To Zambians, the international community’s astonishment that, for 90 days, the acting Zambian president will be a white man seems remarkable.
The first fully white president of an independent majority-ruled country on the African mainland, Guy Scott cannot contest the presidential elections called in the wake of Michael Sata’s death because of constitutional requirements that any president’s parents had to be born in Zambia.
But even if he did have access to permanent office, Scott’s tenure would be less groundbreaking than it seems from the outside. In fact, both former president Rawlings of Ghana and current president of Botswana, Ian Khama, are half white, while African Indian Ocean states such as Seychelles and Mauritius have had white leaders too.
Zambia seems exceptional both because of its vastness and because it was at the centre of the struggle against white rule in both Rhodesia and in apartheid South Africa; the ANC was in exile there – and Zambia suffered both economically and militarily for its generosity and solidarity.
But founding president Kenneth Kaunda, with his often-derided socialist philosophy of “Humanism”, accomplished something very rare in any continent. His country contained 72 different indigenous communities that spoke 72 different languages (not dialects): he had to forge all these groups, plus the white settlers and Indian merchants, into a nation.
The Indians posed no problems for Kaunda. They had sheltered him when he was on the run from the British colonial authorities – and it was while hiding in Indian houses that he read Gandhi and was profoundly impressed by doctrines of non-violent resistance. There have consistently been Indian ministers in Zambian cabinets ever since. And white faces have not been rare either; Zambia’s white farming community did not obstruct black majority aspirations as its counterparts did in neighbouring countries.
Scott, who farmed Walkover Estates before entering politics and whose strawberries appeared regularly in Sainsbury’s supermarkets, was a model employer. He spoke the local language and his famous parties always attracted a range of guests of all races.
Scott is also a technocrat. He graduated from Cambridge and took a doctorate from Sussex; he is a scientist as well as an economist and he has a fascination with eastern religions. In many ways, he perfectly embodies the educated and cosmopolitan generation that many hoped would replace Kaunda’s independence generation.
Scott entered politics with the surge that carried the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) to power, replacing Kaunda’s party as the country entered the 1990s. He held ministerial posts, and was greatly lauded for his response to drought relief. When Michael Sata left the MMD to form his own Patriotic Front (PF) party, he depended upon his two old friends: Wynter Kabimba and Scott.
The three of them forged the PF into a fighting electoral force, capturing power with their fourth electoral attempt in 2011 – and Sata immediately appointed Scott vice-president.
The two were a perfect team, Scott playing good cop to Sata’s bad cop – the voice of behind-closed-doors reason to Sata’s “King Cobra” persona. (In fact, Sata had perfect manners when he was off the podium, but this was hardly apparent in the public tongue-lashings he gave his opponents.)
They had what is known in Zambia as a “joking relationship”, marked by the kind of joshing and affectionate abuse associated with rugby changing rooms – a core feature of inter-communal relations in Zambia. That helped dispel some of the inevitable tensions in the grand project of unifying so many communities into one nation.
External observers would often think Sata was insulting Scott in public, completely misreading the real dynamics of their exchanges. And Scott gave as good as he got: one famous exchange had Sata saying to Scott: “And what could you have become if you had not been white?” To which Scott replied: “President.”
It is not whiteness that now prevents Scott from putting himself forward for election for a five-year term; the parentage clause in the constitution does that. It was introduced by Sata’s predecessor Frederick Chiluba to block the return of Kaunda – whose parents, Chiluba alleged, had been born in neighbouring Malawi – and the PF, in the mess of Zambia’s never-ending constitutional debates, never got around to repealing it.
In fact, Scott would have made a very good president – and he would have been accepted by the voters, who would even have boasted about their taste for irony and the good race relations their country had accomplished. The world might raise its eyebrows, but this 90-day caretaker period will be a footnote in African history.
A footnote, but a meaningful one nonetheless: even after an atrocious colonial history in which white rulers earned themselves an appalling reputation, Zambia is showing how a majority black nation can be rather more mature about these things than most of the old colonial powers.
Stephen Chan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.