force recently demonstrated—that the country cannot defend itself against casual violence from abroad—that is causing the trouble. Nor is it the icy relations between Kaunda and Zambia’s “man who came to dinner,” exiled Rhodesian leader Joshua Nkomo and his menacing band of guerrillas. They are believed to have blown up a supply train inside their host country last week. At the root of the pessimism are very real doubts about the ability of Kaunda himself to apply his own political philosophy — “humanism through socialism.”
These doubts are now focused on Kaunda’s attempt to secure another five-year term at the presidential elections on Dec. 12. All he has to do is persuade more than 50 per cent of however slim a turnout to vote for him. Despite his recent difficulties, his chances of success seem good given that he will have no opponents; that the United National Independence Party (UNIP)— the country’s only legal political movement—is campaigning massively for a “yes” vote; and that voters not known to be Kaunda supporters will be discouraged from leaving their homes on polling day. Furthermore, in Zambia’s first general elections in 1964—when the country still operated along traditional Western democratic
lines—94 per cent turned out to vote Kaunda and his followers into power.
Yet in 1973, under a new system that limited voters’ options on the presidency to acceptance or rejection of one candidate, the turnout was only 39.8 per cent, with seven voters saying “yes” to Kaunda for every one who said “no.” The prospect of a significant increase in the “no” vote this time has officials in a dither to the point where Kaunda’s prime minister, Daniel Lisulo, recently warned that the party might have to do away with elections if the turnout doesn’t improve, lest it be accused of forcing people to vote.
Despite Kaunda’s almost sacred status among admirers inside and outside Zambia, his credibility has been further strained by events that got rolling at the party’s national council in June. Their effect has been to eliminate his most formidable potential opponent—Simon Kapwepwe. With strong support from the outspoken Bemba tribe in Zambia’s copper-belt region, Kapwepwe has taken his case to court in conjunction with Harry Nkumbula. A UNIP member of parliament, Nkumbula was Kaunda’s first major political opponent after independence, and also tried to run
against Kaunda this time. In their petition, Nkumbula argued that he had not been allowed to file presidential nomination papers and that his agents had been “prevented” from obtaining sponsors for his candidacy.
Kapwepwe and Nkumbula have asked the judiciary to rule that constitutional amendments by which they were prevented from standing are invalid and their passage was a deliberate attempt to prevent candidates other than Kaunda from contesting the election. But there are serious doubts that the action will come to trial —before the elections at least.
Underlying these political and legal problems are the dismal performance of Zambia’s economy in recent years and a suspicion among some Zambians that many senior UNIP officials have lost the verve for justice and reform that they once displayed. A parliamentary committee has revealed that two of Kaunda’s central committee members failed to pay back more than $700,000 they owed the country’s Central Bank. Kaünda has promised an investigation. As for the economy—once one of the most promising on the African continent—a recent report to UN SecretaryGeneral Kurt Waldheim estimates Zambia needs $1 billion just to meet its short-term problems.
Some of the miseries result from sheer bad luck, notably the bottom falling out of the international copper market on which Zambia depended for nearly all the foreign exchange needed for its massive import bill. Others stem from its colonial heritage. Despite Zambia’s potentially rich farmlands, agricultural production is pathetically low, at least partially because the British, in their hurry to exploit the country’s mineral wealth using cheap labor, imposed hut taxes that forced farmers out of their fields and into the mines.
Still others are of Kaunda’s own making. A recent Commonwealth study estimates that the direct monetary cost, up to 1977, of Zambia’s sanctions against Rhodesia has been just under $800 million and Kaunda has reopened his border with Rhodesia to get in much needed supplies. Finally, part of the problem may be Zambians themselves. “They were born with a copper spoon in their mouths,’’said a Western diplomat.
But at least some of the economic blame must rest with leadership itself—socialism Zambian-style has been clumsy and inefficient. For all the humanity intended, a recent United Nations study shows the income gap between rich and poor actually widening. Kaunda’s December prospects .however, look sunny, especially for one who has supporters with enough foresight to ban all the clouds from the sky.
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