Zambia is set to hold a vital round of elections on August 12. The elections are being held amid violence and repression with certain sections even expressing concerns of a postponement. This election season has seen a new player in the fray – the Socialist Party of Zambia. In this interview, Rania Khalek of BreakThrough News talks to Dr. Fred M’membe, the presidential candidate of the party, on its platform, vision for the future, and the history of leftist and socialist politics in the country.
Rania Khalek: Hello everyone. I’m Rania Khalek and this is Dispatches. I’m thrilled to be joined by the leader of the Socialist Party of Zambia who is running in the upcoming presidential election in August, Dr. Fred M’membe. Dr Fred M’membe, welcome. Can you start by telling us a little bit about Zambia? What’s the economy? What’s the political system? Who is currently in charge? And what is the kind of wealth and inequality that you’re dealing with there?
FM: Zambia is situated in central southern Africa. Some say central Africa, some say southern Africa. It became independent in 1964 from British colonial rule and its economy is dependent mainly on copper mining. It is a mining country with a bit of agriculture.
RK: Fred, you’re running on a socialist platform of universal education and universal healthcare, the expansion of housing and sanitation facilities for the masses, and the promotion of cooperative farming. Your party has also expressed its desire to reverse the deindustrialization process that was spurred by the neoliberal reforms introduced in 1991. So can you elaborate a little bit on your party’s platform and how it’s being received so far by Zambian society.
FM: Our country is very poor. We have poverty levels running up to 82% in some regions of our country. We have rural poverty averaging 76.6% and a very high maternal mortality rate. We also have very high infant mortality rates. The literacy levels are not that good. Due to such poverty levels, the challenges are huge. It also means that we have high hunger levels. Zambia is the fifth hungriest country in the world after the Central African Republic, Chad, Madagascar and Yemen. Then there are challenges of malnutrition – both among infants and adults – which also means that you have a very high death rate. Unemployment levels are also very high. Everything is out of control. And to that, I would add the COVID situation. You are definitely not prepared. With such high poverty levels, the spread of COVID and its control are problematic.
RK: You were talking about some of the things in your party’s platform and you mentioned universal healthcare. So the promise of the investment in universal health care takes on even more urgency in light of the pandemic. Can you tell us how the current healthcare system in Zambia has fared against COVID-19 and do you believe the program that you’re promoting could help in a future pandemic?
FM: I mentioned the rural poverty levels averaging 76.6% and the high levels of general poverty and hunger. Maintaining basic hygiene is a problem. When housing, sanitation and water supply are poor, keeping people healthy is very difficult and very expensive. You have queues at clinics or hospitals. Unless you deal with those, you cannot reduce the burden on the health system, no matter how much medicine you supply. There will be long queues. There will be a very high demand for medicines. Medicines cannot be a substitute for food. You need to provide people with the basic items to lead a healthy life and then, medicine and supplements can take care of the divergences from that. So we have serious challenges in this respect and poor levels of education make it even more difficult. When you do not have sufficient levels of education, people cannot even read the prescription from the doctor.
RK: That’s a good point and you have a policy and promoting a platform for universal education as well.
FM: Yes, even mothers with very low levels of education will find it a great challenge to look after a child in the 21st century.
RK: Can you tell us, what is the history of leftism and socialism in Zambia and the legacy of Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first president, who was at the forefront of the struggle for independence from the British. What is his influence, as well as the history and legacy of socialism in your country?
FM: Kenneth Kaunda led a very strong anti-imperialist movement. He participated heavily in the liberation struggles of southern Africa and in other parts of the continent. In that regard, he was a revolutionary. We socialists should not think that we are the only revolutionaries. Those who sacrifice everything to liberate their people from imperialist and colonial domination are also revolutionaries. But we socialists are of course the only revolutionaries who can carry out a socialist revolution. So I would say Kenneth Kaunda was a revolutionary. He took a strong anti-imperialist position and he pursued progressive policies. In the Non-Aligned Movement, he sided with the progressive elements. He also played a progressive role at the United Nations and the African Union or the Organization for African Unity as it was called then. He was a friend of many revolutionaries. He was a friend of Oliver Tambo, leader of the African National Congress, and hosted him at his residence during the liberation days. He was a very close friend of Samora Machel and Julius Nyerere. He built a good friendship with Fidel Castro, especially toward the end of his days in government. He was very close friends with Yasser Arafat.
RK: That’s a great group of people to be friends with.
FM: Yes. He was also a very good friend of [former Egyptian president] Nasser and [Kwame] Nkrumah. So he associated himself with progressive people. He was also close to Martin Luther King in the early days. They shared some platforms. So, he was progressive.
RK: Quite so and, you know, he had clearly had quite an influence on you as well. Let’s talk a little bit about your background politically and professionally. What shaped your politics? You grew up in the southern Africa and South African socialist movement. You were the founder of The Post in Zambia, the first non-government-owned newspaper, which was ultimately shut down by the government. So can you tell us about your background and what influenced you in a left direction?
FM: In the left direction, my influence came from the South African Communist Party or the Communist Party of South Africa, as it was called then, and the African National Congress. I joined this African Communist Party in 1978 and I grew up there. I had access to very good people. Joe Slovo, Chris Hani, Ben Turok and many others. So the ANC and this African Communist Party shaped my political outlook. You cannot look for a better school than that. I think they had the best revolutionaries on the continent – born out of a long and very, very difficult struggle. I think they were the best human beings I met in my life. You cannot look for a better teacher than Joe Slovo. You cannot look for a better inspiration than Chris Hani. It was a huge privilege to have known those great revolutionaries of our continent and the world.
RK: Your party blames the neoliberal policies for creating a situation where, and this is from your manifesto I believe, “nearly half of the population has no access to clean water at all.” So, can you tell us what was the impact of the structural adjustment policies on Zambia? [Structural adjustment was a series of austerity policies that were imposed on post-colonial countries in the developing world by the IMF and World Bank throughout the 1980s and 1990s to devastating effect.]
FM: The structural adjustment programs or the neoliberal programs that we pursued over the last 30 years meant that social services were hit hard. Profit was emphasized much more. We got it back to what is termed, a trickle-down economics which the current Pope, Francis, is very very much opposed to. We got to an economy that benefited private capital rather than the people. And being an extractive economy which is heavily dependent on mining, the people did not benefit. The technology has also changed. Whereas in the olden days, mines employed more people, today with technology, they employ fewer and fewer people, leading to rising levels of unemployment. People used to get some small wages from the mines. Now, they don’t get that because they don’t get jobs there. And the taxation system is poor. The government is not collecting sufficient or fair taxes from the mining activities. This means that the transnational corporations in the mining sector are making huge profits. The country is losing out on literally everything.
We had the free education system and we have lost that in a very big way. We had free health services but we have lost that over the last 30 years. We had agriculture that was supported, especially peasant agriculture with cooperatives and so forth. We have lost most of those cooperatives. We have lost that good support to peasant agriculture. When you have profit levels of 82% in a region, how can people pay for education? When you have 76.6% rural poverty, how can you expect people to pay for education? It means the poor are becoming poorer and poorer and their numbers are increasing. The population is not stagnant either; it is in fact growing. In 15 years, we expect the population to at least double. How are we going to provide education for this population? Where are the health services going to come from? Where is housing going to come from? Even basic transportation – both for human beings and goods. How are you going to improve it in the next 15 years if we continue on the same path? We have no alternative but to look for new ideas, to look for new approaches. To us, there’s no other approach than the socialist approach.
RK: You mentioned mining. And if I’m not mistaken, copper mining is one of the biggest parts of the Zambian economy. How does your party seek to restructure the economy so as to serve the working class and poor? So that you can provide all those services.
FM: The basic approach by leftist governments had been to nationalize everything. We are not going to nationalize the current mines. We don’t have the capacity to run it. If we nationalize those mines, they will be run down in no time. They are complicated businesses with a lot of complicated supply lines. You may nationalize a mine but you have not nationalized the supply lines and you find that the mine fails. We don’t have enough mining engineers, mining economists or even the legal expertise required. So many things are missing. We can’t even market the copper we have mined.
So if we nationalize, we are bound to run down the mines. We have one more than 60 years of experience – global experience – in terms of nationalizations, both on the left and on the right. We have seen what works and what doesn’t work and so we will not rush to nationalize the mines. We will instead seek to extract fair taxes from them and the pump what we have extracted into education, health and the peasant agriculture. We will also ensure that the mining corporations train our people in the skills required to mine.
Moreover, only one-third of our mining potential is currently under exploitation. Two-thirds remains unexploited and we will deal with this sector differently. Most of the existing mines may have a remaining economic life of around eight years of more. Why should we fight for a mine that has only eight years of economic life remaining. By the time the negotiations are over, the mine will have closed and you would have nationalized nothing. We don’t want to create unnecessary problems for ourselves.
Nationalization is not a principle. Our strategic goal is public ownership of literally everything. All the key sectors of the economy must be controlled by the people and must be owned by the people but the way we arrive there differs from place to place. The time it takes to get there differs from country to country.
The strategic objective of any socialist system is the public ownership of everything, of the key means of production. But that’s why socialism is a process. It’s not one act. The Socialist system is a transitional system and this transition means you have to make many compromises with capital. Any transition means you’ve got one foot in tomorrow, one foot in yesterday and your body in today. That’s not a very comfortable situation to be in. And these are not easy compromises to make. That’s what complicates socialist reconstruction. Being a transitional phase, socialism is a transitional system – it is not a permanent system. Transition to a total publicly owned system is not going to be easy. That’s what makes the struggle difficult because now we have to fight with the transnational corporations. We have to be tactical in the way we deal with them.