November 2000


Instead of enjoying a higher quality of life after independence, the majority of Zambians are living in abject poverty, while the country is ranked as one of the poorest in sub-Saharan Africa. Observers blame it on the country’s economic policies, based on the ‘multilateral donor-driven structural adjustment programme’.

By Anthony Mukwita

Lusaka: John Mbewe, a retired Zambian civil servant in his late 50s, still recalls with nostalgia how, 30 years ago, he was a respected man with a regular disposable income.

Those were the days when the Zambian economy was doing well and most Zambians had no idea what abject poverty was because food, shelter, health and education were affordable to many. ‘Almost all the households I knew had food,’ Mbewe says. ‘Our children went to schools and graduated with flying colours because teachers taught and were not perpetually on strike.’

Zambia was then just shaking off the colonial shackles, and copper prices on the world market were good so the country’s foreign reserves were substantial.

Now, 36 years after independence, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) grade Zambia as one of the poorest nations in sub-Saharan African with a crippling foreign debt of more than $6.5 billion. And, as Zambians celebrated independence on 24 October, most of them felt no joy, only pain and remorse.

About 80% of Zambians are living in abject poverty and cannot afford three meals a day even though the director of the central statistics office  (CSO)  maintains that only 73% of the people are living in poverty.

Observers say the situation should be different for an independent state, especially one not embroiled in armed conflict, and that Zambians should have enjoyed a higher quality of life after independence than the reverse. They place the blame largely on the economic policies of the regime of President Frederick Chiluba, which embraced the multilateral donor-driven structural adjustment programme (SAP).

Their argument is not exactly founded on sand because Zambia Privatisation Agency (ZPA) figures, in fact, show that more than 50,000 jobs have been lost directly due to the recovery programme.

Supporters of the radical programme, however, argue that some jobs have been created in the process and that it has not been completely ‘doom and gloom’. They blame local and international media for reporting only on the negative.

Realising how disgruntled the Zambians were several years after independence, Chiluba called for patience and said prosperity would come to the suffering majority but only after probably 10-20 more years. ‘Zambia has only been around for over 30 years,’ the President said. ‘Some European countries have been around for more than 700 years so they cannot be compared to us.’

Whatever Chiluba says, however, his detractors say he has performed quite badly and that ordinary Zambians are feeling the pinch. For instance, a recent strategy paper from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the government of Zambia says 25,000-35,000 children are born with the HIV/AIDS virus every year.

Some 109 maternal deaths are being recorded for every 1,000 births, as compared to just below 79 at the turn of the century.

The AIDS scourge has also taken its toll, killing more than 650,000 Zambians and leaving over 600,000 children orphaned, while the number of people expected to die from the disease shall increase 10-fold by the year 2024 if it is not controlled.

Zambians are also earning less than they  used to at independence as the local currency, the kwacha, keeps depreciating against major currencies such as the US dollar, which is now fetching 3,400-3,500 kwacha for one dollar.

Civil servants earn US40-70 per month but the Jeusit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR), which collects information on how much an average family of six needs to survive in a month, says such a family needs at least $90. This is just to survive on bare necessities,  such as a  25-kg bag of mealie meal,  a 2.5-litre bottle of cooking oil, and a few kilogrammes of fish and meat, but excludes rentals, transport and health care.

Recently, the president of the umbrella trade union movement, Fackson Shamenda, called on the government to pay a minimum monthly wage of 375,000 kwacha (about $106) for them to survive.

Life has become so unbearable for many Zambians as unemployment levels have risen to an all-time high of about 89%, leaving only some 11% of people in gainful employment.

To make matters worse, almost all sectors of the economy have been liberalised, including education, health and agriculture, making it hard for the poor majority to survive on one job at all.

Chiluba, nevertheless, remained optimistic against the backdrop of all these problems, citing the biblical example of the Israelites who thought the promised land would be easy to reach but took much longer to do so and even at the cost of human life. - Third World Network Features/IPS

About the writer: Anthony Mukwita is a correspondent for Inter Press Service, with whose permission the above article has been reprinted.