Zambia turns 50

Zambia - the country its young people fondly call “Zed” - turns 50 in 2014. It was part of the first wave of African countries to gain independence in the 1960s.

Lusaka, Zambia. Image credit Bengt Flemark via Flickr CC.

Zambia’s turn to gain independence came on 24 October 1964, a day chosen because it was United Nations Day. That kind of symbolism is indicative of a very Kaundasque decision. Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first president, always had his eye far on the horizon–Zambia being but a small part of first the continental and then the global stage on which he would perform what he believed was his vocation: being called to greatness. It was at that level that he sought a place in history – sometimes messianic in its dimensions, as would be seen in the huge role Zambia was to play in freeing the rest of the region from colonialism, white supremacy, and apartheid. In retrospect, we can see that he would make a statement, even with the choice of date for our Independence Day.

Children born soon after Independence like myself grew up in a wonderful Zambia. Service delivery was at its finest, funded by flowing copper resources. We had free schooling – good schooling too – from birth to whatever level your grey matter allowed. At primary school, we had free milk and biscuits at break (well, it was chocolate milk for the fancy “formerly whites only” schools, and regular old milk and buns for the others). Kaunda had even promised an egg every day for each citizen. And boy did he try hard to deliver on this one. It was one of his many intentions to make Zambia paradise.

But sometime in the ’80s, when it was clear heaven was getting further and further away from Zambia (the copper prices having crashed and oil prices shot through the roof) he tried to cajole the copper price up and oil prices down via a Transcendental Meditation project named – yes you guessed it, “Heaven on Earth.” Suffice to say, this trick was whacky to the extreme, second only to his attempt to turn grass into oil with the aid of some international conman.

I guess all we can say is that he loved his Zambia, Kaunda! Loved it so much that at some point he even killed democracy, because his children could not live in tribal harmony (he said). So out went tribalism engendering multi-party politics, and in came that other special invention Zambia is known for, “One Party Participatory Democracy”, in which all Zambians only voted for one candidate of one party. It allowed Kauda to maintain the pretence of a democracy, and to rule for 27 years.


The late 70 and 80s were all about Zambia freeing the nations within the region of Southern Africa. Kaunda managed to convince Zambians it was their duty to do so. He let us know the sacrifice we were making – empty shop shelves due to trade embargos, and the bombing crusades by the Rhodesian Selous Scouts – were territorial hazards. In every speech, he repeated that we could not really be free unless our brothers (it was before the politically correct era of including sisters in that statement) in Mozambique, Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe and then South Africa were free too. KK was long winded; it wasn’t unusual for him to stand on a podium and scold the nation for up to 8hrs without break if someone had done something silly like attempt to overthrow his government in a coup.

A telling fact about Zambians was how they voted during these years. It was in that period of real hardship that, every 5 years, Zambians went to the polls to retain Kaunda as president. His opponent on the ballot paper- symbolised by the frog – was never a match! He regularly received 99.99% of the vote – a well publicised matter on the nationally-run newspaper, The Times of Zambia.

But all this idyllic stuff came to an end. Eastern Europe, our biggest allies besides Cuba, toppled walls and dictators. The perestroika bug hit everyone – even in distant lands like Zambia – and the poor man, incredulous until the last moment, was replaced.


In came Chiluba! He quickly found out and declared that “power is sweet.” So sweet he could not fathom exiting after a paltry 10 years in office. So he tried to change the constitution to allow him a third term. Zambians said NO like only Zambians can. They got into their cars and hooted him out of office – literally.

You see, Zambians are known largely for being some of the most laid back people on earth. Passive is the word usually employed. They really put both “nice” and “easy going” into the dictionary. As a rule, they will take nonsense-on-steroids from their leaders and from each other. But then one magic day comes, and they are over all of their patience. Kenneth Kaunda, Fredrick Chiluba (that’s his shoe collection above) and Rupiah Banda found out just how resolute a people Zambians can be when, well, they have just had enough.

And so Zambia, the country known for having cultivated a benign dictator for 27 long years, have now made a name for themselves in Africa: we are now known for the regularity and relative ease with which we change presidents.

Now it’s 2014, 50 years down, and Zambia has to be one of the most frustrating places on the continent. We are annoyed by our country because its people are needlessly poor due to terrible management of resources by administration after administration. But then our country is equally wonderful to be in – a happy, heady place that’s so easy on the soul.


So this October, the country will be awash with green, red, orange and black. Everywhere you look, someone will have on their lovely attire made of the colours of the flag.  Little ones will go to school in their own little pieces. Most people will momentarily forget about a president who is not too well, the endless succession battles, runaway corruption in the corridors of power, and mines that make Europeans rich. The collective jaws that dropped at the nerve of investors, sometimes aptly termed infesters by the former Michael Sata, who celebrate our jubilee by banning the use of Zambian languages on mine premises will be picked of the floor, for the time being.

You know what’s great? It’s that the pride and love for the mother land will not have been engineered by the politicians. Nope, her people love Zed-warts and all! Happy 50th Zambia!

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.

And do not hinder them

We hardly think of children as agents of change. At the height of 1980s apartheid repression in South Africa, a group of activists did and gave them the tool of print.

The new antisemitism?

Stripped of its veneer of nuance, Noah Feldman’s essay in ‘Time’ is another attempt to silence opponents of the Israeli state by smearing them as anti-Jewish racists.