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. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue