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“More money in your pockets”
– by Anthony Mulowa
Tense partnership: President Michael Sata and Ambassador Zhou Yuxiao
On the first day after his inauguration as Zambia’s new president, Michael Sata held a meeting with Zhou Yuxiao, China’s ambassador to his country. Sata told the diplomat that Chinese investors must adhere to Zambian labour law and pay the minimum wage. He said that, even though Zambia and China were close allies, there had been misunderstandings in the past. “We welcome your investments,” the president said in a conciliatory way, but insisted that there must be “two way traffic”. The host country and its people, his argument went, must benefit from foreign investment.
In his response, Zhou promised to cooperate on enforcing Zambian regulations: “It is my job to make sure that Chinese companies follow the law.” The meeting had great symbolic relevance. Both men know that they must cooperate, though that may be difficult on some points.
In the election campaign, Sata was very critical of China’s influence in Zambia. He consistently accused Chinese businesses of treating Zambian workers poorly. Initially, he threatened to “kick out” Chinese investors, but later toned down his rhetoric. His party, the Patriotic Front (PF), also blamed the Chinese of funding the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD), the party of Rupiah Banda, the incumbent president who lost the elections in September.
There can be no doubt that Chinese ex-pats in Zambia would have been more comfortable with a re-election of Banda. The same is true of the Chinese government. It is also obvious, moreover, that the MMD spent heavily to woo voters. It was handing out T-shirts, bicycles and money. The PF instructed its supporters to take whatever they were offered, but not to vote for a party that was wasting money that really belonged to the people. This was the fourth time Sata ran for president. Three years ago, Banda had narrowly defeated him.
In his inaugural address, Sata promised “an era of real transformation”. Reforms are to speed up development and improve the lot of Zambia’s people. One of Sata’s pledges is to ensure that all Zambians get three full meals every day. Another is to initiate positive change in his first 90 days in office. A review of the minimum wage is high on the agenda; so far, it only amounts to the equivalent of $ 91 per month. A very popular campaign slogan was: “More money in your pockets.”
In Lusaka’s business district, some employees of Chinese investors have already had pay rises. Joseph Chanda who works in a Chinese-owned shop, for instance, told journalists that he was not paid the minimum wage before Sata’s election triumph, but that his wage has since more than tripled to the equivalent of $ 204 per month.
Sata’s anti-Chinese election rhetoric resonated with many Zambians. Many people feel that China is benefiting from Zambian resources, whereas Zambians are not. The general sentiment is that the mines did more for the people when they were still run by the government.
The new government is set to put pressure on the mines to ensure that Zambians benefit from the natural resources. It is reviewing taxes and wants a fair share of mining revenues to be used for developmental programmes such as the construction of schools, roads and hospitals. It will certainly take a lot more than populist rhetoric to deliver on the promises made in the campaign.
The stance taken towards the Chinese, however, may yet spread to other African countries. The complaint is common that Africa has become a dumping ground for poor quality goods from China and that most services offered by Chinese investors are also of poor quality. At the same time, it is clear that China has become an important economic power Africa needs to do business with. If Sata manages to make China’s presence in Zambia more valuable to Zambians, the entire continent will take note.