A visitor to Zambia who restricts themselves to parts of Lusaka could be forgiven for thinking that they had entered a vibrant and developing nation. As they stroll around newly built shopping malls, usually packed with shoppers and shops retailing the latest consumer goods in seemingly abundant quantity, it might seem as if Zambia has changed dramatically from the time of shortages and empty shops in the 1980s. Yet, as I discovered during a recent whirlwind trip that took me across different parts of Zambia, this is at best a façade. Vast amounts of money have been poured into the construction of malls across the country. In Lusaka alone, for instance, there are now an astonishing ten malls, emerging in a context where critical national infrastructure has been left to crumble. A closer look at these sprouting shopping malls raises enlightening and incriminating questions. Where are the goods from? How many of the items on sale have actually been made in Zambia? How many of the shops are Zambian-owned businesses? Very few is the answer, if any.

My travels around Zambia, as any regular road user would recognise, were not straightforward. Zambia’s main roads are in a terrible state. Among the worst affected are those in opposition strongholds such as the Livingstone-Sesheke road, Kafue-Monze road, Solwezi-Mwinilunga road and Mongu-Nkeyema motorway. As a landlocked country, the road network is critical to the imports and exports that sustain the economy, and that is why it is shocking that the government has allowed the Lusaka-Livingstone road – a pro-growth highway that leads to Zambia’s tourism capital and links the country to the markets of southern Africa – to deteriorate to the level it has reached today. I am focusing on road network deliberately because the rail network is in too poor a state to even mention, having suffered decades of sustained neglect and corrupt mismanagement. Major roads between Zambia’s cities are littered with potholes with wide sections missing and no prospects of an upgrade seemingly imminent. Motorists are often obliged to go off the road and into the bush as if nothing has changed in the terrain over the last 200 years. This should be a national embarrassment. And yet the state of Zambia’s roads is taken for granted. Has our nation really sunk so low that we now have no aspiration even to have a functioning transport system?

It is hard to say what is more dangerous: the country’s roads or its hospitals. Once upon a time, we had a health system and network of provincial hospitals that, though not without their problems, at least functioned and could provide a range of basic medical services. Now, outside of a few quite good hospitals in Lusaka, it seems that a patient is more likely to survive if they stay outside any public hospital than if they entered it. This is another testament to the decades of neglect in maintaining our national infrastructure. Hospitals are crumbling with insufficient staff, shortages of medicine and a lack of basic medical equipment. Again, this should cause an outrage, since it is something that affects all of us – that is apart from those who can fly abroad to receive medical treatment.

What is worse is that this is not a problem that is concentrated to one area of the country. It is a nationwide crisis. When I visited Lewanika General Hospital in Mongu, Solwezi General Hospital in Northwestern Province and Mansa General Hospital in Luapula, for instance, I found patients lying on the floor, with no beds, let alone doctors to attend to them or medicine to cure their basic ailments. These fellow citizens had come to these hospitals for treatment and yet they were being left to die. The collapse of provincial hospitals has wider consequences. Patients, if they can survive the journey on Zambia’s deplorable roads, now travel to Lusaka’s University Teaching Hospital (UTH) and consequently place an overwhelming burden on the resources of the nation’s highest health facility. This influx of patients who are unable to obtain medical care outside the capital city has reduced UTH to the kind of death trap that mirrors the provincial hospitals these patients were trying to avoid in the first place. Instead of saving lives, our public health facilities are now dispensing death en masse. Mortuaries, rather than operating theatres, are increasingly becoming the busiest parts of our public hospitals.

What frightens me even more is that a new generation of intellectually promising young Zambians is being educated simply to accept these conditions. The semi-derelict or dilapidated status of many of the country’s schools prepares our students for a lifetime among crumbling public physical infrastructure. Visitors to Hillcrest National Technical High School in Livingstone, for instance, could be forgiven for thinking that they were entering an abandoned building or a colonial outpost. At one time, Zambia’s schools were the envy of the region as the first post-independence government made strenuous efforts to create an education system in a country that had not previously possessed one. Founding president Kenneth Kaunda and his nationalist friends had a hard task as, even by colonial standards, Zambia’s education system was minimal. It would appear however that recent governments have sought to rival that record. School buildings are allowed to decay. Teachers are poorly paid, with many consequently indebted as they seek to cover for what the government is not providing. Science laboratories exist in name only, while institutional houses, where these are present, look like relics from another era. Public secondary schools that were built as recently as the 1970s are now in dire need of repair. For those schools that offer boarding services, pupils are packed into filthy and overcrowded dormitories and classrooms that are falling down around them. As a result of this unfavourable learning environment, our public schools are increasingly becoming deathbeds of reason, creativity and thought, churning out social delinquents who murder, rob, defile the children and are useful only to political parties as these organisations engage in a vicious struggle to acquire state power through the deadly language of violence and machetes, one that breaks all laws and ethical norms.

Those in power would do well to visit their old schools and see what has become of them. And they should do so soon because it is entirely possible that in a few years, many of these buildings will have collapsed. When I say ‘those in power’, I mean those in whose head and soul the pain of our pitiful state still strikes a chord. I do not mean those whose sole objective in public life is, in the words of former South African president Thabo Mbeki, ‘to acquire personal wealth by means both foul and fair, [and] whose measure of success is the amount of wealth they can accumulate and the ostentation they can achieve, which will convince all that they are a success, because, in a visible way, they are people of means… In this equation, the poverty of the masses of the people becomes a necessary condition for the enrichment of the few and the corruption of political power, the only possible condition for its exercise.’

The steady deterioration of our nation’s public schools suggests that within 20 to 30 years, pupils will be learning in the open air. Sadly, this decline in public physical infrastructure is not restricted to secondary schools. I did not have to travel far to see what has happened to the nation’s most prestigious university, the University of Zambia (UNZA). In many ways, UNZA is a microcosm of a national dream in ruins, for it has effectively become an upgraded secondary school. It is discretionary to continue calling the institution a university and miraculous that there is anything left to see at all. Many buildings that form the University of Zambia, both at Great East Road and Ridgeway campuses, look to be on the verge of collapse while some are engulfed by raw sewage from the institution’s long broken and effectively dysfunctional toilet system. When it rains, water pours into some buildings and the few resources we do possess are damaged irreparably. What is not damaged is hopelessly out-dated. The university’s main library, for instance, is like a museum of the 1970s, retaining as its latest collection books that were published when Kaunda was still a youth. Little, if anything, has been added to the collection since then. I am embarrassed when visitors come to Zambia and see what our main national university, which at one time was one of the leading higher education institutions in the region, has been reduced to. Given the hostility of our leaders to (expert) knowledge, one that explains the total absence of a research unit in the vitally important Ministry of Mines and Minerals Development, it is no wonder that many of our university intellectuals have been retooled to primarily function as in-house advisers and consultants of multinational corporations and the so-called ‘development partners’. The smartest stars among us, continuously ignored by their own government when it comes to the formulation and implementation of policy and strategy, have been unwittingly hitched to a foreign official agenda that advances the interests of those who fund their research efforts to the detriment of our own. The university is the site of making critical knowledge and it is a shame that there is minimal support for this project from national leaders who, when it is convenient to them, decry foreign influence.

The truth is that we are a nation in terminal decline, a rot that cuts across several decades and the efforts of successive governments and one that is likely to get worse because of population growth and the mounting bill for debt service. Many people are resigned to accepting the mediocrity of our lives and leadership and what I have described above as an unfortunate but ultimately unchangeable fact about Zambia. They insist that there is little we can do to change our plight and consequently refuse to rebel against the pitiful state of our sub-human existence. This represents another kind of poverty: the poverty of ambition. At a time when the country needs a new vision – inspired in part by the very decay in both the physical infrastructure and the social supper structure I demonstrate here – to enable us to transform ourselves or to create a new future by destroying the present and building in its place that which will be new, Zambia’s national politicians and educated population expend an astonishing amount of effort and energy on trivial issues, ignoring major and pressing questions of national importance: health, education and transport. The developmental state, one that provides for citizens and was so central to the significant gains that were recorded in the first few years following the achievement of independence, is on its way out, thanks to the crafty efforts of those who seek and stand to benefit from the absence of such a state. What is even more scary is that we have a cadre of leaders running the country or aspiring to lead it who have lost any desire to re-build the developmental state and to identify and mobilise the social forces capable of leading the struggle for renewal and transformation such as the working class youths from both our urban and rural social environments.

What is our national strategy and who devises it? What exactly are our priorities? What has happened to us, Zambians? How did we get here? What went wrong? Why weren’t the basic needs I identify above met from the borrowing that has effectively landed us into a debt trap? Where did all the money go? What can be done to improve our lot as a nation – and if the answer is nothing, then why does Zambia exist at all? What would the world miss about Zambia if we simply vanished off the face of the world tomorrow? Are we, as I fear, nothing more than free-floating consumers of what we do not produce and custodians of the mineral wealth extracted largely for the benefit of others elsewhere? If we are still here next year or in ten years’ time, what would we have done to change our fate as a people, to alter the existing reality and future of Zambia?

We have a long way to go to get to a better future, but we must go there! Most importantly, we have work to do, lots of work, if we are to change who we are today.  Tough times ahead – not that these and those before have been any better.

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