IS he the Raila Odinga of Zambia? Wait until kulibonesha-ta assumes Kikuyu type of domination.
Say whatever you want to say, Michael Chilufya Sata is part of Zambia’s political menu. No, in fact, he is the staple of the Zambian political diet.
Of humble education, Sata’s message resonates with the pain and suffering of the masses. Little wonder his party organises well among the urban-poor. Cadres love him; he even walks with them in flooded shanty streets strewn with garbage. He has traversed some of the most inhospitable terrains in Zambia where other politicians have not. He is the man of the people, their last action hero – mwine filimu.
But on introspection, the ascendancy to opposition politics by Sata is democracy’s best victory and worst mockery.
In a country where the current president is not quite blessed with speechifying flair, Sata’s fluency has become the inspirational heartbeat of Zambia’s politics. But it’s not just his charisma; you will not be wrong if you substituted his middle name for this word- action.
His close aides say his former policeman and railway man does not listen to advice. He does not even listen to himself. His voice is his own master. Publicly though, Sata claims he does listen to advice.
During television and radio interviews, Sata always tries to dominate. His party is believed to be infiltrated by MMD and the intelligence. And he too has done the same with the MMD and the intelligence. He has sympathisers at almost all the levels. See how be blew up the recent RTSA fees last week!
Born in 1937, age is just a number when you appreciate Sata’s sense of urgency to work Zambia’s dilapidated hospitals, roads, bridges and shanty towns. His résumé as Lusaka governor and Minister of Health speaks to the kind of pragmatism he exudes when faced with a crisis.
Many of his critics do not like his campaign tactics, maybe even his smoking habits.
In Zambia’s kind of politics, the old man is seen as a very good politician. And that’s because people live in a numerical universe, where politics is about numbers – and who can doubt that Sata is a crowd-puller? But people live in a moral universe as well, and if you look at the voter turnout during the recent Kanyama by-election, Sata comes at you as part of the reason people may have lost faith in the power of politics to change their lives.
But faith in Zambia’s politics melts away at the altar of Sata’s impressive rhetoric. And for many years to come, Sata will always have an attentive audience in the ‘hood’. Yet, there are many that doubt he possesses enough truth-power upon which his state presidency can advance the lofty ideals of democracy and political decency.
Observers say Sata’s political mill is filled with the mangled yarn it has always been, a web of good and ill together. Having served in the Kaunda and Chiluba regimes, many contend that Sata is part of the good, the bad and the ugly of yesteryears.
On the contrary, others say the new Sata is kind of cool. The man has laundered his image to become the political institution whose polemics are fodder for the headlines Zambians hate to miss.
Yet, to the skilled observer, he is no more than a Mwanawasa non-conformist and combatant. Many still fear that if Chiluba anointed him successor, he would have been more of the same.
Attack is the best defence, and so it seems in Sata’s political football.
In his game plan, weakness is not an adequate currency in the marketplace of power. So, he has fashioned himself as a relentless pain in the flesh of Mwanawasa’s presidency. Since 2001, Sata has become the embodiment of people’s resentment to bad governance and injustice.
Its this native intelligence of chachacha – the will to fight authority, the BOMA – that sets Sata apart from other opposition politicians. Indeed, Sata the PF president is a much more effective workhorse than the sum of several underlings that own other opposition political parties.
Many people admire the way Sata stands up for Zambia in the face of the Chinese trading juggernaut, which threatens to eclipse the local manufacturing industry. Although he raises genuine concerns about Africa’s look east policy to China, eyebrows have been raised about his engagement of Taiwan.
This does not negate the fact that China must come right on human rights at home and Darfur in Sudan. In Zambia, it has been Sata’s contention that the Chinese should venture into production rather than become petty traders in markets, that they should not casualise our workers, if they are not yet ignited by their explosives. These are patriotic demands indeed.
Yet again, his past is still very much a part of his political future. In this limelight, many Zambians are still bewildered: Is Sata’s politics driven by selfish ambitions or a genuine passion to serve the poor, unite the nation, and dismantle the family tree of nepotism nascent in our foreign service? History will be the best judge.
What matters, though, is that he has been consistent with his inconsistencies. And that’s where some feel Sata would make a better president for contemporary Zambia, because he does not mince his words. His blunt approach to issues is his greatest strength, and unfortunately, his greatest weakness.
His people skills have often been questioned, mainly because of the stern manner in which he delivers instructions, in no uncertain terms. But Sata’s Jerry Rawlings no-nonsense leadership style would come handy in a country like Zambia, where infrastructure needs urgent attention, as much as those that deliver public services need frog jumping.
That’s not all. With Sata as president, the mines will not be playing games with government. They would have to pay the new taxes without negotiations and time wasting threats of litigation, or else soldiers will be at the mine gates. It will not be far-fetched if Sata would do with our copper what Hugo Chavez did with Venezuela’s oil.
That’s the first thing some people would love about sata-nomics, the knowledge that the government has the responsibility to safeguard Zambians’ copper for the benefit of our people. Although the new Sata is at war with the old policies he built while in the MMD, he at least for now acknowledges that foreign capital knows no all-weather friends, that foreign investors have no moral and social obligations to our people.
On the Copperbelt, Sata’s message has lacked diplomatic etiquette, but it has been unequivocal in denouncing the new mine owners as being motivated by profit, that their business is conducted for private gain, and not for our public benefit. His memo has been well received in the mine townships – that the primary responsibility of managements is to the owners of the mines – not to some nebulous entity called the public good.
Who can blame Sata if he wins votes by lambasting the new Oppenheimers refusing to pay new taxes? The man is alive to the harsh realities of an economy held hostage by the greed of foreign investors colluding with the myopia of government leaders.
Let’s give credit where it’s due. Sata’s Robin Hood heroics on the Copperbelt are well deserved. As long as the Copperbelt is still a case study of robber capitalism, Sata’s niche will continue to grow. Without meaningful monetary benefits from our copper, who will be surprised if citizens kidnap mine workers, like in Nigeria’s oil-rich Delta region?
As long as the government continues to perambulate on its knees – begging the mines to pay the revised taxes – Sata will be there to tell the story, as it is.
Yet, in an earnest political milieu, there would be no room for Sata, whose role as MMD national secretary, some people contend, was to organise youths into instruments of hooliganism during the MMD national convention and the Chawama by-election in 2001. Sata has denied links to violent cadres.
But maybe people should give the man a break. There is absolutely no need to blame Sata’s type of politics if there is no alternative leadership in Zambia.
With all due respect, where is Prof Clive Chirwa when Zambia needs him? There is no doubt that escalating poverty has made the urban poor to opt for the brave Cobra they know, rather than wait for the ever-calculating intelligentsia.
A combination of the late Daddy Zemus’ Tuzakaina Liti and Nathan Nyirenda’s Mwe Makufi has come back to haunt the government’s flimsy policies on poverty.
This is the wave that Sata continues to surf, the unmet socio-economic needs of a disenchanted electorate.
With a horde of UNZA academics on his side, Sata’s abilities to transform the country are now lionized by both professionals and the Eagle Eagles. Indeed, Sata has laundered his image to suit the times, or is it the times that suit his talents?
Although he has refused to pander to the hallucinations of the current MMD government, critics doubt Sata is blessed with enough nobility to guarantee political space in which the people can exercise their rights.
Still, his position on the NCC is laudable. And if his MPs were thinking from their bellies and not their heads, he would be right to fire them all. These MPs are on the wrong side of the people, they are on the wrong side of history. The NCC is nothing but a moneymaking kantemba.
The NCC is part of the government’s window-dressing of the constitution-making process. And if we all agree (to disagree?) that the constitution must be written in our people’s language, using their own alphabet, then all those PF MPs are part of the grand government deception.
Those PF MPs who went against party policy are now an accident about to happen. They can learn a lesson or two about towing the party line. And if there are by-elections, they will come as a referendum of Sata’s growing popularity.
The fact is, as long as MMD government policies continue to be flawed, Sata will always be an asset to opposition politics in Zambia. As long as Sata is back on the right side of the people, for whatever reasons, people have reasons to celebrate this prodigal son of Zambian politics. And hopefully, when his life story is written, it will not end like VJ’s wrong sunset.
Come 2011, if the other presidential candidates do not match up to Sata’s campaign: bakalalila. Watch this space.
Kazhila Chinsembu is a freethinker and public-read scholar at the University of Namibia.