Progress or not? Zambia’s 50th anniversary year

Sara Drawwater
6 January 2014
At the beginning of Zambia’s 50th anniversary year, this post gives a potted history of our journey towards a ‘land of milk and honey’.

At the beginning of Zambia’s 50th anniversary year, this post gives a potted history of our journey towards a ‘land of milk and honey’.

The socialist left-wing policies adopted by most post-independent African nations in the 1960’s brought a sigh of relief to many impoverished Africans. They were seen to be the only means to the much sought after classless society. The policies would equitably put at their disposal all the means of producing wealth, thereby leading them to a quasi-Biblical land of milk and honey.

The benefits of the parastatal approach

In Zambia, the government took over most of the private companies and started running them on behalf of the people. These parastatal companies, as they were called, invested a lot in the training of local people to take over senior management positions. They even sponsored some people for studies at the best learning facilities in the world, including universities in the United Kingdom. Notable among these companies was the Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM), which established world-class education institutions right from pre-school through primary to secondary school, and even ran ‘A’ level classes to prepare students for college and university education. The mining company also ran various vocationally oriented courses in engineering at a range of training institutes that it had established in Zambian mining towns. This mining giant contributed hugely to the delivery of social services to the residents of the copper mining towns in which it operated. It provided world-class medical facilities, sponsored sport and even operated cinemas and theatres. The other parastatal companies, though smaller, and producing lower value products than copper, zinc and cobalt, were not to be left behind in uplifting the living standards of the Zambian people. They all participated in a similar manner in sponsoring various development projects in the areas in which they operated.

Generally speaking, under government patronage, the profits from all parastatal companies were either reinvested in these companies, or used to improve government service delivery to the citizens. This arrangement, it was thought, would bring about the elusive but much sought after egalitarian economic system which has eluded even the most developed nations of the world. It would be a system in which there would be neither rich nor poor, but a classless society in which people would have equitable access to national resources and have no barriers to self- actualisation in all areas of human endeavour.

Positivity post 1964

The years just after independence in 1964 were good and comparable to the Biblical seven years of plenty in the land of Egypt which preceded seven years of severe famine. All was bliss as people concentrated on doing what they could do best due to the limitless resources at their disposal. Those were years when farmers would have all their farming inputs supplied free of charge by the government, and all animal health programmes financed by the state. Quality medical services were free in all parts of the country and people could settle almost anywhere including the rural-most outposts and still access service delivery from their government. Education was free and civil servants earned enough money to look after their families. The Zambian economy at one time was even better than that of its former colonial master Britain, in terms of the strength of its currency the kwacha, compared to the British Pound. Zambia became the envy of many countries and countries which were still fighting for independence saw socialism as the way to go if they became independent.

The Zambian economy looses ground

About 10 years later, in the 1970s, the Zambian economy began to go down. One reason given was the diversion of national resources towards the liberation struggles in countries which were still fighting for independence. Another reason was the alleged proclivity of the African leaders to corruption and other diabolical aberrant behaviours not expected of leaders. Other things that are said to have gone wrong were low copper prices and increased metal production costs.

Whatever the real reasons were, the Zambian economy continued the downward trend and hit rock bottom in about 1990. Service delivery had deteriorated to almost nothing. Schools went without teachers and books for years on end. Salaries for workers, especially civil servants, remained static against a backdrop of a very high cost of living due to hyper-inflation. Skilled manpower, trained at great cost by the government began to leave for greener pastures in neighbouring countries and overseas. These catastrophic events began to create discontent among the citizens and most Zambians began to question whether socialism was the economic ideology that was going to propel them to the promised land of milk and honey.

The introduction of multi party democracy

At about the same time, the socialist regime in the Soviet Union began to crack and was finally dissolved. The Soviet Union was perceived by many to be the cradle and bulwark of socialism. The elections that ushered in a quasi-democratic regime in the Soviet Union saw the emergence of opposition political parties in Zambia which started agitating for not only regime change, but also constitutional reforms which could enhance democratic forms of governance. The regime in power was a one party state and allowed only members of the ruling party to run for political office. The opposition political parties finally got government to amend the constitution to allow multipartism and the elections which ensued ushered into power a political regime called the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD). This new regime made paradigm shifts in the economic management of the country aimed at transforming the economy into a quasi-capitalistic type. The government sold almost all the parastatal companies to private investors and did not spare even the ZCCM which had seemed to be a sacred cow because of its enormous contribution to the uplifting of the living standards of the people.

Winds of change in Zambia’s 50th anniversary year

Winston Churchill once said: “Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.” Whether these words are true in the Zambian context remains to be seen. Successive Zambian governments are now more democratic than before and coming to power not through the gun but through the ballot. There is an upswing in the emergence of political parties (but with some parties comprising only a president and their immediate family). On the economic front, Zambia has opened up her economy to allow both local and foreign investments.

These changes have brought with them a lot of challenges to both the politicians and the citizens. Freedom of expression is more enhanced and people are becoming more assertive. In the new order of things, many citizens have garnered enough courage to criticise the powers that be to the extent that rulers are now more conscious of people’s perceptions about them.

In this new dispensation, many Zambians have woken up to the reality of stiff competition in business and in all areas of human endeavour. Many Zambians have made education their foremost preoccupation, and this has led to the emergence of many private schools, colleges and universities. They have also woken up to the reality that government is not the proverbial hen which lays the golden egg. Many have realised that hard work and the production of quality goods and services is the key to the Promised Land. A major investor, for instance, pulled out of one of the major mining companies which had been one of the vital cogs in the economy of the nation. The government, through abundant, talented and qualified Zambian human resources, was able to turn the company around within a short period of time. People are more confident than ever that they can do things better and smarter. Recruitment of foreign labour at the expense of qualified locals is being questioned more and more. The citizens are challenging the government to maintain a tight grip on foreign labour, to ensure that work permits are only given to expatriates with genuinely scarce skills.

There are still some people who prefer the old ways of running the economy to the present liberalised one. But they can only achieve change if they campaign for pro-socialist politicians to win elections and get into power — an uphill battle indeed, and frankly one that they are unlikely to win.

There are still many challenges facing the nation on both the economic and the political front. But, in this new liberalised environment, there is a cautious but growing optimism that existing problems can be overcome and that Zambia is firmly on the road to some kind of economic freedom. As we move into Zambia’s 50th anniversary year, it is looking as though the milk and honey vision may possibly become Zambia’s reality after all.

*Editor’s note 1:** The views expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the writer and are not necessarily the views of The Best of Zambia. We invite you to leave a comment below.*

*Editor’s note 2:** Thank you to [Andrew Mulenga]( for pointing out an error — we had credited the wrong artist in one of the paintings shown above (now corrected). We apologise for any inconvenience caused.*