Chibala Zuluchibala Zulu / AFP / Getty Images

Zambia’s interim president is white, but so what?

Passing of Michael Sata puts Guy Scott in charge, but nothing will change

October 31, 2014 2:00AM ET

Zambia’s fifth president, Michael Sata — popularly known as “King Cobra” for his fiery nationalism and searing personal attacks — died Oct. 28 in London, where he was receiving treatment for an undisclosed illness. Vice President Guy Scott, a 70-year-old white Zambian of Scottish descent, is the interim president.

His rise as the country’s first postcolonial white president is being hailed around the world. Scott — whom Zambians refer to affectionately and derisively as “Uncle Scotty” — has embraced the label, telling an excitable reporter from The Telegraph that he is the first white African leader “since the Venetians.” Scott’s assertion is not true. For example, Paul Berenger, a white Mauritian of French descent, served as the island’s first non-Hindu prime minister from 2003 to 2005.

Regardless of Scott’s claim, he won’t be the head of government for long, since Zambia’s Constitution bars him from becoming president. In 1996 then-President Frederick Chiluba changed the constitution to mandate that only people whose parents were born in Zambia could run for president. He did this to ensure that Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda, who ruled for 27 years, would not return to challenge him. (Kaunda’s parents were from Malawi.) Interestingly, this constitutional change raises significant questions about how Zambia shapes its national identity.

Under that amendment, a large percentage of Zambians — including, it turned out, Chiluba himself — are ineligible for the presidency. The country’s borders are porous, and over many generations, families have spread out from Zambia to Congo, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique, making it difficult to determine whose parents were truly born in Zambia. Such confusion, however, does not apply to those with Scottish parents.

Still, the story of a white African president proved irresistible to foreign media. For example, the BBC, among other news organizations, led with the headline “Zambian President Sata death: White interim leader appointed.” Closer to home, South Africans fell prey to nostalgia. They excitedly pointed to Scott’s presidency as a lesson in racial harmony for their country: Here was a white man about to head a country of black Africans. Shouldn’t the former apartheid state, too, aspire to that?

It is true that, like many who were once colonials ruled by Europeans, Zambians still look up to those of European descent. Sata’s choice of Scott as a running mate was done with an understanding of this tendency. But Zambians are not so easily manipulated. Scott was seen as the man Sata scored in order to create spectacle and distraction during the 2011 elections. In fact, Scott has long been ridiculed because he is a somewhat bumbling figure who lacks statesmanship and authority.

The debate about his heritage aside, Scott’s short time leading Zambia is not a big deal. Uncle Scotty is as Zambian as a Zambian can get.

In any case, Scott — though born in the colonial period, when Zambia was still Northern Rhodesia, a British protectorate — did not experience life as part of an entitled white minority whose nation-state engineered its legal and legislative structures to ensure his success. That difference distinguishes those born to white parents in Zambia from those born in South Africa. Scott has been careful about portraying himself as a man whose family participated in the national liberation and, subsequently, in the national building project in Zambia. His Patriotic Front Party’s website notes that his “participation in Zambian politics was inspired by his late father, who was an ally of Zambian nationalists and a founder of anti-colonial government newspapers, including The African Mail, now The Zambia Daily Mail.”

To be sure, Scott benefited from having been the son of a Scottish doctor and began his education in exclusive whites-only schools. He completed his tertiary education in England, earning a master’s degree from Cambridge University and a Ph.D. from Sussex University.

Despite the privileges that history bestowed on him, his experiences in Zambia would not have been analogous to those of a white person in South Africa. For starters, there are only 40,000 people of European descent among Zambia’s 13 million people. And after independence in 1964, schools, hospitals and all public institutions were integrated. Europeans may have done better than other Zambians, purely because they arrived with more resources, access necessary to make it in the Western educational system, business acumen or large-scale farming knowledge, but they were not given special protections to ensure their well-being through government decrees.

Electing elderly patriarchs

Zambians have a history of electing madalas — venerable (and sometimes testy) old men, whom they both dote on and smirk at. Under such madalas, the country has enjoyed 50 years of peaceful, stable independence and recently seen an annual growth rate of about 7 percent. The revelation that Sata scurried off to England while his countrymen languished in overcrowded hospitals lacking basic first aid kits was a blow to the country but not one that sparked protests. Zambians’ reluctance to stir up trouble, when coupled with Scott’s Zambian roots, is likely to serve him well as he attempts to maintain a dignified position in office for the next three months before an election to determine a new president of Zambia. 

Sata’s death was not unexpected. It was obvious that he was ailing, and rumors long flew about whether he had Alzheimer’s disease or complications from years of smoking-related illnesses. In September, Sata dismissed rumors about his long illness at the opening of parliament in Lusaka, saying, “I am not dead yet.” He is not the first Zambian head of state to die in office. Levy Mwanawasa, like Sata, passed away when he was president, in 2008. If anything, that Sata was secretly transported to London for treatment is an indictment of the failing health care system in Zambia. After his death, many Africans took to the Internet to express their dismay about how African heads of state routinely fly to the U.S., the U.K. or India for expensive treatment and expert care that ordinary citizens can only dream of.

The debate about his heritage aside, Scott’s short time leading Zambia is not a big deal. “Uncle Scotty” is as Zambian as a Zambian can get. He’s able to deal with a little derision as long as his largely ceremonial position of authority protects him. He is famous for making undiplomatic, ill-thought-out statements, and the list of his faux pas is as long as Zambians’ legendary patience with its elderly patriarchs. He’s a little fearful of anything too new and different, as exemplified by his public expressions of worry about gay people who ask for the right to safety and happiness. In addition, his economic views are rather conservative. There’s going to be none of that free education and free health care, as was the dream during Kenneth Kaunda’s heady years.

In short, the second white man to head a democratic African nation is not going to change a thing. Relax, people.

M. Neelika Jayawardane is a senior editor at Africa Is A Country, and associate professor of Postcolonial Literature at the State University of New York at Oswego.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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