Across 2020, Zambia experienced no shortage of disappointments and setbacks. Yet there are some individuals whose courage and principles made them inspiring figures in the political landscape last year. In this article and the next, I list two sets of citizens of 2020: those who through their actions offered hope to Zambians and those who were huge disappointments. Today, I focus on those Zambians who inspired public trust. Next week, it will be the turn of the individuals and institutions who disappointed.
Zambia suffers from a deficit of genuine, consistent heroes. Perhaps there are many unsung heroes whose quiet and diligent work in our own communities goes unnoticed. I apologise for overlooking them in this article. The people I discuss below are drawn from those in public life whose actions are reported in the mainstream media – those who try to contribute positively to our political life and are willing to risk the ire and repression of the authorities in defence of the public good or what is just, ethical and principled. The shortness of the list, which is not put in any order of importance, speaks for itself and points to the great absence of commendable figures in our public life who inspire.
Health workers who fought Covid-19
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease caused massive carnage to both human life and national economies throughout the world. In Zambia, the impact was much lower than it could have been, thanks in part to the heroic work of public health workers including doctors, clinicians, nurses, radiographers, cleaners, laboratory scientists, physicians, field operatives and all the private and NGO-run health facilities. Confronted with a deadly and infectious disease that had no cure, and generally deprived of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), these workers risked their lives and those of their loved ones to attend to the dying and the infected. In doing so, they overlooked the knowledge that the consequences of being infected may be fatal and rose above the frustration of operating in a run-down healthcare system that lacks sufficient laboratories and the medical equipment they need to save life. Some of them even lost their lives in the course of looking after infected patients.
While these ordinary health professionals were undertaking great acts of sacrifice, they had to endure the agony of watching politicians in government looting from people gasping for breath by way of stealing Covid-19 donations, including money meant for PPE, ventilators, facemasks and gas cylinders. There is no greater proof of the desire and sincerity by health workers to save human life than their inspiring actions during the Covid-19 pandemic. Numerically, they may seem like a tiny fraction, but they became the saviours of the whole country. We need a day of recognition of heath sector workers, if only to say, ‘Thank you for being there for us.’
It is also worth noting that we are living in a period in which the state has been forced to withdraw from the provision of medical services, leaving much of this responsibility to private entities. Covid-19 has exposed the absurdity of this thinking and shown why we must instead make increased investment in public healthcare. In one sense, the pandemic is a leveller as the political elite cannot go abroad for medical treatment. It forced them to stay home and endure the same healthcare system that they have neglected for years. Will they learn the lesson?
The bush protesters
In June 2020, and in compliance with the Public Order Act, eleven activists, mainly artists, in Lusaka gave a seven-day notice to the police of plans to hold a peaceful protest against the worsening erosion of civil liberties and the rising levels of corruption in government. The youths included Chama Fumba, popularly known as Pilato, Muleta Kapatiso, Namwawa Mumbi, Kelvin Mukuka and Brian Bwembya alias B-Flow. Others were Wezi Mhone, Mumba Kanyanta, Mwiza Zulu, Timothy Zulu, Mubita Nawa and Maiko Zulu. As per Zambia’s increasingly authoritarian character, the police rejected the planned protest on unspecified security concerns, but the youths vowed to proceed with their plans. In response, Minister of Home Affairs Stephen Kampyongo ordered Inspector General of police Kakoma Kanganja to “activate your troops and deal with non-law-abiding citizens accordingly”. Tutwa Ngulube, the Government Deputy Chief Whip and Kabwe Central PF MP, urged the police to deal with the protesters forcefully, and “break their bones if possible”.
On the day of the protest, armed riot police patrolled the streets of Lusaka, hunting for activists. Defiant, the placard-carrying activists retreated to an undisclosed location in the bush, from which they broadcast their demand for change over Facebook Live. Their e-protest lasted 43 minutes and was watched by at least 30,000 people – a wider audience than they could have attracted in a physical protest, even without Covid-19 restrictions. As well as outsmarting the police and bringing global attention to the restrictions on public assemblies in Zambia, the bush protesters demonstrated the capacity of social media to challenge authoritarian behaviour. They also taught us that it is no longer a valid defence that we cannot protest injustice and evil because we cannot meet physically.
We are past the phase in history where classical physical forms were the only effective means of organising people and standing up to authoritarian regimes. Society has produced resources and means which have made obsolete old forms of organisation and resistance. The fact that we are failing to let the Edgar Lungus of this world know that they are hurting us is also our own fault. We are in a historic period but are stuck in the old ways of doing things – no wonder opposition parties are yet to hold their conventions. We must think creatively and devise new ways of organising and breaking the barriers erected by those committed to strangling freedom and democracy. As the bush protesters showed us, there are many safe but effective ways of delivering public calls for change beyond the traditional forms of protest.
Magistrate Belita Nkonde
In December 2020, Kitwe Magistrate Belita Nkonde acquitted 21 members of the Democratic Party who had been arrested by the police in January last year. The opposition members, led by party spokesperson Judith Kabemba, had been charged with unlawful assembly after they were found at a private house where they had gathered to plan for a funeral of a local leader who had died in Kalulushi. In dismissing the case, Magistrate Nkonde argued that the authorities did not provide evidence that the DP members met with the intention to commit a crime. In a country where it is becoming almost impossible for opposition parties and civil society to exercise their right to public assembly without obstruction from the police, Magistrate Nkonde’s decision should be celebrated. It serves as a clear example of principled conduct on the bench and illustrates the basic principle that should be used in processing political rights in the Constitution: fidelity to the provisions of the law, not susceptibility to political or financial considerations.
The right to public assembly – which inherently includes freedom of expression since people meet to talk and exchange ideas – is essential to political participation in any functioning democracy. One hopes that Zambia’s superior courts would one day build on Magistrate Nkonde’s decision and develop the courage to outlaw Section 5 of the Public Order Act which limits the right to public assembly “[w]here it is not possible for the Police to adequately police any particular public meeting”. In practice, and as once argued by Professor Muna Ndulo, this provision gives unfettered discretion to the police to determine whether or not an assembly, meeting or procession should take place. The inability to police a public meeting should never in itself be a sufficient justification for restricting public assemblies; there must be objective criteria to avoid abuse, arbitrary enforcement and subjectivity.
UPND and Independent MPs
It is not very often that Zambia’s National Assembly, well-known for its supine character, acts in defence of public interest. Yet this is exactly what members of parliament from the main opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) and a significant number of independents did in 2020 when they rose to oppose the widely condemned Constitution of Zambia (Amendment) Bill No. 10 of 2019, one that threatened to undermine institutions that provide the long-term hope for democratic consolidation, such as elections, the judiciary and the Constitution.
For instance, the Bill sought to: remove the requirement for the President to hand over power to the Speaker of the National Assembly in an event where his or her re-election is petitioned; remove parliament’s oversight role over the executive in relation to debt contraction and signing of international treaties; relax the procedure for removing judges in ways that would both make it easier for the president to dismiss them and undermine the independence and impartiality of the judiciary; give power to a judge or tribunal to disqualify for unstated grounds a candidate seeking nomination to any elective office; and remove constitutional provisions on the size of, and qualifications for election to, the National Assembly, transferring the power to decide many of these aspects to parliament.
After a civil society-led legal challenge against it was dismissed by the courts of law, the Bill was in October 2020 defeated in the 167-member National Assembly where the PF failed to raise the two-thirds majority required to pass it into law. Key to this outcome was the principled opposition of UPND (minus Geoffrey Lungwangwa and Teddy Kasonso, who supported the proposed legislation) and independent MPs who remained resilient to bribery over this crucial matter. It is to them that Zambians owe a great deal of gratitude for saving the country from the worst constitutional amendment since the achievement of independence in 1964, one that was primarily designed to consolidate the ruling Patriotic Front (PF)’s stay in power and make it effectively impossible to remove President Lungu from office.
Retired Archbishop of Lusaka Diocese Telesphore Mpundu is a dignified individual who exercises his constitutional rights and among a very small number of the Zambian clergy who are incapable of finding peace in an environment in which human suffering is manufactured by politicians. Throughout 2020, Mpundu, as he has consistently done throughout his public life, raised his voice to speak out against human rights violations, injustice, abuse, corruption in government, the shrinking democratic space and the indifference of the country’s political leadership to the plight of many. It is as if he is spurred by the knowledge that to be silent in the face of these human-made sins is to actively participate in sustaining the status quo.
In addition to bearing sympathy for those among us who find his ability to speak out on issues of public interest unbearable – he surely knows that we live in a society with a disturbing reverence for authority, a society that has become, in effect, a danger to itself – the man of God refused to be bullied into silence by the PF’s familiar tactic of accusing anyone who criticises the government, however well intentioned, of being an opposition supporter. A highly principled individual with the strength of convictions respected even by his adversaries, Mpundu is an inspiring example of the kind of clergy we need in the Zambia we should move towards – a country that is replete with people with a deep sense of responsibility and a conscience that is restless in the face of injustice, human rights violations and the poverty that surround them.
In 2020, Simon Zukas turned 95, but even old age could not stop him from raising his voice on many issues of greater public interest and creating a structure to contribute to protecting the good things that we all must preserve. Throughout the year, Zukas spoke out on matters of national importance, stressing the need to fight corruption, uphold peace, promote national unity, support media freedom, protect democracy, enhance judicial integrity, improve the delivery of social services, reduce (rural) poverty, and bring down the high rate of unemployment.
Worried about the negative turn that the country has taken, and showing that age is not a disqualification to start something new, he also joined hands with other concerned citizens to form the appropriately named ‘Our Civic Duty Association’, an organisation that seeks to foster good governance, encourage effective management of the economy, and serve as a platform for robust discussion of the most salient policy and national issues. He demonstrated that one cannot retire from the struggle for justice, and that wherever there is injustice, we must go with our fighting gloves to that site.
From his youth into his adulthood and old age, Zukas has been a consistent presence on causes that advance human freedom. In 2020, he reinforced his position as one of Zambia’s most admirable and honourable figures with a genuine commitment to progress, democracy and equality, all rooted in deep principles and identification with the underdog.
Usually, Attorney-Generals, like former presidents, retire from public life once they are out of government, choosing to lead a quiet and comfortable life, even when many around them can barely survive and when their country is disintegrating, or to use their experiences in government for commercial purposes. Former Attorney-General Musa Mwenye has broken with this tradition. Throughout 2020, he bravely raised his voice against growing levels of political intolerance and corruption in government, repeatedly renewing his call for a lifestyle audit among public officials. He also took up politically sensitive cases in instances where few competent lawyers were willing to do so.
Mwenye represents, more than anything else, the hope that no matter how rotten a system is, it always produces its own warriors against itself. Immersed in sea of government kakistocracy, democratic backslides, huge public debt, extreme levels of poverty and inequality, death and infections, it is easy to lose hope and be pessimistic about Zambia because we are not seeing many green shoots growing from the debris. Mwenye exemplifies a negation of the rotten conditions that characterise today’s Zambia and is among the honourable ex-government senior officials who refuse to hide what they think, are fighting to make our homeland free and against those who rob the people of their rights, life and dignity.
In a context where the majority of us are spectators, watching these people taking extremely dangerous risks to themselves and to their families, we will do well to celebrate forthright and upstanding citizens like Mwenye. Amidst the detritus, they represent not only what is green and fresh in us but also a bridge between two extremes: a rotten present and the possibility of a good future. It would be nice to have more people like Mwenye who speak truth to power, but Zambians like him should perhaps comfort themselves in the knowledge that they are, in fact, enough. They are enough because at its core, their job is very simple. It is to be the pin head of the needle of justice and good hygiene on governance. It is to give courage to those who are scared. The Musa Mwenyes do not have to be too many for this role – they are enough. The cowards will join them eventually; they always do.
Fred M’membe and Cosmas Musumali
In 2020, Socialist Party president Fred M’membe and his vice, Cosmas Musumali, demonstrated that they are serious with their political outfit when they launched their party’s manifesto in which they argue that Zambia requires systemic and structural change that entails uprooting the engines or factories of our crises of inequality, mass poverty and acute unemployment. Throughout last year, the duo argued that untrammelled and unregulated capitalism has created a set of corruptible leaders who have betrayed Zambia to foreign commercial interests, who pawn off the country for a few trinkets, who accumulate through brazen theft of public resources and massive sale of Zambian assets to so-called investors, and who strut around with self-importance when they are nothing but disposable playthings of even bigger global kleptocrats. It has also, they insisted, created ‘neoliberal’ institutions like the judiciary, the executive and parliament which, apart from serving as the infrastructure that protects largely foreign private property, have very little real meaning to the lives of the majority of Zambians. These structures, however, are a source of power and an exit route out of poverty for the tiny lumpen middle class that finds its way into them, by whatever illiberal means possible.
Following the launch of their manifesto in June 2020, the pair then embarked on a quiet but sustained national mobilisation campaign, mainly in rural areas and impoverished high-density urban centres, aimed at publicising their policy appeals and recruiting members ahead of the 2021 election. M’membe and Musumali are inspiring figures in three main ways. The first is the choice of the political line they have taken. Their faith in the possibility to organise society on the basis of socialist values, especially in a time where many seem to be sceptical about the appeal of socialism, is truly courageous. It is worth noting that the common criticism that socialism is outdated overlooks the point that it was born out of capitalism, so it is more modern than the capitalist ideology. That criticism also ignores the evidence that a majority of countries in the European Union, for instance, have socialist parties in government either alone or in association with others, so there must be something good about socialism. Zambians cannot claim they have not been offered an opportunity to rethink the political system that has brought us to where we are. If we do not root ourselves in the totality of our situation, we perpetuate ourselves in our own backwardness.
The second is that both M’membe and Musumali are highly educated individuals who had no need to enter mainstream politics, but have a fairly better understanding of the key drivers of Zambia’s crises, how to tackle them and free ourselves from the inferior status of being the skunk of the earth and an extremely profitable contraption of foreign capital. Both are not uneducated lumpens, but people who are well trained in bourgeois academic institutions and have succeeded in their professional lives. M’membe’s newspaper business may have been forcibly shut down but he could have led a quiet and comfortable life elsewhere while Musumali is an accomplished health economist who quit a lucrative international job to pursue a political career. Their entry into active politics is likely to inspire other educated Zambians to emulate them. For a long time, the educated elites have shunned politics, leaving the practice of it to the likes of Stephen Kampyongo, Bowman Lusambo and others who should be nowhere near the leadership of any country that seeks to take itself towards progress.
The third is the conscious choice of constituencies or social classes M’membe and Musumali represent: the vast unredeemed and impoverished rural and urban populations who have been left behind by colonial and extractive capitalism. The location of their offices, Garden Compound, an impoverished slum in the capital, represents an attempt to understand, first-hand, the everyday lived realities of ordinary Zambians and to formulate responses that are informed by the actual material conditions of life of this social class they think needs attention. It is likely that the 2021 election may come too soon for M’membe – whom some Zambians have not forgiven for his closed publication’s uncritical attitude towards the Michael Sata presidency and divisive remarks about Tonga speakers – and Musumali, but it would be difficult to ignore the economic policies they are advancing and the kind of politics they are modelling. Whatever prejudices we may harbour towards M’membe and Musumali, we should take them seriously because they are offering us a real alternative to the ‘neoliberal’ or highly corrupted politically dominated policies of the current mainstream political parties and are showing that another civilisation, different and separate from the civilisation of private greed and profit, is possible.
The year 2020 was very challenging for UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema, but he emerged with his leadership credentials greatly enhanced. First, he provided decisive leadership to his party lawmakers in opposing the infamous Bill 10. This was not an easy feat since he was pitted against the deeper pockets of the governing PF, who, in an effort to raise the two-thirds majority required to make any changes to Zambia’s constitution, reportedly offered bribes to those opposition and independent MPs who are susceptible to venality. History will remember Hichilema for having made his contribution to ensuring that the evil intentions of those in power, expressed in Bill 10, were defeated.
Second, he rode against the tide of virulent attacks from the government, fellow opposition leaders like Edith Nawakwi and Sean Tembo and indeed the ruling party to hold the UPND together and to reinforce his position as a formidable challenger to the PF in this year’s election. Given the many factors that militate against opposition parties in Zambia – lack of institutionalisation, scarce resources, weak party machinery and continued obstruction from the ruling elites – Hichilema deserves credit for effectively running the UPND over the past 15 years, often at huge personal sacrifices. One has to simply imagine a Zambia without the UPND over the last five years to appreciate why he should be saluted. If we did not have the UPND, we would be a de facto one-party state by now.
As he had done over many years, Hichilema in 2020 helped uphold Zambia’s democracy and create some level of duality in the political system. Whether we like his politics, we should admire Hichilema’s consistency and bravery, single-minded focus on his vision and refusal to be derailed by political opponents. He has demonstrated that if one wants to achieve anything in life, they must be prepared to lose anything. The UPND leader has put his life on the line in pursuit of what he believes will be achieved if he becomes president.
Most Zambians have come to know Rueben Lifuka, who retired as chapter president of Transparency International Zambia (TIZ) in November 2020, as one of the country’s most consistent voices against corruption and bad governance and a widely respected civil society leader who radiates integrity and a genuine commitment towards the promotion of the public good. Last year, Lifuka did nothing to harm this reputation. With the zeal of a religious fanatic, he spoke truth to power and never hesitated to explain how costly and deadly corruption is and to stress the point that we, as a country, are where we are partly because of our failure to tackle corruption in government. As if driven by the conviction that honour is a major principle that we all must aspire to in life, Lifuka’s advocacy nurtured and fostered public understanding of the idea that we are larger than the material things we acquire around us.
Taking principled positions on public issues in a society that is, on the whole, rotten to the core and refusing to suck up to those in power is a lonely undertaking, one that comes at a huge cost to oneself. As one senior government official recently told a former TIZ executive director, “Lifuka would have been a rich man by now if he had chosen to work with us instead of attacking us daily”. It is very difficult to express oneself in Zambia without inviting trouble on self. The former TIZ president has commendably shown that there are other things that should make us happy beyond the accumulation by whatever means of material progress represented by luxury cars, jobs in the diplomatic service, or positive bank balances. These include a set of values, or a code to live by, and a force of character.
One hopes that Lifuka’s successor would build on his record and that the positive influence of TIZ on public affairs would not decline as it did when he previously left the role.
When Denny Kalyalya was dismissed from his role as Bank of Zambia Governor, he had one thing to fall back on: his honour. In 2020, as Covid-19 steadily removed the covers over Zambia’s previously existing socio-economic crises, the precarious state of the economy and the serial incompetence of the country’s leadership were laid bare. While government officials blamed the coronavirus for Zambia’s economic and health crises, Kalyalya pointed to wastefulness in public expenditure and the failure to cut the fiscal deficit amid ballooning debt and falling exchange reserves as the key drivers.
For his constant warnings on the grave state of the economy, he was dismissed in the most humiliating and ruthless manner. His candour was an act of honour even in a very privileged position where he could have easily saved his job by lying. At a critical moment, he instead chose to be professional, illustrating the need for those in key public positions to have limits to their tolerance, which when crossed should make them prepared to pay the ultimate professional sacrifice. It does not matter how immersed we are in any system: there must be a line that we should not allow anyone to cross, especially if what we are being asked to do betrays public interest.
Throughout 2020, prominent Lusaka lawyer John Sangwa enhanced his growing profile as a widely respected advocate of good governance and constitutionalism by placing his head above the parapet to hold the executive and judiciary to account. After the Constitutional Court issued a series of poor judgements that cemented its public reputation as Zambia’s worst court, Sangwa restated his 2016 position that President Lungu had ‘packed the court’ when he appointed six individuals who did not meet the constitutional requirements to serve as judges on the Court: namely, specialised training or experience in human rights or constitutional law and 15 years as a legal practitioner. For his distinguished trouble, he was barred from appearing in Zambian courts by the judiciary, who accused him of professional misconduct and denied him the opportunity to be heard. The suspension of Sangwa underlined the harassment of government critics and was only lifted following a barrage of local and international condemnation.
Sangwa also contributed towards a growing culture of legal activism through informed media commentaries that condemned the human rights violations perpetrated by government officials. The executive responded by threatening to strip him of his State Counsel status, but he vowed to continue speaking out on matters of public concern and offered to hand back the honour if it required him to forfeit his freedom of expression. Although his heroic activism has attracted huge security risks to his life, it has also earned him the respect and admiration of a majority of well-meaning Zambians who appreciate what he has done to protect the rule of law and defend the constitution. There are many Zambians who studied constitutional law, but we never hear of them while the Constitution is being trampled upon.
UNZA (Law School) lecturers
Intellectuals anywhere in the world have a social responsibility. In Zambia, they are among the very few who have received a good education and consequently owe it to their fellow citizens to put that education to wider use. Unfortunately, many academics in Zambia appear to find the ability to speak truth to power unbearable. University of Zambia School of Law lecturers Pamela Sambo, O’Brien Kaaba, Felicity Kayumba Kalunga and James Kayula proved in 2020 to be an exception to this deadly silence of the country’s intelligentsia on public discourse. Across the year, they provided scholarly commentaries that defended human rights, constitutionalism and the rule of law, questioned the reason-free decisions of the Constitutional Court, and demonstrated how the nuances of minor electoral reforms have such major consequences on political contests.
For merely exercising their academic freedom, these researchers received intimidation from the leadership of the Law Association of Zambia, which, widely seen as in bed with the ruling authorities, is averse to open exposure of government misbehaviour. For Kayula, who among other opinion pieces wrote an excellent article explaining why President Lungu is not eligible to stand for another term of office, he even received death threats from PF supporters. Another inspiring UNZA lecturer was the philosopher Julius Kapembwa, who provided regular and informed analysis of topical issues, which shaped public understanding and served as a critique of the state of governance under Lungu.