The thuggery of ruling Patriotic Front (PF) cadres never seems to cease and appears to grow more frequent as time passes. Media reports on their latest antics can be read or heard almost every week and produce much tutting and shaking of heads around dinner tables in Kabulonga, Ibex, Woodlands, Rhodes Park, Kalundu, Sunningdale, Longacres, Salama Park, Olympia, New Kasama, Roma and other low-density suburbs that are home to ‘middle class’ Zambians. The latest voice added to the chorus of criticism against the conduct of PF cadres is that of the Law Association of Zambia president Linda Kasonde.

Featuring on Hot FM’s Hot Seat programme on 25 January 2018, Kasonde, a consistent and brave advocate of order, constitutionalism and the rule of law, denounced the usurping of official government duties by PF cadres and called on President Edgar Lungu to curtail their undesirable behaviour before it is too late. Kasonde is not the first person to raise this concern. Her call, however, like those before it, will not find any receptive ears in the corridors of power. To state this point with certainty is not to slight the validity and significance of her appeal; it is simply to emphasise the idea that Kasonde and those who share her moralistic concerns, correct though they are, are missing two wider points that enable and sustain the unpleasant conduct of PF cadres and that explain Lungu’s reluctance to rein in on the thuggish actions of his supporters.

The first is that PF cadres represent the dominant class in Zambia today – the ‘lumpen’ poor and marginalised population, concentrated mainly in the urban areas of Lusaka and the Copperbelt, many of whom we constantly denounce as thugs who operate with impunity, depend on the use of violence as a survival tool, seize and divide up land, harass political opponents, and even attack police officers who dare to try and enforce the law (against them). Criticising and moralising about the behaviour of this group, which includes the jobless and impoverished crowds who gather in markets and bus stations, is neither enough nor helpful. What is needed is to understand where this group comes from, the historical conditions that created it or the causes of its behaviour and what sustains it, and why it is readily available for hire to any new leader or party that comes to power. To answer these questions properly, we must look back to the disastrous record of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) government in the 1990s. For though Lungu and the PF can be blamed for mobilising this group, they did not create it. It is the direct result of the failures of the structural adjustment policies of the MMD government in the 1990s when the effective collapse of various sectors of the economy left many of today’s much-derided cadres, who were born during this period, without a future.

The failure of subsequent administrations in the early 2000s to provide decent formal education and economic opportunities unleashed or added new numbers to this broad ‘lumpen’ class and created a situation where this segment of the population knows neither of these things, has no prospects beyond a daily struggle to survive and is consequently not bound by middle class norms and values. These are the fellow citizens whom we contemptuously call ‘cadres’ today. They now constitute a majority in Zambia and their political weight is clearly evident at election time. Michael Sata and the PF relied on this group, both in Lusaka and on the Copperbelt, to win power. Since the PF’s election in 2011, and especially after Lungu’s election in 2015, this group has felt like it is in power and has the authority to act out its values and beliefs. Unless the few Zambians who are sufficiently educated and are involved in genuine systemic and structural employment find a way of improving the lot of this group, which has been reduced to a heap of undiluted poverty, mass unemployment and extreme inequalities, and that is eking out a miserable living from the street or the land, the constant friction between the values of these two classes will persist.

In this regard, the complaints from the middle class about the behaviour of PF cadres are missing the point. This dominant group, to which the violent PF cadres belong, is here to stay. Even if President Lungu goes, it will still exist. If Zambia’s economic woes continue, its members will only increase and will be available for hire by future populist and unprincipled politicians. One tragedy of their support for the PF is that most will get little in return. Instead of decrying and denouncing the conduct of this group, we need effective, proactive and sustainable policies to address the socio-economic conditions that created and sustain it, and to offer it something tangible and better. Appeals to middle class concepts like ‘respect for the rule of law’, ‘order’, ‘democracy’, and ‘respect for the constitution’, or any semblance of morality, especially in the public domain and in politics, are unlikely to impinge much on the collective consciousness of this underprivileged class. This group lives survivalist lives. What matters to its members is to ‘put food on the table’ by any means necessary. In its world, nothing is fixed, certain, moral, stable or durable – classic attributes of the life that a lumpen leads. 

The second point is that PF cadres, in much of their behaviour, are simply acting out on a small scale the politics and behaviour of the ruling elites. Seizing plots of land, for instance, is much like the wholesale looting of public resources taking place at higher levels and government ministers operating outside the law. Beating up political rivals, harassing critics of the government or curtailing the rights of those with contrary views amounts to giving expression to President Lungu’s regular vow to fall like a tonne of bricks on his opponents. This does not excuse the behaviour of PF cadres but helps explain where it comes from. What is frightening is that many individuals from the dominant lumpen class mentioned above have begun moving into national leadership positions or asserting themselves as candidates for elective public office. The most notable representatives of this group today include Special Assistant to the President for Political Affairs Kaizer Zulu, Copperbelt Province Minister Bowman Lusambo, Minister of Lands Jean Kapata, Minister of Home Affairs Stephen Kampyongo and several lawmakers, both from the opposition and ruling party. Following their accent to power, these new leaders will be hard to dislodge, as they have the enthusiastic support of the lawless cadres who see some of their own in power. For the same reason, Lungu will not denounce this group as he draws his support from it and is apprehensive of losing its backing, which would see the PF swiftly removed from power, suffering the same fate as the MMD. Lungu’s reluctance to condemn the thuggery of PF cadres should be understood in this context: he exists and thrives off similar acts of impunity. The weakening of state institutions, exacerbated by Lungu’s tolerance for the violent behaviour of PF cadres, shows his contempt for these institutions in the first place.

It is worth noting that hoisted onto the mass of human poverty mentioned in the first point is a superficial colonial liberal political structure – a legislature, executive and parliament. These structures, apart from serving as the infrastructure that protects largely foreign private property, have very little real meaning to the everyday lives of the majority of Zambians. They are, however, a source of power and an exit route out of poverty for the tiny middle class that finds its way into these structures, by whatever illiberal means possible. Zambia is an impoverished country, materially and culturally, not withstanding its natural wealth. We Zambians have absolutely no control whatsoever over our country’s economic life. Foreign capital reigns supreme. The tiny middle class that appears to be well off survives mainly by getting into criminal relationships with foreign capital. In such social and economic circumstances, professions are a means to find a job, for survival, not to advance the so-called ‘noble ideals’ of the profession. The middle class inevitably mimics the survival behaviours of the larger or dominant part of the population, described above.

This is a rough sketch of the historical context in which Lungu was born, exists and thrives. He embodies some of the worst attributes of lumpen behaviour fit to survive in this jungle of mass poverty. His refusal to admonish the PF cadres for their appalling behaviour stems from the point that he is their leader par excellence. A look at his personal life including as a lawyer, how he ascended to the leadership position of the PF, how he consolidated his power over the party (including how he has dealt with those that supported him in his quest for power), how he has terrorised the country including the critical media, how he won the 2015 and 2016 elections, how he has contemptuously disregarded the Constitution on several occasions, how he treated opposition United Party for National Development leader Hakainde Hichilema, and so on, all confirm how well he has mastered the behaviour and art of survival of the mass of the Zambian population which is, by and large, impoverished, lumpen and prone to chaos. Over the last three years, Lungu has repeatedly shown that no morality other than the behaviour conducive to his survival is permissible, in his political life. He can easily intimidate judges of any court to pass a favourable verdict when it matters most to him. Or he can ignore the courts. He has already warned that he would not hesitate to deploy chaos to ensure that he stands again in 2021.

The point is that asking Lungu to condemn PF cadres for exhibiting behaviour that he himself exemplifies is futile. What is needed is to uncover the sectional interests that sustain Lungu in power, and to patiently, persistently and constantly expose the full character and mode of governing of Lungu and the self-serving elite class at the heart of public life, including those who occupy key positions in several state institutions and are complicit in sustaining our state of backward poverty and extreme cultural impoverishment. Focusing on isolated incidents or Lungu alone will not help us much. The broad lumpen masses must be educated about the dead-end character of our socio-economic life and the kind of politics this breeds.

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