analysis/opinionOpinion

CONSIDERING KK ON THE EVE OF THE POLLS

TIME is racing and in a couple of weeks polling day of 12th August will be upon us.

It is also just over a month since first republican President Kenneth Kaunda’s death. Three extra years was all he needed to achieve his centenarian 100th birthday.

KK, State House, 1991

KK’s years in public service not only helped shape the fortunes of Zambia, but also those of the entire southern African region.

Reflecting on his passing, three factors are distinctly brought home. The first exposes the inadequacies of our current crop of leaders. To use boxing parlance, most of today’s Zambian leaders cannot punch. Either that or they punch like sissies. But not KK. He was a tactical, heavy puncher both literally and metaphorically, while personally and politically he displayed the true grit of a bygone era, where true leadership meant leading from the front with resolve and determination.

The second factor reflecting on KK’s death is that his United National Independence Party was well grounded and not ambivalent about what it stood for.

Kaunda was transparent and unequivocal about what he was all about. A personal example was his ethics as a teetotal, non-smoking vegetarian whose decision to abandon meat-eating was a commitment guided by strongly-held beliefs and principles.

To understand the significance of that single act – of refraining from smoking, eating meat and drinking alcohol – you would have to have been a Zambian living in the 1960s and 1970s. Those were the heady days of the swinging sixties;  Zambia was awash with cash and the kwacha was on par with the dollar. The social and political air was full of nascent promise, the euphoria of newly acquired political independence was reason enough for celebratory binging which included drinking, smoking and eating meat.

In that context, one is able to grasp the sheer willpower that enabled Kaunda to refrain from all manner of hedonistic pleasure through self-discipline and self-denial.

Fast forward to 2021, with President Edgar Chagwa Lungu at the helm and towing his Patriotic Front behind him. To compare Lungu with KK would be akin to comparing oranges and lemons – both may be citrus, but they are fruits of an entirely different hue and taste.

Former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda at the inauguration of former South African president Thabo Mbeki in 2004. Image/EFE-EPA

Kaunda was a straight-talking tough-as-nails visionary with an array of multi-dimensional leadership skills, while by contrast Lungu seems one-dimensional and even mediocre, obscure and ambiguous. Upon taking the oath of office for his first term as republican President, he famously declared that he had no vision for Zambia.

As leadership author Warren Bennis once wrote, “to an extent, leadership is like beauty. It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it!”

Now it is blatantly clear that the PF government has failed to deliver on its promises to Zambians. The list of misdemeanors – or more aptly, economic crimes –  committed during Lungu’s stewardship, is dangerously long: it includes price-inflated fire tenders, inflated infrastructure and construction projects, 51 “mysterious” houses, gassing of people, torching of markets, extra judicial killings and police brutality, and closure of critical media such as The Post and Prime TV and a number of radio stations.

The perpetrators of these crimes are never convicted, and where charges have been laid, the court hearings have been a charade.

With sky-rocketing inflation and high cost of living rampant, the difference between then and now is that with the end of the boom years in the mid-seventies, the UNIP era was a time when everyday consumer commodities were scarce, leading to long queues and widespread shortages of essentials such as cooking oil, bread, sugar.

It is something of a grim paradox that under the PF, shops are fully laden, brimming from floor to roof with a bevy of consumer goods, but intended buyers have little money in their pockets. Zambians can only admire the goodies at arms’ length from a safe distance. Window shopping.

Confronted by this appalling list of governance failures, Lungu and his cronies are quick to brush aside all criticism, shifting blame with comic, predictable disdain:

“it’s not us, its Covid! Or “why do you people complain?…it’s not only Zambia, the cost of living is high everywhere!” Or “…the economy is performing. Can’t you see? Every Zambian can now afford to buy a car!”

But a quick sharp stab at the PF’s hot air balloon of double-tongued responses lays bare the painful truth. For a simple example, a quick historical appraisal of the foreign exchange rate will illustrate the point.

The foreign exchange rate is an appropriate tool to scrutinise, because it is a reliable indicator of a country’s international purchasing power – and for a country like Zambia, which is heavily dependent on imports, which are then also subject to import duties, it is a major factor in determining the overall prices of goods and services to the consumer.

A historical appraisal is appropriate because it offers an insight into where we’re coming from and where we are today.

Additionally, in order to add context, our comparison not only looks at exchange rate values between the Kwacha and US dollar, but also between the South African Rand and the US dollar.

In August 2011, a month before the emergence of the PF, with Rupiah Bwezani Banda’s Movement for Multi-Party Democracy still holding the reins of power, the Kwacha’s dollar purchasing power was superior to the Rand, trading at K5 to the dollar while the Rand was ZAR 8.41 to the dollar.

Banda’s electoral loss in September 2011 saw the Kwacha’s gradual but steady decline, before the dramatic plunge downwards in the final years of the decade.

ZMW: Zambian Kwacha

ZAR: South African Rand

By MakanDay Graphics: Compiled from fxtop.com data

As the chart shows, the Kwacha’s strongest comparative performance over the Rand was in January 2015, at K6.5 against the rand’s R11.5 to the dollar.

What could have led to the Kwacha’s dramatic free fall in such a short space of time, and how did Tito Mboweni, South Africa’s Finance Minister, sustain his Rand to its reversed level of stability today, compared to its comparative weakness in January 2015, when Edgar Lungu first ascended to the presidency?

With opinion divided over the kwacha’s recent dramatic gains from nearly K23 to K19 against the dollar, its improvement is viewed suspiciously by some analysts, coming a couple of weeks before crucial elections are due to occur.

The tragedy for those Zambians lucky to find work is that the Kwacha’s massive decline has not been matched by a commensurate increase in wages and salaries, which have by and large remained static, further exacerbating the plight of workers and their desperation.

Adding to their woes is spiraling inflation, at an 18-year high on meat and fish prices, with consumer prices rising 23.5% in May and annual food inflation up 28.5% from 27.2% a month earlier, according to statistician-general Mulenga Musepa interviewed by Bloomberg.

Perhaps Mboweni was on firm ground, when earlier this year, he criticised this government’s disastrous economic record. Incapable hands, said Mboweni, were steering Zambia’s economy.

The criticism prompted Dora Siliya, then serving as Information Minister and the government’s chief spin-doctor, to retort that Mboweni was not fit to occupy his office of Finance Minister.

The final factor in reflecting upon KK’s death relates to the ambiguity of the PF’s political ideology. If its leader is clueless and visionless, as he self-deprecatingly admitted, it follows that the party he leads is also ambivalent and lacks a clear ideological anchor.

The closest it has got to adopting some kind of political doctrine was just prior to its ascension to power, projecting itself as a populist peoples’ party, diametrically opposed to the political and economic elite as epitomized by the then governing MMD: “Mwadya Mweka Daddy!”.

While a universally acceptable definition of populism continues to elude scholars, one characteristic of populism includes the clever use of manipulation. Blessed with a gift of the gab and ability to sway public opinion, a demagogue’s use of such manipulation enables them to whip up a groundswell of people’s emotions, in order to catapult themselves into power.

With Lungu’s oratory capacity next to nil, many will agree that his predecessor, Michael Sata, was an accomplished public speaker.

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki has noted that for him, wherever populism occurs, “it’s a demonstration of political bankruptcy, where a populist stance is taken by somebody who is not in reality interested in solving any problem. They might take a populist position in order to advance their own political interests.”

With respect to the PF’s governance record, Mbeki’s interpretation appears to support accusations by Zambia’s political opposition that in the brief period since 2011, Zambians have been short-changed and that instead of empowering citizens, the PF leadership has empowered itself through state capture.

The constitutional changes of the 1973 Choma Declaration by KK and Harry Nkumbula of the African National Congress (ANC) were a decisive turning point in Zambia’s political trajectory. At the stroke of the two mens’ pens, Zambia transformed from multi-partism to a one-party state, thereby sealing the dictatorship that was to follow.

But whereas the final years of KK’s governance were indeed autocratic, it was nonetheless a legal autocracy, supported by the country’s constitutional changes introduced by the Choma Declaration.

Under that system, UNIP became the only legal political party in the country, and as such, was at liberty to appoint and choose its government: hence the phrase, “the party and its government,” became the common catchphrase of the times.

This set-up was evident in UNIP’s political structure, where as President, KK was the supreme head of both party and government, while his number two, Grey Zulu, was Secretary General of the party. Next in line was the Prime Minister, who functioned as head of government.

Lately, there is evidence to suggest that the PF hankers after a political arrangement similar to what existed under UNIP. This is evident from the juxtaposition of roles, whereby PF party political functionaries pretend to be constitutionally-appointed leaders, when in reality they are merely party political cadres with no state executive powers. This is seen as an attempted power grab by the PF, to introduce an illegal one party state through the back door.

While UNIP was anchored on a version of socialist foundations, the MMD was a loosely knit brotherhood whose convergence hinged on dismantling KK’s socialist legacy to pave way for the MMD’s freewheeling economic liberalisation and privatisation of the remnants of UNIP’s vast public sector.

Aided by an aggressive global agenda towards laissez-faire economic policies promoted by the Bretton Woods institutions, MMD privatisation succeeded – albeit clumsily, steering the country through an extensive campaign for debt relief under the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative.

Enter 2011 and the PF under Michael Sata. With its debt under control at end of 2011, Zambia’s total public sector debt of US$3.5 billion compares very favourably with today’s debt, conservativey estimated at US$14 billion.

According to the African Development Bank’s latest Zambia Economic Report, Zambia’s public and publicly guaranteed debt hit 91.6% of GDP in 2019 and 104% of GDP in 2020 and “will remain elevated in the medium term.”

In record time, the PF and its “populist” leaders, many of them paupers who owned nothing a few years back, have now amassed incredible wealth. The PF points at the country’s expansionary fiscal policy, financed by external and local borrowing, as its main achievement.

But widely criticized as unsustainable, at what cost has this expansion been achieved? Because unable to service its debt obligations, the treasury is broke, while poverty and unemployment are expected to increase well into the future.

The question now is this: if, during a period of stability, the PF succeeded in running the economy into the ground, can the PF in the next five years, salvage a ravaged economy – a creation of its own making?

Clearly, from its destruction of a healthy and robust economy from 2011, the PF lacks the commitment and wherewithal to steer the sinking ship into calmer economic waters.

(Opinion)

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