Monday, October 24, 2011

In Which I Wear a Gown, Meet the Praelector and Ponder the Not-Insubstantial Matter of the Election in Zambia

I was late for today’s Centre for African Studies talk about the Zambian elections, and found myself dashing into the room and plopping down in a seat next to a guy who bore a scary resemblance to Daniel Arap Moi.
I had a good excuse for my tardiness.  I’d been informed at the last minute that I needed to report immediately to the Praelector’s office since I hadn’t yet matriculated into college.  No, the Praelector is not a Roman tribunal or a hander-down of medieval punishments, but rather some guy in an odd get-up who serves as master of the matriculation ceremonies (your formal induction into your college).  Actually, Wikipedia says that “the praelector is also vicariously responsible for a student's actions and can be punished for those actions”.  I reckon that means that if I walk on the lawns he'll be the one to get ten lashes and have his fingernails pulled off by the college porters.  At any rate, I managed to be late dashing into his office, and he came ‘round the side of his desk and asked, “Do you have your gown?” 

“No”, I snapped, “I don’t have my gown.  I don't do gowns.  In fact, I’ve got philosophical objections to gowns...this is supposed to be a university, not a Harry Potter film set”.  Actually, I left it at “No”.  He gave me the sort of look I’d normally reserve for a child molester and slipped out of his own gown with a practised ease I couldn’t manage while trying to put it on.  In the meantime, he whipped down another gown—which looked exactly like the one he’d just taken off, but heck, what do I know?—and put it on.  I was expecting this ceremony—which NEEDED to happen TODAY at this EXACT time when I was supposed to be somewhere else, and which COULDN’T possibly occur at ANY other moment—to be somewhat elaborate, but it basically involved me (in gown) scribbling my name in a mouldy book with a fancy pen that leaked all over my hands and gown sleeve (ha!), performing a series of awkward manoeuvres to get out of his gown so that he could put it back on in place of the identical one which he jettisoned back to the closet, and then tearing down the stairs, sprinting out of the college, vaulting over a dog, running over the top of an old lady with a zimmer frame, and hurtling down Free School lane to the African Studies seminar room.

The essence of the talk—at least what I gathered while ascertaining that the gentlemen next to me wasn’t actually the notorious Professor of Politics—was that the Zambian elections of last month marked one of very few instances of an incumbent being defeated in recent African history.  How, Dr Alastair Fraser puzzled, had insurgent candidate Michael Sata (hardly new to politics) and the Patriotic Front managed to defeat Rupiah Banda and the MMD, who had all of the state’s machinery of patronage at his fingertips.  Not only was Banda able to batter the opposition with attacks from state media (Fraser likened Banda’s state television flunkeys to “American shock-jocks”, who would basically follow on the evening newscast which had been spent telling Zambians what a lousy degenerate Sata was with a half-hour rant on the Sata threat accompanied by scary music) and parade his followers on brand-spanking-new trucks, painted the MMD colours, while forcing the PF campaign underground even in its Lusaka base; he also had the services of British PR firm Bell Pottinger, which apparently has a Division for Dictators and Autocrats. 

The answer we were given was twofold.  And no, it didn’t have to do with Guy Scott helping Sata to win the white vote.  On the one hand, Sata became a populist “empty signifier”.  That is to say, he became—justifiably or not—the embodiment of people’s frustrations with the MMD’s 20-year rule.  On the other, he and his supporters used their underdog status to craft a campaign based on the phrase “Don’t Kubeba” (akin to “Don’t tell”) which, acknowledging the patronage-oriented politics to which Zambians are accustomed, urged people to go through the motions of turning up at MMD rallies, wearing MMD shirts, eating MMD goats, but, at the end of the day, voting for PF.

Fraser was guardedly optimistic about the possibility of Sata actually fulfilling his campaign promises, which focussed on excising corruption from the body politic, shifting the balance on the copperbelt (long one of Africa’s most industrialised regions) from mining companies (many foreign run/owned) towards workers, and seeing that the benefits of Zambia’s recent growth is more evenly distributed.  He also noted that Sata appears to be working on a Mandela-esque “Man of the People” image, the maintenance of which might force him to avoid more obviously egregious abuses of his position.

Let’s hope the optimism proves justified.  Whether the PF’s election victory and strategy can serve as a model for other oppositions across the continent (and whether it is a model that does much in the service of democracy and accountability) is a slightly more complicated question, but one which we might hear more about when Kenyans go to the polls in August (I'll be posting updates from Nairobi!).

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