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Graham created a popular series of articles on Zambia and Zimbabwe for our printed version of Kaleidoscope during lockdown. In this issue, he explores the history of Zambia.

In this series, I consider the histories of two neighbouring countries in southern Africa since they gained independence from Britain, and ask why their experiences have been so different; today, I will be concentrating on the history of Zambia, from independence to the present.

Kenneth Kaunda, a former teacher, was elected the first President of Zambia. But the economy was still controlled by foreigners, in particular the British South Africa Company (BSAC); the company still held large swathes of land under treaties from the 19th century. Only by threatening to nationalise BSAC could Kaunda extract concessions. 

A series of socialist reforms followed: the Transitional Development Plan and the First National Development Plan aimed to secure foreign investment in infrastructure and manufacturing; the Mulungushi Reforms of 1968 (named for the town where they were announced) partially nationalised key foreign-owned companies; major foreign-owned mining companies were fully nationalised.

The education system was, at independence, barely worthy of the name. Only one person in 200 had completed primary education, and there were 109 university graduates in the whole country. Kaunda revolutionised education: every primary school pupil was given exercise books, pens and pencils – free!

The parents were responsible for buying school uniforms, paying a token ‘school fee’ and – the hardest job of all – making sure the child attended school. This allowed all pupils to achieve their best results. Not every child went on to secondary education, but those who did were well-educated. The country’s first university was opened in 1966, funded by public donations.  

Kaunda’s government was powerless when the world price of oil doubled in 1973, followed quickly by a halving in the price of copper:  the mining and export of copper was the backbone of the country’s economy. Zambia was left with the second-highest debt of any country in the world, relative to its GDP. Going cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund for help, Kaunda was told to end subsidies on food. He did, and the Zambian people rioted. He did not ask the IMF for any more help for another two years.  

1973 was a turning point politically as well.  A new constitution was adopted, turning Zambia into a one-party state: Kaunda’s United National Independence Party (UNIP) was the only political party allowed, and Kaunda was the only candidate for the presidency.   He also adopted a new ideology, Zambian Humanism:  this combined socialist ideas (central planning, state control) with African values (mutual aid, loyalty to the community), and was also known as African socialism.  

It is not surprising that Kenneth Kaunda openly opposed apartheid in South Africa and white-minority rule in Southern Rhodesia. He not only supported ZANU and ZAPU in Southern Rhodesia, the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) fighting against South Africa to give Namibia its independence, and the African National Conference in South Africa, fighting to end apartheid there, he allowed them to use his country as a base for their operations. This took a heavy toll on Zambia in both money and lives: the South African and Southern Rhodesian armies attacked their enemies camps wherever they found them, regardless of national boundaries.  

In 1991, following a coup attempt, rioting in the capital Lusaka and his opponents being bold enough to speak out against his authoritarian rule – Kaunda ended UNIP’s monopoly on power, and called a snap election. Frederick Chiluba of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy won in a landslide.  

Chiluba’s government was politically to the right of Kaunda’s.   Chiluba privatised many state-owned industries, including the mammoth Zambian Consolidated Copper Mines (created in 1982 to control the entire copper-mining industry in Zambia), and removed exchange controls.   These reforms encouraged other countries and international banks to help Zambia pay its international debt:  they did not solve Zambia’s problems, but they did give the country some breathing space.  

Production of copper – and its world price – have risen since the turn of the century, revitalising the economy of the whole country. Foreign investment, particularly from China, has increased capacity and efficiency in the industry. Copper accounts for 85% in value of the country’s exports - worryingly high, especially if prices start to fluctuate.  

Conservative management of Zambia’s finances has helped in controlling inflation:  in 2007, inflation was 8% - twice the rate in the UK, but nonetheless the first time in 30 years that inflation in Zambia was in single figures.  


Under President Levy Mwanawasa (elected in 2001), Zambia continued to lay foundations for a durable economy.   Foreign investment increased (partly because of Mwanawasa’s efforts against corruption), tourism increased, white farmers who had left Zimbabwe increased agricultural production, more of the country’s wealth has been distributed to the poor and growth has risen to 6% per year.    


Levy Mwanawasa died on 18th August 2008, following a stroke.   He was succeeded by his Vice-President, Rupiah Banda.   During his three years in office, Banda focused on economic development. Unfortunately, he also focused on dismantling the anti-corruption machinery Mwanawasa had put in place:  this is disappointing, because of the benefits it had given Zambia, in particular, the increase in foreign investment.  

President Michael Sata (elected in 2011 and who had once worked as a porter at Victoria station in London) was not in office long enough to impact on the economy.  He died in 2014 and his Vice-President, Guy Scott, succeeded him, the first white president of a black-majority country (except for apartheid-era South Africa). Scott served as Acting President until a by-election was held to fill the rest of Sata’s term of office, won by Edgar Lungu. Lungu was re-elected in 2016 for a full term in his own right. Lungu oversaw period of consolidation rather than spectacular growth. Inflation is historically low at 6%, real growth at 3%, GDP per head is growing slowly.   


Where does the economy go from here? The population is rising fast – by ⅓ between 2010 and 2018. Where will the extra people find jobs? Well… agriculture earns as much foreign exchange as the mining industry, and only 20% of the arable land is actually cultivated.  Who knows, putting the two together could be profitable, for both people concerned and the country.