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?

Rex Features
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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage