By Chimwemwe Mwanza
So deeply polarised is the Zambian political landscape that the citizenry prefers to dissect burning socio-economic and political issues through the lens of partisan politics.
Here in lies a danger. While opportunistic criticism and often a times lacking in substance appeals to base politics, it only serves to enrich a poverty of ideas. Let’s get straight to the point, is there merit to criticism being levelled against the incumbent President for honouring an invitation to attend the Mining Indaba currently underway in Capetown, South Africa. Let’s be clear from the onset, the role of the commentariat is not to bat for either the state or the opposition but maintain neutrality.
However, it would be irresponsible to fold arms and capitulate to the whims of peddlers of disinformation. Hence the warning, be careful what you read either on digital or in print media for that matter. Narrative manipulators are increasingly becoming desperate and sophisticated making it difficult for mere mortals to distinguish facts from their fiction. This caution cuts across the divide, both the opposition and ruling party supporters.
HH’s attendance of the on-going Mining Indaba shouldn’t be a hair-raising mystery. The objectives of the Indaba are simple, to network, lobby and sell participating country’s investment opportunities. Yet in this climate of socio-economic despondency, it’s almost impossible to ignore the stench of poverty. And thanks in part to a brand of lumpen politics enabled by social media, extravagancy, whether real or perceived is the soft underbelly for politicians looking to score cheap political points.
The objective is to cast their opponents as spendthrifts or a class of elitists that are out of tune with the suffering masses. Perfect example, the indirect message in the criticism levelled against HH being: ‘The President is too busy galivanting in SA to worry about your complaints against rising costs of fertilizer, fuel, electricity and mealie meal among other essentials.’ But is this true?
It doesn’t help much that the President occasionally scores his own goals including his previous visit to SA – a private trip he undertook at taxpayer’s expence to attend a book launch organised by one of his most ardent backers. Therefore, it ought to have come as no surprise that the invitation extended to his office to grace this year’s Mining Indaba and his subsequent participation in proceedings has somewhat elicited a backlash.
In a desperate effort to impugn on his travels, it’s the mischaracterisation of the Indaba as a talk shop or a touristy charade that’s deeply troubling. For the record, this is the most prestigious annual gathering of mining stakeholders, labour federations and heads of governments drawn from cross sections of the continent – which is why any self-respecting head of state and whose country has significant exposure to mining ought to attend.
As for Zambia, Africa’s second biggest copper producing economy, the stakes couldn’t be higher. This industry is the mainstay of the country’s economy. Mining is also the single largest employer accounting for more than 17% of GDP. In fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine a functional Zambian economy without a copper-bottomed pull. As a famous saying goes, when copper prices tank on the global market, ninshi ba kopala bachula.
While understandable that ba Kopala are disdainful of foreign investors, the blame squarely lies on state actors that have been handing free passes to mining entities in exchange for self-enriching schemes and kickbacks. The previous regulatory regime gave very little comfort to protection of investment rights which is why a sitting government could easily kick out a rightful owner of a mining asset and hand it to a party apparatchik to manage.
It’s new beginnings and that kind of behaviour is a thing of the past is the message that HH sold delegates to the Indaba. He further committed his government to raising copper output by more than three – fold (900 000) to 3 million tonnes/year over the next ten years. This is a huge statement of intent considering the financial distress of the country’s two biggest mining firms, Mopani Copper Mines (MCM) and Konkola Copper Mines (KCM).
Yet, he remains optimistic that this target will be met on the strength of the new regulatory regime which among other objectives has committed to protecting investment rights. Do we believe him? While it has become fashionable to be pessimistic about the country’s economic prospects, it’s hard to ignore his pragmatism. Time is the only measure.
Most encouraging though is that the respect, attention, and applause which he was accorded by delegates and potential investors alike after his keynote address gives hope that a semblance of stability has finally dawned on Zambia’s mining sector. But this is just hope.