Mandy’s Matrix: How Sata made the West cool again

2011-11-05 15:53

In the time of Robert Mugabe, Thabo Mbeki and, in recent times, Jacob Zuma, with their fierce anti-imperialist rhetoric, imagine my surprise to find an African leader proclaiming to be unashamedly pro-West.

Zambia’s President Michael Sata has only been in office for a month, so maybe he will still learn the importance of not pissing off the Chinese, but so far he has made it very clear the new Zambian government will move to strengthen relations with the West.

For them, relations with the East has been the priority of the previous government for too long and it is time for a change.

In this way Sata seems almost retro.

In the African diplomatic sphere it is totally uncool to admit you like countries like Britain and America.

But the Chinese have also given Zambia a raw deal at times, and Sata is adamant to pull them in line.

The Chinese are not very popular in Zambia – to put it diplomatically.

They tend to bring in their own workers to work in construction and mining, leaving the unemployment problem in Zambia to continue unabated.

Where they do employ Zambian workers, these feel exploited and underpaid.

When I recently asked a local analyst if there is resentment towards South Africa given how South African shops took over Lusaka, his answer was telling: “Anyone is better than the Chinese.”

Sata campaigned in his presidential election on an anti-Chinese ticket – the kind of xenophobic tendencies that had true-blue liberals (and Beijing) shaking in their boots.

Shortly after Sata was elected, the Chinese ambassador to Lusaka was the first to hurry over to State House with a letter of congratulations to the president.

Not schooled in the fine art of diplomacy, Sata made the hapless ambassador open and read the letter in front of an audience of cabinet members.

From there the Chinese were supposed to know there’s a new sheriff in town.

A recent lunch with Chinese businesspeople assured them their investments were safe, but that they would have to get into the habit of paying their Zambian employees minimum wage.

His first love seems to be Britain.

He spent time in the 1960s working as a train shunter at London’s busiest railway hub, Victoria Station. From there he went for training in Germany and later Russia. But, as one of his aides said, that is as Far East as he went.

While under former president Rupiah Banda’s rule, the Chinese business community had a free hand in Zambia, it is now the British and Americans that get the royal treatment.

The Americans held a party for the peace corps at State House recently, hosted by Sata himself, and he upset security guards last week when he rushed ahead to open the car door when the British high commissioner came to visit.

Sata’s first conversation with Mugabe about his pro-West stance should be an interesting one, but he will probably have luck on his side, given that Zambia is the flavour of the moment in Africa.

South Africa and Angola are trying to beat each other in the race to be the first to receive Sata for a state visit.

Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos, who is by no means an avid traveller, even suggested that he would come to Lusaka to see Sata if need be.

So Sata is riding the wave of his popularity in the international arena as well as at home, a place he never thought he would be when he was lining up train cars for the morning rush hour.

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