Shootings: Tensions flare-up in Zambia

2010-10-26 08:09

Lusaka - Red lanterns frame neat Chinese signs over the stalls at Lusaka's Luburma discount market, packed with Zambian bargain-hunters looking for deals on clothes, food and an endless variety of plastic objects.

But the market's popularity belies the tensions between Zambians and the estimated 100 000 Chinese who have moved to the country over the last decade, especially after a shooting at a Chinese-run mine.

"It's like we are not in our country because Zambia has been given to Chinese," said Francis Kasonde, a high school graduate hawking music and plastic shoes in Luburma's corridors.

"You can't give the whole market to Chinese leaving out your nationals and claim to be a caring government," he said.

In a neighbourhood once dominated by ethnic Indian traders, the city of Lusaka in 2001 granted a 65-year lease to the China Hainan Zambia company to develop and manage Luburma market.

With 432 three-by-two-metre stalls and 121 shops of varying sizes, rentals are too steep for most Zambians, resulting in Chinese running most of the market.

Such long-standing frustrations have sharpened since two Chinese mine managers - Xiao Li Shan and Wu Jiu Hua of Collum coal mine - allegedly shot and injured 12 miners who were protesting against their working conditions on October 15.

Hot political issue

The two have been charged with attempted murder. The Chinese foreign ministry said the two had "mistakenly hurt several local workers", a stand that has done little to soothe the public outrage in Zambia.

Since Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the country in 2007, Chinese investment has soared to an estimated $6.1bn, mainly in the mining sector, creating jobs for nearly 15 000 Zambians. China is also building a new stadium in the Copperbelt town of Ndola.

Investment from China, as well as from India, helped Zambia weather the global financial crisis, but Beijing's growing role in the country has become a hot political issue.

While President Rupiah Banda has urged calm over the shooting incident, warning against creating an anti-Chinese "phobia", the main opposition leader Michael Sata has lashed out.

"Zambians should be the first ones to benefit from whatever is in their country and not Chinese," he told AFP.

"I am against them abusing our people, and that abuse can be seen through them occupying all the stalls" at Luburma, he said. "How can they take over the whole market and start selling things that Zambians can also sell. This is unacceptable and it has to change."

Sata is now so well known for his anti-Chinese rants that street vendors have taken to shouting "Sata Uyo" - meaning "There's Sata" - to scare Chinese passersby.

Zambians working for Chinese businesses often echo the complaints of the workers at Collum mine, saying their employers flout labour laws with impunity and offer measly wages.

Catherine Nyirenda, a 25-year-old widow and mother of three, works for a Chinese textile shop where she says she's not allowed a lunch break.

Larger problems

"My children have to go to school and I get as little as 200 000 kwacha ($43) a month. This is despite working from Monday to Saturday without eating and in a hot environment," Nyirenda said, in fluent English.

Michael Mwale works in a Chinese-run bakery, where he said his employer locks up the staff all day in an enclosure without ventilation.

"This is October and it's hot here and the man locks us up without any regard that this place might catch fire and we will all be dead," he said.

"This is dangerous and inhuman and we are risking our lives for only 350 000 kwacha," Mwale said.

Part of the problem is language. Few of the Chinese working in Zambia speak English or a local language, and none in the market could speak to a reporter.

But the shooting points to larger problems.

"There is no way Chinese should be allowed to get away with it," Mine Workers Union of Zambia president Rayford Mbulu told AFP.

"If it's a Zambian that has shot Chinese in China, I am sure by this time that the individual will be dead."