African Business joins millions of Zambians in mourning the death in office of Michael Sata. From the scale of the ceremonies held to mark his passing, it is obvious that Sata was hugely popular with the people.
Michael Sata, despite his popularity, was not an easy person to get on with. His nickname, ‘King Cobra’ was actually a respectful acknowledgement of his total refusal to back down in a confrontation – much like the actual king cobra, the most feared creature in southern Africa.
Like the venom from his reptilian namesake, Sata’s often acerbic tongue could reduce his opponents to ashes.
Sata’s political career had been floundering before he made himself the champion of Zambian mineworkers, who were being treated abysmally by their Chinese overlords. When two Chinese supervisors shot 13 workers dead, Sata seized his moment.
To compound the matter, the government of his predecessor, Rupiah Banda, quietly dropped murder charges against the supervisors – igniting nationwide fury against both the Chinese as well as the government, which was considered spineless.
Sata pledged to protect the ‘innocent’ Zambian workers against the ‘ruthless so-called investors’ and, campaigning vigorously on this platform, contested the Presidency in the 2011 elections.
He lashed both the Chinese for their behaviour and the government for its ‘unacceptable’ kowtowing to foreigners. The Chinese, who have been very careful never to align themselves publicly to any political party or faction, broke custom and declared that if Sata won the elections, they might pull all their investments from the country. If they did so, it would effectively shut down Zambia’s most important source of income – copper mining – and throw thousands out of work.
The threat did not work. The public voted for Sata. A chastened Chinese delegation was among the very first to pay their respects to the new leader and all talk of pulling out just disappeared.
Sata in turn was gracious in victory. He told the Chinese they could stay as long as they respected the people of his country and its laws.
The Chinese fell over in their eagerness to mend fences with ‘King Cobra’. They organised a high-profile visit to China in 2013 where he was received by President Xi Jinping and a coterie of ministers and other high-ranking officials. He was even invited to address the annual Boao Forum for Asia, where he talked about the future of Africa-Asia relations.
Reports later emerged that there had been a ‘night of the long knives’ during which errant Chinese managers and their supervisors in Africa were hauled over the coals and general oversight on how the Chinese behaved in Africa was sharpened up.
Sata had called the Chinese bluff and had shown them that, important as their investments were to Zambia, they could not ride roughshod over the people. If they could not bring themselves to respect the people, they were free to pull up stakes and leave.
In this, Sata struck a blow not just for Zambia but also for Africa as a whole. There is still considerable debate about the huge presence of Chinese in Africa and their creeping stranglehold on African economies. On balance, we believe that the Chinese intervention, particularly in building infrastructure, has been very positive for Africa and, in fact, has provided the foundation for the sustained economic growth. But the other side of the coin has been ugly. It is not just a culture clash but often a deep-seated racism and a belief that Africans are somehow inferior that has led to so many heated eruptions between the Chinese and Africans.
I recommend a new study, Africa’s World Trade by the academic Margaret C Lee, who interviewed a number of African traders who work and live in ‘Chocolate City’ in Guangzhou, southern China. These African traders coordinate the shipping of millions of containers of goods from China to Africa and play a critical part in keeping the Chinese small-scale sector thriving. But their treatment is abhorrent. Stories of their trials and tribulations circulate in Africa as rapidly and deeply as the products they ship out and this in turn sours the African attitude towards the Chinese. It is in China’s own interest that they curb some of these vile practices against Africans trading in China. Failure to do so will only create many more Satas.