After a series of lengthy flights, via London and Dubai, I’m back in Lusaka and getting stuck into the archives for the summer. London, where I transferred between airports, was gloomy and cold, and the National Express Driver bellowed grumpily at hapless tourists in totally unintelligible English (‘Are you going to Gatwick’ came out ‘Oh ya ga Gatty?’), and had to call a colleague over to translate. Dubai looked slick and shiny in the Emirates on-board magazine, but from the air the city, which jutted up like some ferocious mountain range, looked embalmed in a permanent coat of dust.
After all of that, Lusaka was bright and cheery, basking in dry warmth during the day and growing chilly in the evening. It is, after all, winter here, which corresponds with the dry season. The Backpackers looks mostly unchanged. There’s a further block of rooms going up in the back, Paka (the resident feline) is typically dismissive and solicitous by turns (depending on whether you’ve got anything to eat), and the mornings are beautiful, as the sun creeps up over the drooping trees that line these neighbourhoods east of the downtown and west of the government and embassy quarter, where the archives are located.
As ever, the National Archives were spic, span, and welcoming, and I’ve got a long list of files to work through before I leave here and head north.
The city has a slow, dusty feel, with none of the chaos or volume or crowdedness that I associate with places like Nairobi, Dar, or Kampala. And amongst people passing through it has the reputation for being a ‘nothing’ sort of place, the hub of an axis with interesting points at the end of the spokes, but without anything interesting at the centre.
But at other times in its recent history, Lusaka has been a very central sort of place. Zambia became independent in 1964, several years after breaking away from a three-party federation dominated by an apartheid-minded regime in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) which would in 1965 declare itself independent from Britain in an effort to forestall the coming of majority rule.
To the north was the friendlier government of Tanganyika, whose President, Julius Nyerere, espoused pan-Africanism and offered sanctuary for exiles from African nations and colonies not yet independent. His desire to promote a uniquely African version of socialism was shared by Zambia’s President, Kenneth Kaunda, who espoused what he called Zambian Humanism, a malleable, personalised, and Christian doctrine.
But to the south, Zambia faced perils after independence, in the form of the Southern Rhodesian government (whose sabre-rattling, particularly over the Kariba Dam, prompted Kaunda to request the return of British armed forces to his country until a later falling out) and the more durable apartheid regime in South Africa.
It was to Lusaka that the African National Congress (the largest vehicle for resistance to apartheid) despatched its External Mission. Members of the political command and of its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe set up shop, and the likes of Joe Slovo and Chris Hani roamed Lusaka’s leafy byways.
Zambia, in common with some of its neighbours, paid a price for opposing apartheid, which Kaunda believed constituted an existential threat to his country’s existence and to the prosperity and stability of southern Africa. As documented in the 1990 publication, Apartheid Terrorism: the Destabilization Report, the South African government waged war by economic and military means on its neighbours, and regarded Lusaka as a particular threat. ANC activists received parcel bombs, the apartheid government did its best to sabotage the Zambian economy, and the SADF bombed Lusaka.
It was to this historic meddling that Zambian Vice-President Guy Scott referred in a recent rather curious interview. Indeed, it is difficult to understand the politics of much of contemporary southern and central Africa without considering the ordeal by fire through which countries here passed during a brief though utterly transformative period of colonial rule, the even shorter but still formative years of South African apartheid, and the relationships which have developed since the ‘80s and ‘90s, based on a shared struggle, a conviction that colonialism takes multiple forms, and an uneasiness about too-easy an acceptance of the political and economic orthodoxy promoted by the West and the international and financial institutions which serve its interests.