Veteran politician and acclaimed freedom fighter Simon Zukas has warned that politicians peddling tribal sentiments risk dividing Zambia and degenerating into gang warfare.

And Zukas, who turns 94 years today, says he never thought in his life that a time would come in Zambia when he would be barred from speaking against corruption.

In this verbatim interview with News Diggers! the legendary freedom fighter, who helped Zambia’s nationalists overthrow British colonial rule, reflects on his near-70 year contribution to Zambia’s multiparty democracy, which the country abstained from between 1973 to 1990.

Lisulo: Thank you very much for your time, Mr Zukus, happy birthday! Just run us through what it means to turn 94 years old.

Zukas: Yes, actually, I was reflecting the other day on what it means. In fact, this coincides with having been in local politics for 70 years. I am 94. The real beginnings of my involvement in local politics goes back to 1948, 1949; that’s a long time!

Much has happened. There were some bad periods when we were fighting Federation (of Rhodesia and Nyasaland) (1953-1963) in the early 50s or late 40s but I have been happy here ever since. But I am still involved in local affairs. I have retired from work, but I have not retired from public affairs.

Lisulo: What have been some of your most memorable moments since 1964?

Zukas: Well, I suppose in 1964 itself, I enjoyed being given an award by president Kaunda in recognition of the struggle. So, I still have that meddle. Since then, I don’t think there have been any outstanding pleasures, but I do feel that I enjoyed the fact that we managed to get back to multiparty politics in 1989-1990.

Lisulo: What is your recollection of the One-Party State, formally enacted in 1972, all the way up until when Dr Kaunda lost power in 1991. What do you fondly remember about living in the One-Party State to give those in my generation an appreciation of what life was like during that period of time?

Zukas: The best part of our history that I remember is even before the One-Party State. When Zambia got its independence – there was free discussion, association…there was a bit of intimidation from some youths who used to run around and intimidate people so that was not nice. But generally speaking, until the One-Party State was being formed, Zambia was a very happy place.

Then came the various internal divisions. I, in fact, supported the One-Party State because I think the tribal divisions, tribalism was getting out of hand! One felt at the time that this (One-Party State) was a way of nipping it in the bud. But it didn’t quite work out. We are here, we still have the ethnic factor among us.

At that stage, we were dealing fairly with each other. But as time went on, it became negative. By then, I became disillusioned like most other people. I then went to Garden Motel, and helped to form the MMD (Movement for Multiparty Democracy).

Lisulo: You mentioned in your analysis that we, as Zambians, are still struggling with the ethnic question. We still hear and see politicians across various different sections peddle and pronounce tribalist sentiments. So, in your estimation, having helped to usher in a return to multiparty democracy in 1991, has that to some extent helped quell tribalism in your view?

Zukas: I suppose the answer is yes and no. The ethnic factor remains. There is nothing negative about feeling proud of a tribe; that’s your history, heritage, but the problem I see is when it becomes a dividing force like “he’s from Southern Province, therefore, he’s my enemy!” That’s when the negative side comes in, and it’s still there. And you can see it from the political groupings that it’s there.

But there are crossovers; it’s not like divisions between nations. But the differences are still there; loyalties are still there; rivalries…But I want to make one point that, it wouldn’t be such a divisive factor if it weren’t for the fact that, ambitious politicians, who have got nothing else to offer use the tribal factor as their strength; they appeal to fellow tribesmen for support – usually in some coded or hidden form. It’s there.

Lisulo: What are some of your thoughts on the contemporary political situation, Mr Zukas? We know that both members of the ruling political party and the opposition tend to use the ethnic factor as a means of dividing people. How worrying are these tactics on both sides of the divide to try to get political mileage?

Zukas: You can’t do away with it. It’s like people appealing to their family for support. But where it gets out of hand is when it gets into gang warfare. Where it’s got out of hand is where unemployed youths become so-called cadres and turn it into gang warfare – one tribal group against another – so that’s become very negative and dangerous!

And there’s a lack of leadership to squash that because the ruling party gets a lot of support on that basis, from their cadres, and they maintain it. They certainly do nothing to stop it.

Lisulo: What are your thoughts on the state of the Zambian economy, how it has been run? If you look at one macroeconomic indicator, inflation now at 8.8 per cent for July, and are likely to get to double-digit inflation. Are you positive or optimistic about the economic outlook?

Zukas: No, I am not! In fact, I am very sad about the way things have developed. To a large extent, the economy is almost in a state of collapse! Even the change in the Minister of Finance (Dr Bwalya Ng’andu) is an attempt to rescue…Now, insofar as it came about from borrowing, I feel the government was right to go ahead with infrastructure development, they were justified in borrowing. Where it went wrong was that it became unplanned and over-ambitious. So, the borrowing was in a way a bit reckless and irresponsible! Universities in every province, more and more districts…so, it wasn’t disciplined borrowing and that’s what brought us to the present state because it was reckless borrowing.

Lisulo: So, you would agree with sentiments by United States Ambassador to Zambia Daniel Foote who urged the Zambian government to stop its debt addiction, especially as regards to infrastructure development. Do you think that those sentiments should be registered very seriously by government?

Zukas: Yes, well, certainly, it should be brought to a halt and consolidate what we’ve done. Borrowing should have stopped the moment we realised that we won’t be able to pay back. He’s (Ambassador Foote) right! I am not sure that it’s an addiction (laughs); the problem we are talking about today is that it’s from the international private sector, that never gets forgiven! It may get rolled over, but eventually, it’s got to be paid back and we will be held to it.

Lisulo: Do you think government is at risk of defaulting on any of the Eurobonds?

Zukas: Well, the Eurobonds are very near needing payment, and we haven’t got the money! Even to pay the interest on it! And that is very serious because our name will go bad all over the world! So, it’s very serious.

Lisulo: I was wondering if we could use this opportunity to perhaps shed more light on a recent press briefing that senior citizens like yourself wanted to conduct at the Mulungushi International Conference Centre. Unfortunately, it was abruptly cancelled. What were some of the issues that you would have loved to raise during that particular press briefing?

Zukas: A lot of us feel that, the problems are there, government is not managing to cope with it. We are concerned, we want to discuss. So, we would have got together as concerned citizens, airing our views. The time has come for it. Now, it would have been a press conference, others would have spoken. The concerns are the economy, inefficient service delivery and corruption. Our main concern is corruption. But we were denied! We already paid for our room at Mulungushi; suddenly, we were told that ‘no, you can’t, you have to have a police permit!’ I would have never imagined that a meeting inside a room would require a police permit!? That became another concern: why are we being restricted from discussing our affairs? Anyway, we postponed it. We will have to come back.

Lisulo: On the aspect of mounting levels of corruption. We’ve seen in recent years and months, very well documented in successive, annual Auditor General’s Reports, Financial Intelligence Centre Trends Reports reporting escalated levels of corruption. Will Zambia reach a tipping point where the escalated levels of corruption will mean that future generations will be robbed of a prosperous future?

Zukas: We can’t let it go that far. We, as concerned citizens, have to exert enough pressure now to control corruption. It’s not being controlled well enough, from the highest authority. The prosecution may not succeed in all cases, but the slightest hint of corruption should be prosecuted, not condoned! I think there’s a cultural problem in Zambia where people feel they should be forgiven, even for corruption! That should be wiped out.

Lisulo: Finally, Mr Zukas, you’re turning 94. What is your wish for this country that you love so much? What do you want to see in a future Zambia?

Zukas: Well, my first wish is to go back to real democracy. Freedom of gathering, discussion; freedom for people to give their views without fear. That is the sort of atmosphere I would like.

Lisulo: Thank you very much.