Zambia: Riches to rags

Published on PAMBAZUKA NEWS, by Khadija Sharife, December 4, 2009.

It’s the Cinderella story told in reverse; a tale of riches to rags. Once upon a time, following decolonisation, Zambia was perceived as Africa’s progress icon. Classified as late as 1979, as a middle-income country by the World Bank, GDP per capita was on par with Portugal, chased the heels of Spain and Turkey, and left African economic powerhouses like Egypt in the wake of its dust. The dust was coppery, the backbone of Zambia’s monolithically derived wealth, primarily mined from the region known as the Copperbelt, composed of major mining towns including Ndola, Kitwe, Chingola, Mufulira and Luanshya, and further north, the Congo’s Katangan deposit – Zambia’s genetic twin … //

… ‘The regulatory dispositions for the mining sector are currently so weak that they do not deter polluters…Identification and monitoring of environmental risks resulting from mining activities is often inadequate.’ 

Ecologically, though cultivated fertile land accounts for just 6 per cent of a total 48 per cent land mass, it contributes 20 per cent to GDP, employing 60-80 per cent of Zambians in the formal and informal sector. But the government has yet to factor in economic valuation of ecosystem services. Even Zambia’s national treasure, the Kafue National Park – the second largest in the world, hosting one of the planet’s greatest wildlife reserves, is jeopardised via the pollution emitted in the Kafue River, flowing through the Park adjacent to the Copperbelt. In 2006, KCM leeched massive quantities of acidic and toxic affluent into the river, caused by what the ECZ described as ‘gross negligence.’ Kafue is a major tributary to the Zambezi and one of Zambia’s main arteries.

It is a negligence that extends to the socio-economic policies of multinationals and the Zambian state. The Mines Safety Department is purely a reactive institution, chiefly inspecting mines after accidents, while the Mines Safety and Explosive Regulations Act had yet to be implemented, due to a lack of skilled personnel one decade after being drawn up. Prior to privatisation, the ZCCM sustained not only the nation through exports accounting for 80 per cent of earnings, but the Copperbelt province via subsidised housing, food, education, hospitals and clinics, pension schemes courtesy of Zambia’s ‘cradle to grave’ policy

These days, casual workers remain at the mercy of multinationals, unable to access pension schemes, while both permanent and casual workers are exposed to lethal and unsafe working conditions, in addition to a minimum wage that has yet to increase on par with ‘basic needs’, such as food, housing, water and sanitation.

These days, over 75 per cent of Zambia’s population lives below the poverty line, with life expectancy pegged at 35 years – equivalent to that of a British person living in the 1840s. The country is ranked 163 of 179 nations by the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI). But though Zambia provides the most brutal and clearest articulation of Africa’s ‘resource curse’ – nakedly characterised by dependence on resource rents, enclave industries built on selective democracy between multinationals and states, and distorted tax bases, the leitmotif of deindustrialisation and demodernisation, is not particular to Zambia but Africa itself. This ’slipping backwards’ represents nothing more than former resource colonies that were politically liberated, but remained economically chained. (full long text).

(Khadija Sharife is a journalist and a visiting scholar at the Centre for Civil Society CCS based in South Africa. Please send comments by e-mail or comment online at Pambazuka News).

Comments are closed.