Guy Scott, who has just taken over as Zambia’s interim president. Photo: Monirul Bhuiyan/AFP/Getty
Show Hide image

Zambia’s new president is white – and we need to get over it

The appointment of Guy Scott as Zambia’s interim president has been welcomed by the country's citizens. We should follow their lead.

There’s no doubt that Zambia’s interim president has caused something of a stir.

“Zambia’s Guy Scott makes history as white president in sub-Saharan Africa,” was CNN’s headline. “I am Africa’s first white democratic leader, says Zambian vice-president,” was the Telegraph’s take on the story. Scott apparently told the Telegraph that he was the first white head of a democratic government in Africa “since the Venetians”.

Scott will not be standing as a presidential candidate in 90 days time, when the post is contested. The constitution dictates that only a Zambian with both parents born in the country can hold the presidency and although Scott himself was born in Zambia, his ancestry was Scottish. “I won’t run for the presidency at the election because constitutionally, I can’t,” he explained.

The fuss about the origins of Scott’s parents smacks of the campaign to declare Barack Obama ineligible for the American presidency because he was allegedly not born in the US. The claims were utterly spurious, but the White House was forced to publish a full copy of the Obama birth certificate before they finally subsided.

Behind these legalistic objections lies one common thread: racism. Who really believed that the far right’s objections to Obama were more than a front for an opposition to his race? The apparent astonishment that a white person can also hold office in an African state (even if his hold on power is temporary) has a similar ring about it.

White Africans (of whom I am one) have, of course, done themselves no favours. As the recent Kenyan Mau Mau case underlined, colonialism was not a shining example of good governance. It took a payout of £20m by William Hague to finally heal some of the wounds. Apartheid ravaged South Africa for more than four decades and was based on a much deeper racism. The history of slavery is etched into the continent.

But this is only one half of the story. For every white officer who oversaw the torture of Kenyan women there was a colonial official who died of malaria attempting to bring better roads and elementary education to remote rural areas. While the majority of white South Africans supported, or at least tolerated, apartheid, men and women like Bram Fischer, Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Helen Joseph and a host of others worked against it. It is deeply depressing to see how little effort the African National Congress has made to recruit their replacements. The upper echelons of the ANC are today almost exclusively black, despite the movement’s apparent commitment to non-racialism.

The reality is that white people have lived in Africa for more than three centuries. They have put down deep roots and have contributed to the continent for good as well as evil. Yet they are still frequently treated as “colonisers”. 

The racist outpourings of men like Julius Malema go largely unremarked outside of South Africa. “LAND MUST BE RETURNED BECAUSE IT BELONGS TO BLACK PEOPLE! That’s the first principle,” declares the manifesto of Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters. “What we would do with the land is none of the business of the land thieves. We want back because it’s ours!”

There’s no denying white people did take much of the land at the point of a gun, but they were not alone. No similar demand is made by Malema of the Zulu people, who deprived many others of their lands during the Mfecane. Nor does he call for Zimbabwe’s Ndebele to be thrown off their farms by the Shona. White people are targeted primarily because of the colour of their skins.

Yet the question of colonial conquest is by no means restricted to the white population or to southern Africa. Consider, for a moment, the expansion into highland Ethiopia under Emperor Menelik II, who doubled the size of his kingdom in the nineteenth century. The majority community, the Oromo, were termed “Galla” and many were treated as slaves. The resentment resulting from these conquests lingers to this day with the Oromo continuing to suffer torture and ruthless repression.

Guy Scott is not the first democratic white African leader in the post-colonial era. That honour went to Paul Bérenger, Prime Minister of Mauritius between 2003 and 2005. Nor is President Scott likely to be the last. Zambians seem to have taken his rise to power in their stride – the rest of the world should follow suit.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Tory right-wingers are furious about Big Ben – but it’s their time that’s running out

They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock.

Jeremy Corbyn, it is often said, wants to take Britain back to the 1970s.

The insult is halfway to an insight. It’s true that the Labour leader and his inner circle regard British economic policy since the late 1970s as an extended disaster that led to the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the European Union: a “failed experiment”, as Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s influential policy chief, puts it in his 2014 book of the same name.

The Labour leader views the 1970s not as a blighted decade waiting for a saviour, but as a time when trade unions still had teeth, privatisation was not treated as a panacea and inequality was lower.

Theresa May doesn’t see the past four decades in quite the same light, but she does believe that the Brexit vote was, in part, the destabilising consequence of an economic settlement that has left too many people in Britain without a stake in society. This means, for now at least, an ideology that was until recently a consensus has no defenders at the top of either party.

May’s successor might conceivably be an unrepentant cheerleader for free markets and the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, but as things stand, whoever replaces May faces an uphill battle to be anything other than a brief pause before Corbyn takes over. Because of the sputtering British economy and the prospect of a severe downturn after Brexit – coupled with the Labour leader’s rising personal ratings – it is the opposition that has momentum on its side, in both senses of the word.

All of which might, you would expect, trigger panic among members of the Conservative right. Neoliberalism is their experiment, after all, the great legacy of their beloved Margaret Thatcher. Yet while there are a few ministers and backbenchers, particularly from the 2010 intake, who grasp the scale of the threat that Corbynism poses to their favoured form of capitalism, they are outnumbered by the unaware.

For the most part, the average Tory believes, in essence, that the 2017 election was a blip and that the same approach with a more persuasive centre-forward will restore the Conservative majority and put Corbyn back in his box next time round. There are some MPs who are angry that Nick Timothy, May’s former aide, has waltzed straight from the 2017 disaster to a column in the Daily Telegraph. That the column is titled “Ideas to Win” only adds to the rage. But most generally agree with his diagnosis that the party will do better at the next election than at the last, almost by default.

And it’s not that the Conservative right isn’t panicked by anything, as a result of some state of advanced Zen calm: many are exercised by the silence of Big Ben during its scheduled four years of repairs.

Yet you don’t even have to go as far back as 1970 for a period of silence from Elizabeth Tower. The bongs stopped ringing for planned maintenance in 2007 and for two years from 1983 to 1985, and the Great Clock stopped unexpectedly in 1976. What distinguishes this period of renovation from its predecessors is not its length but the hysteria it has generated, among both the right-wing press and the Conservative right. The Brexit Secretary, David Davis, described letting the bells go quiet as “mad”, while James Gray, a Conservative backbencher, went further, dubbing the repairs “bonkers”.

The reason why the bongs must be stilled is that they risk deafening and endangering the workers repairing the bell. Working around them would further extend the maintenance period, potentially silencing the clock for ever. The real divide isn’t between people who are happy for the bell to fall silent and those who want to keep it ringing, but between politicians who want to repair and preserve the bell and those who risk its future by squabbling over a four-year silence. There may well be “mad” behaviour on display, but it certainly isn’t coming from the repairmen.

The row is a microcosm of the wider battle over parliament’s renovation. The estate badly needs urgent repairs to make it fire-safe and vermin-free – in the past year, the authorities have had to spend in excess of £100,000 on pest control, with bed bugs the latest pest to make a home at Westminster. If it isn’t made safe, it could burn down.

The cheapest and most secure option for MPs is to decamp down the road to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, just a few minutes’ walk from parliament. But the current delay, facilitated by Theresa May, increases the cost of repairs. The Prime Minister has also weighed in on the row over Big Ben, telling reporters that it “cannot be right” for the bell to go quiet. Westminster’s traditionalists, largely drawn from the Conservative right, talk up the importance of preserving the institution but their foot-dragging endangers the institution they want to protect. As for May, her interventions in both cases speak to one of her biggest flaws: while she is not an idiot, she is altogether too willing to say idiotic things in order to pander to her party’s rightmost flank. That same deference to the Tory right caused her to shred or water down her attempts to rejig the British economic model, ceding that ground to Corbyn.

A Labour victory at the next election isn’t written in stone. The winds blowing in the opposition’s favour are all very much in the control of the government. The Conservatives could embark on a programme of extensive housebuilding, or step in to get wages growing again or to turn around Britain’s low productivity. Philip Hammond could use his next Budget to ease the cuts to public spending. They could, in short, either declare that the experiment hasn’t failed and vigorously defend it, or write off their old project and create another one. They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock, oblivious to the reality that their time is running out. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia