Much Ado About A White President

When Zambian president Michael Sata died last Tuesday, his vice president, Guy Scott, stepped in to take his place until new elections are organized, thus becoming the first white head of state in a post-colonial African democracy. Alexander Mutale calls this “a remarkable moment” that “says a lot about this particular country’s remarkable success in navigating the complexities of post-colonial ethnic politics”:

Despite its temporary character, Scott’s appointment still marks a watershed for post-colonial Africa. It’s a sign of how Zambia has managed to move beyond the divisive racial politics that has dominated the continent for five decades — in sharp contrast to, say, neighboring Zimbabwe, where the colonial past still weighs heavily on the political present. Zambia’s unique position attests to the enduring legacy of its first post-independence leader, President Kenneth Kaunda, who strongly advocated policies that encouraged ethnic, religious, racial, and regional integration. Despite more than 70 different tribal groups, the country’s reputation for stability has made it something of a model for other African democracies.

Scott can’t run in the elections for Sata’s permanent successor because Zambia’s constitution requires that presidential candidates have Zambian-born parents. Scott’s parents emigrated from, well, Scotland, but if he were eligible, Stephen Chan doubts that voters would reject him simply on account of his race:

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.

Namwali Serpell rolls her eyes at how foreign media have made Scott’s race the headline of the story, noting that Zambians, by and large, have more important things on their minds:

Zambians have been more focused on another constitutional change, to electoral policy: from a simple majority to a “50% plus one vote” majority, with a run-off between two finalists if necessary. This makes a big difference in a democracy that evinces a true commitment to a multi-party system (the last election had 10 parties with statistically significant votes). With this kind of complexity, the wisest move on PF’s part is to allow white Guy Scott, the man least likely to run, to hold the reins until the real contenders have wrangled it out. What’s on people’s minds isn’t the colour of Scott’s skin; it’s which candidate PF will select among the range of other possible successors to Sata

This African scholar also downplays the race thing:

How Zambia Rocks

by Dish Staff

Chris A. Smith navigates the tumultuous political history of post-independence Zambia through the prism of Zamrock, the 1970s psychedelic rock scene that produced bands like The Witch (an acronym for “We Intend to Cause Havoc”), heard above. Smith describes The Witch’s sound as “incendiary, all crystalline guitar lines and supple rhythms, topped by [singer] Jagari’s plaintive voice”:

Zamrock was the energetic sound of a nation that had just thrown off the British colonial yoke. Though Zambia is now one of the poorest countries in the world, at independence it had the second highest GDP on the continent thanks to its copper industry. Zambians expected great things—prosperity, modernization, and equal standing with the West. With its fuzzed-out guitars, propulsive beats, and cosmopolitan outlook, Zamrock provided the soundtrack to this hoped-for future.

That future never arrived. Instead the country was brought low by a series of crises, external and internal, that would render it a ward of the international community by the 1980s. The Zamrock scene, devastated by economic collapse, the AIDS epidemic, and changing musical trends, withered and died.

Last summer, Jagari, once Zambia’s biggest rock star, made his debut concert appearance in North America:

In San Francisco, Jagari opens for the indie beatmaker and DJ Madlib, and the nightclub is packed. Most of the crowd probably doesn’t know who he is, but they go nuts anyway. In response, Jagari turns back the clock. He jumps and screams, flirts and teases, runs in place like Mick Jagger and duckwalks like Chuck Berry. The closer, “October Night”—a song about the band’s 1974 arrest for playing too loud—sprawls into a nine-minute, Latin-infused space jam. He exits the stage, and it feels like a triumph. … He is philosophical about his late resurgence. “I had hoped for this much earlier,” he says. “But that’s the human point of view. God saw it differently. He was grooming me for the challenge.”

(Video: The Witch performs on 1975’s Lazy Bones)