As part of our popular #BookClub series, Timothy Wild reviews the autobiography of Guy Scott, Adventures in Zambian Politics: A Story in Black and White. One of Africa’s most engaging political figures, Scott made headlines when he became the first white politician to lead an African state under majority rule, serving as Acting President for 90 days following the untimely death of Michael Sata in October 2014.
Although I enjoy political biographies, I find political autobiographies a bit harder to stomach. After all, I had the complete and utter displeasure of reading Justin Trudeau’s book Common Ground – a well-worn parable, written when he was leader of the Third Party with good hair and a famous last name, about an unfocussed youth who finds his way and is now well equipped to assume the mantle of power. A campaign tract with a Henry V type trajectory, but less inspiration. And while some biographies can certainly cross the line into an uncritical hagiography, many autobiographies shamelessly erase the line of analysis and sober reflection, and jump enthusiastically into self-promotion, posturing and justification. I treat autobiographies with a degree of, perhaps undue, cynicism. That is unfair. However, I must admit, that’s how I approached Guy Scott’s memoir, Adventures in Zambian Politics: A Story in Black and White.
Dr. Scott is a seasoned professional in the blood sport of Zambian politics, having played for a number of teams and in a number of positions. Therefore, I expected the book to chronicle his role as a “great man” of Zambian politics and discuss his political education and evolution as the independent and liberal minded son of the Independent and liberal minded Lusaka MP, Dr. Alexander Scott, in the Central African Federation, to being the interim president of the country – a notable achievement, especially given that he became the first white leader to achieve the feat in an African state operating under majority rule. Certainly, an interesting tale. Nevertheless, I went in with my cynical eyes wide open, scanning for fault, hypocrisy and hubris. But I was wrong.
Instead, of a predictable local boy makes good account, I was given a history of modern Central Africa, a solid overview of recent developments in Zambian politics (particularly from 1991 and the rise of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy [MMD]), a critique of Zambian economics from an unabashedly Keynesian perspective, a realistic assessment of the country’s place in the world (economically and diplomatically), a taste for the democratic potential of the country and, most surprising to me, a glowing picture of the late Patriotic Front (PF) leader and Zambian President, Michael Sata, despite warts and all, as being a politician of integrity, vision and inclusion. The love, respect and friendship that Scott has for “Michael” is, paradoxically, the true subject of this autobiography. Scott candidly writes “[t]his is a book about him after all.”
In fact, I would say that Scott actively downplays his role in the political development of the country. He skims over his involvement in the Lima Party (and the benefits of proportional representation), barely mentions his massive success as Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries and is modest about the role that he personally played in the patient building of a coalition to unseat President Frederick Chiluba. Instead, he is content to demonstrate that Michael Sata, with his non-racialist and pro-poor policies, should have been the MMD candidate for President when Chiluba’s third term constitutional wrangling unravelled, and that he should have beaten MMD insiders Levy Mwanawasa and Rupiah Banda in subsequent presidential elections when he stood as the PF candidate.
When Sata did win in 2011, he did not live long enough to complete his full term of office. Guy Scott, as Sata’s Vice President, became interim president for ninety days, which lead to vitriolic splits within the PF, with Edgar Lungu emerging from the palace coup to be the party’s successful presidential candidate in 2016. The black and white in the sub-title perhaps refers to the part of the constitution which supported Scott’s temporary ascension to President as well as to matters of skin colour. indeed, one of the striking things about this autobiography, and of Zambian politics more generally, is that Scott’s rise to power does not appear to be anything particularly striking or – in terms of his identity at least – controversial.
The book is well written and quite humourous at times. Scott’s personality shines through, and he does have a good analysis of the game. He also provides a pretty decent basic bibliography for people interested in greater context. However, I think the book is also important for what it says about Zambian politics in general. Just as I approached Dr. Scott’s book with a sense of being uncertain about what I might find, I also feel the same when I look at next year’s election in Zambia. It is unclear what will happen. This is largely because the country’s politics remain, for the most part, based around individuals and not the articulation of values or even the aggregation of policies. Michael Sata was certainly a charismatic leader, but I am not sure that he was based in values as much as Scott argues in the book. He was a savvy political operative for sure, but perhaps not as value driven as Scott likes to imagine.
Scott suggests that he and Sata employed a pro-poor lens when building and sustaining their complicated and evolving coalition. Certainly, the PF spoke to the majority Bemba group, but also had considerable following in the Copperbelt working class and with socially and economically marginalized urban social groups who were fluid in political loyalty. In fact, the mangled Anglo-Bemba phrase “don’t kubeba”, came from Scott in an attempt to suggest that people take whatever patronage they could receive from the various parties, but don’t tell they are actually voting for the PF. In office, however, despite protestations of Keynesian orthodoxy or aspirations, as opposed to models of quasi-socialist planning, the PF was and has been unable to implement pro-poor policies to any considerable degree. Millions of Zambians still do not have access to education, healthcare, sanitation and clean water, despite explicit Constitutional guarantees to the contrary. If access to these is viewed as an “actionable right” in the legal sense, it is meaningless if the state does not have the will or the resources to meet those basic rights of citizenship.
As noted by Innocent Ndashe, of the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection in Lusaka, reflecting on the 2020 Budget: “the budget does not offer much relief to ordinary citizens who are struggling to survive due to [a] bad combination of limited sources of income and high cost of living.” Moreover, this was written before the massive global economic impact of COVID19. Overall, in what could be seen as a pre-election budget, the PF government appears to be retreating to the comfort of conservative fiscal orthodoxy with, for example, cuts to education and health care and increased expenses to Defence and Public Order. Such orthodoxy, and ensuring policies and programs, will hardly help the poor. In fact, it will continue to hurt them. Scott sadly argues “I felt that the party I had founded with Michael had strayed very far, very fast, from what we had intended” (p. 242). This seems an understatement.
In the book, Scott makes a great deal about the influence of (the newly resurrected) J.M. Keynes in developing a pro-capitalist yet inclusive economic model to help the poor of Zambia. However, I would argue that despite some glimmers of ideological hope within the PF, the party remains grounded in the personality of the leader and not in policies. Such a focus will not help the poor. It is also likely that President Lungu’s opponents in 2021 will be based more on personality than values and policies. In this sense, Dr. Scott was overly optimistic about the role that the PF could play in widening the circles of participation and inclusion. Despite the rhetoric, Michael Sata ultimately practiced party politics according to the norm of “ins” versus “outs”, albeit with a different set of “ins”.
Scott’s book is a welcome addition to the political literature of the country. But even in black and white, it is important to read between the lines, and see that substantial change is needed. Dr. Scott ends with a sad reflection that “[f]or now the system has reasserted itself, and the cracks in the mold have been sealed shut.” Perhaps the adoption of some process of proportional representation could increase the diversity of voices in Lusaka? Because Zambia sorely needs a party that will develop and implement pro-poor policies to enhance the common good. There is still time for a democratic option to emerge for Zambian voters ahead of 2021, but until then “don’t kubeba”.
Timothy Wild is a Social Worker in Canada and has volunteered at the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection in Lusaka, Zambia
 Ndashe, I (2019). Zambia’s 2020 national budget will narrowly impact positively on lives of majority ordinary citizens, JCTR Bulletin, 118 Fourth Quarter, 2019, Lusaka, p. 5.
Great insights and reflection on Guy Scott’s Autobiography. I really enjoyed reading your take on Zambian politics.