The whole ‘Zambia has a white president’ meme

When Zambian President Michael Sata died in London last week after being sick for some time, Western media (and some on Twitter) spent little time reflecting on his rule (basically a neoliberal disaster coupled with economic nationalism, out and out xenophobia towards Chinese and a massive temper). Instead, people who never write about Africa or who couldn’t locate Zambia on a map were more interested in Guy Scott, Sata’s vice president and the stand-in leader till the next presidential elections early next year. (Buzzfeed, not known for writing about acting presidents, cut and pasted his various sayings like he is Barack Obama.) What of course interested the media (especially British media; they were after all the former colonisers there) most, is that Guy Scott was white.

CNN declared “Zambia’s Guy Scott makes history as white president in sub-Saharan Africa.”  In any case, as AIAC’s Neelika Jayawardane reminded Al Jazeera America readers, Scott is not the first white leader of a democratic African country. For example, Paul Berenger, a white Mauritian of French descent, served as the island’s first non-Hindu prime minister from 2003 to 2005. (For apologists of Apartheid or UDI in Rhodesia, your various racist white dictators don’t count.) Meanwhile, The UK’s Telegraph decided Scott was elected; something that came as a surprise to Zambians. Asked  @MissBwalya on Twitter: ‘

“I’m Africa’s First White Democratic Leader.” – Guy Scott according to the UK Telegraph. Uhm, did I miss the election? #Zambia

Even the BBC jumped on the bandwagon, with the story being the top headline simultaneously on BBC News Africa, BBC News and BBC worldwide.

South African political scientist and newspaper columnist Steven Friedman wondered on Facebook: “”I keep on reading and hearing from local and European media that acting Zambian President Guy Scott is ‘Africa’s first white President in 20 years’. Can someone help me–how many black Presidents or heads of government has Europe had in the last 20 years? In the last 500 years?”

In any case, Scott may not qualify to become President. Zambia’s constitution (changed on the behest of its first post-1990 president Frederick Chiluba) mandates that only people whose parents were born in Zambia can run for president. (Though below Aaron Leaf suggests that’s not so cut and dried.)

Guy Scott is politically interesting of course, with a mix of populist (we’re sure a lot of people chuckled at how he characterized South Africans) and some backward views (see what he thinks of gay rights, for example). And, he wasn’t even in the job a few days, when he incited a riot over firing an official of the ruling party (he was trying to get rid of a political rival.)

But we need analysis. We still trying to get together a few Zambia experts to write something on Sata’s rule (something like we did with debating the future of trade union-led political movenments in South Africa). Meanwhile we suggest reading Laura Miti’s essay on 50 years of Zambian independence (celebrated last month) and these essays by AIAC’ers Neelika Jayawardane (on Al Jazeera America) and Aaron Leaf (on Quartz) on the “Guy Scott is white and that’s important” meme. Here’s excerpts from Neelika and Aaron’s pieces.

Aaron:

… Scott’s whiteness has never been as big a deal to Zambians as it has to outsiders. At an election rally in 2008, I watched Scott take the stage in front of 10,000 rowdy supporters and launch into a passionate speech in fluent Nyanja and Bemba, Zambia’s most common indigenous languages, ending it by doing the signature dance of his party, the Patriotic Front. He was a crowd favorite—more so, it seemed, than Sata himself.

… Despite having a Cambridge degree, as every article likes to point out, Scott is politically much like Sata, his longtime mentor—a proponent of both higher foreign direct investment and higher mining royalties with a populist streak that earns him support among Lusaka’s youth. Scott has been a fixture in Zambian politics since the early nineties and is always at pains to display his African-nationalist bonafides: a close professional relationship with Robert Mugabe (whom he reveres), and strong words regarding Chinese business practices in the country.

Another truism in the press is that Scott is ineligible to become president of Zambia because of the fact that his parents, who emigrated from Scotland before independence, were not born in the country. But while Scott himself has stated that he is ineligible, Elias Munshya, a trained lawyer who has written extensively about the Zambian constitution, believes his candidacy should not be a problem: according to him, if Scott’s candidacy were to go in front of the Zambian Supreme Court, they would very likely give him the go ahead. According to Munshya, because there was no concept of citizenship in Zambia under British colonization “residents of Zambia at independence became Zambian.” This puts Scott’s candidacy claims, says Munshya, on equal footing with anyone else whose parents were born before 1964.

But Scott’s chances of getting elected are much harder to predict. “It could go either way,” says Munshya. “The Patriotic Front is divided at the moment. If the party rallies behind him and the supreme court rules on his candidacy, he stands a chance to win.”

And here’s Neelika:

Scott was seen as the man Sata scored in order to create spectacle and distraction during the 2011 elections. In fact, Scott has long been ridiculed because he is a somewhat bumbling figure who lacks statesmanship and authority.

… The debate about his heritage aside, Scott’s short time leading Zambia is not a big deal. “Uncle Scotty” is as Zambian as a Zambian can get. He’s able to deal with a little derision as long as his largely ceremonial position of authority protects him. He is famous for making undiplomatic, ill-thought-out statements, and the list of his faux pas is as long as Zambians’ legendary patience with its elderly patriarchs. He’s a little fearful of anything too new and different, as exemplified by his public expressions of worry about gay people who ask for the right to safety and happiness. In addition, his economic views are rather conservative. There’s going to be none of that free education and free health care, as was the dream during Kenneth Kaunda’s heady years.

In the short time since Sata’s passing, Scott fired Zambia’s Minister of Defence and the ruling Patriotic Front party’s secretary-general, Edgar Lungu. A few people took to the streets and burnt a few things – it looked like a minor bonfire, not a riot. (I wondered why there was no protest when ministers sacked country of riches.) In any case, amid outcry, Lungu has been reinstated to his party post.

All this minor trauma-drama should tell us: the second white man to head a democratic African nation is not going to change a thing. Relax, people.

Sean Jacobs

Sean Jacobs is the Founder and Editor of Africa is a Country. He is on faculty of The New School in New York.

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