Guy Scott, who has just taken over as Zambia’s interim president. Photo: Monirul Bhuiyan/AFP/Getty
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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. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

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.