The swearing-in of Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND,) as Zambia’s new president has ushered an unstoppable wave of renewed hope not only in Zambia but throughout the rest of the continent as the country is being hailed for a smooth ‘democratic’ transition of power. And this new hope has exculpated any iota of political and socio-economic inertia that may have been perceived to be prevalent among Zambians during the calamitous neoliberal stint of outgoing president Edgar Lungu and others who preceded him (starting with Frederick Chiluba in 1991).
Electoral Euphoria in Zambia
The masses in Zambia, with the country’s young population at the forefront, valiantly mustered their political will to defend their electoral choices as Lungu was democratically ousted from power (a largely free and transparent election), which by all standards is excellently remarkable. Elections are sacrosanct and as such, the outcome of elections in what the arena of public opinion (locally and globally) deems fair must be respected. Elections are the only viable mechanism available to us to publicly determine on a large scale the will of the people regarding the trajectory of their political economy.
Avenues to appeal electoral outcomes through the Constitutional Court are available as is the norm in ‘democratic’ countries, but oftentimes such appeals are predicated on flimsy arguments. Or bitterness towards an electoral loss. Proximity to state power and resources is inherently fought for by elites across the globe and it is understandable for such political elites who lose elections to harbour feelings of bitterness. The electoral euphoria in Zambia is palpable and has been rightly radiated throughout all corners of the world. Albeit for a plethora of reasons.
The electoral triumph of Hakainde Hichilema (who won with a landslide victory – 2.8 million votes ahead of Edgar Lungu’s 1.8 million votes, with a voter turnout of 70.95%) has been signalled as a new era for Zambia, although it is clear Hichilema will strive to preserve the existing base and superstructure of official, bourgeois, liberal democracy. As dictated by the whims of [both local and foreign] private capital.
Zambia’s election is laudable on these grounds – “smooth transition” of power creating room for servant leadership, not entertaining “lawlessness and corruption and other cancers that threaten good governance”, the abhorrence of third term limits by “constitutional societies”, the victory of love at the community level, and that the mandate of the people is the only way to “curb executocracy” [excessive and repressive use of presidential/executive powers].
Zambia’s Postcolonial Capitalist Contradictions
But when one looks at the neoliberal path relentlessly pursued by Zambia since the introduction of structural adjustment programs in the early 1990s (with the attendant multi-party politics), Zambia ceased producing leaders who prioritize the welfare of the poor majority [the working class and the peasantry]. Instead, Zambian leaders have been subservient to private foreign capital – necessitating more IMF and World Bank loans and greater inequality. Where civilians have responded to the harshness of austerity measures, they have been met with brute force (as Edgar Lungu continuously clamped down on fundamental freedoms).
With the triumphant Western, capitalist, and liberal ideologies (in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s fall) taking root in Africa, a new “democratic dispensation” was heralded – one where privatization, trade liberalization, austerity, budget cuts, and reduced public spending became the new order of Zambia’s political economy. Kenneth Kaunda’s nationalization programs, particularly mines and other crucial industries, were reversed in favour of privatization.
And as Zambia attempted to steady the tempests of a postcolonial society, they increasingly turned towards the IMF and World Bank for loans. Through the passage of time, the political and economic dependence on foreign powers means that Zambia is now saddled with heavy debt burdens at the hands of western white capital, as well as Chinese capital. It is the latter that has been a nuisance to the welfare of Zambians of late.
Multinational companies, who benefited immensely from the privatization programs, are ripping Zambia into smithereens. Profits from mineral resources are privatized by private capital and there is nothing left for social spending by the state. They extract all the profits out of the Southern African nation to offshore accounts in different tax havens around the world. Both the West and the East are effectively the owners of Zambia’s most precious metal – copper. Tax avoidance and abysmal labour wages define the behavior of multinationals in Zambia.
Neoliberalism’s Grip on Zambia – Private Capital First, Zambians Later
Zambia’s copper, taken away from its original owners and beneficiaries by private capital, is largely dominated by these multinational firms – Barrick Lumwana of Canada’s Barrick Gold, FQM Kansanshi of Canada’s First Quantum, Mopani of Switzerland’s Glencore, and Konkola Copper Mines of the UK’s Vedanta.
Under the false assumption of “trickle-down” economics that informs neoliberalism (the false belief that privatization and the reduced role of the state in service provision will automatically lead to a ‘trickle-down’ of employment and better economic performance), copper profits have been privatized by multinationals from the West and China.
The working class and the peasantry are left to resign to their miserable fate. This is what Lungu, Sata, and other preceding neoliberal presidents believe(d) in. The leaders have become agents of foreign capital, neglecting their inalienable prerogative as the primary guarantors of life. Which is as regrettable as it is tragic. In Zambia, the state has been overtly hijacked by private capital.
Hakainde Hichilema’s Ideological Premise – Neoliberalism and “Messianic” Politics
But back to UNDP’s Hakainde Hichilema. He does not differ ideologically from the Patriotic Front’s (PF) Edgar Lungu. Both firmly believe in neoliberalism as the panacea to Zambia’s perennial economic woes that have only worsened inequality while pushing the majority to the precipice of destitution (especially in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic).
At either side of the political divide, Hichilema and Lungu are united in similar neoliberal views about Zambia’s political economy – a country struggling to free itself from the tentacles of the IMF as the gatekeeper of foreign private capital.
Both are in strong alliances with big capital – the difference being Hichilema has been sanitized by the mainstream Western media coverage and the ephemeral social media. On social media, Hichilema has branded himself as a benevolent elite ready to lead the people of Zambia to redemption – what may be rightly termed individualistic “messianic politics” in which a neoliberal elite appears to usher a revolutionary era of class struggle to achieve egalitarian conditions for everyone in the country.
And oftentimes, these “messiahs” are neoliberal elites who seek proximity to state power and capital as much as the opponents they claim are oppressive. (Ditto Nelson Chamisa in Zimbabwe, Mmusi Maimane in South Africa.)
Hichilema himself is a neoliberal to the core. He is Zambia’s president coming from a background of extreme [private] wealth. He was one of the businessmen who benefitted during the privatization drive of the 1990s as neoliberalism was engulfing the whole world (the culprits being the IMF and the World Bank). He has “close ties with Western investors”.
Hichilema Will Continue Being A Faithful Neoliberal
With this context, Hakainde Hichilema is obviously averse to the self-organization of the working class and the peasantry – one can only expect more neoliberalism in Zambia since Hichilema is a “business tycoon, formerly the CEO and co-owner of finance consultancy firms advising the mining companies”. These are the same mining companies impoverishing millions of Zambians by privatizing profits while socializing the adverse poverty and environmental degradation.
Even though it is commendable that the Zambians turned out in their large numbers to exercise their mandate, they are caught between a rock and a hard place (even though it may not seem immediate to the majority). The only electoral options they have are hardcore neoliberals who have done little to ensure Zambia is not a neocolonial punching bag. It is safe to say that it is never prudent – politically, economically, and socially – for a millionaire/billionaire to be a president. And this is because they are primarily concerned with playing the “messianic” role to court private capital.
The beguiling social media feeds and positive Western media coverage are intended to fit perfectly within the discourse of neoliberalism for the undisturbed alliance between private capital and the state – that for “investors” [read looters] to come, there must be the “rule of law” and the almost sacrosanct respect for private property. Hichilema’s promises to reduce corruption and promote transparency are at best superficial.
Hichilema’s UNPD is doing all this (public relations on social media and mainstream media) for Western [and Eastern] approval and validation – an “investor-friendly/business-friendly climate,” so they say. But what about the people; the very same people who have voted you into power? It becomes evident beyond reproach that Hakainde Hichilema will not genuinely transform Zambian society to achieve equal opportunities for all. He is likely to take the country further down the incorrigible neoliberal path, as inequality worsens. Where he thinks his policies are helpful, they will mostly serve capital while at their core they are inhumane.
Few Convenient Changes, But Loyalty to Private Capital Stands Strong
The new president of Zambia will most likely tweak a few things inherited from Lungu’s government for that veneer of being popular and appearing friendly to the capital. He will make changes as convenience demands.
As a person whose wealth is directly built on neoliberalism, Hichilema will make changes that elicit positive Western media coverage (and likes on social media) and such changes will fortify his status as Zambia’s “messiah.” Under Lungu, Zambia became the first country to default on IMF debt repayment (such as slavery, just as other global south countries dealing with the excesses of neocolonial domination).
Lungu’s neoliberal moves to the economy were egregious – under his leadership, Zambia took insurmountable loans from China for grand infrastructural projects (the Kafue Gorge hydroelectric dam and a new-looking Kenneth Kaunda International Airport). The strings attached obviously mean that Chinese private capital is accountable to no one in Zambia. To rub salt to the injury, Zambia needs a loan to “service more than $12 billion in external debt.”
Mining companies were given “massive concessions and perks” under the Lungu administration. With such tax breaks, state coffers were drastically reduced, directly inducing a cut in social spending on public services – creating unbearable conditions of existence for the Zambian working class and peasantry.
Hakainde Hichilema’s neoliberal, messianic brand of bourgeois democracy is premised on saving Zambia from the prison called the IMF – his plan is to woo the IMF for favorable conditions as the country continues with negotiations on debt restructuring. As regards the better liberal – the best friend of capital – Hichilema seeks to outdo Lungu by even granting more concessions to mining companies. His plan also revolves around “a moratorium on borrowing” and stopping “access to credit facilities for consumption.” This is neoliberal talk – trade liberalization and austerity.
Hope for Left-Leaning Parties In Countering Hichilema’s Neoliberalism in Zambia
Fred M’membe, the former editor at The Post (now The Mast), is now the leader of a nascent left-leaning political party in Zambia – the Socialist Party – and although he respects the will of Zambian people, he remains skeptical regarding Hichilema’s credentials. He asserts that Zambia will slide down further the abyss of neoliberal capitalism.
After the election, he remarked, “suffering of the Zambian masses will not come to an end with the continuation of the neoliberal capitalist path, ” adding some exhortation to his supporters, “our responsibilities as revolutionaries and Zambians is to (now) keep doing our part to build that more just, more fair, more humane Zambia we seek, we struggled for.” He garnered 16,379 votes, coming fifth in a presidential race contested by 16 candidates.
A glimmer of hope still shines for Zambia, but its neoliberal outlook has done it more harm than good. It is one of the classical cases as regards the indelible damage caused by neoliberal structural adjustment programs. M’membe knows that the genuine transformation of Zambian society, despite all the messianic tendencies of Hichilema, will only come with the overhaul of neoliberal capitalism.
He perfectly understands that Zambia’s poverty – Africa’s poverty – is largely caused by unending neocolonial domination and weak leaders who are incapable of countering such machinations.
To him, neoliberal policies “are creating an enormous time bomb in our country. We shouldn’t resign ourselves to hunger, unemployment, squalor, disease, ignorance, hopelessness, and despair. Struggling for a better Zambia means, in part, to build a better Zambia.”
Hichilema promises to reverse this – but history shows us neoliberalism values private profits over human lives. If the new Zambian leadership is to make good for its people, the collusion between state and private capital must be thoroughly dismantled. Constantly changing neoliberals as presidents put Zambia at the risk of “electoral autocracy”.