issue 189 - November 1988
Food and flames
In the Zambian food riots they burned down the supermarket and looted
the shops. John Mukela went to the Copperbelt to find out why.
His name is Thomas Kasonde but his friends call him Texas. Throughout our long conversation his head is constantly in motion, eyes darting to and fro avoiding my gaze. He can't be more than 25 years old. Without an education or marketable skills Texas epitomizes the majority of Zambia's army of no-hopers, caught in a web of urban poverty from which escape is almost impossible.
Speaking in the local Bemba dialect, Texas tells the story of Zambia's worst civil unrest in post-independence history - the 1986 food riots which arose from the burning desire of Zambia's poorest people to survive. President Kaunda had been forced to implement an International Monetary Fund-inspired 120 per-cent-increase in the price of Zambia's staple food, maize meal. And for the first time ever, Texas tasted victory:
'In the morning we heard they had increased the price of maize meal. We wanted to force them to bring the price down. So we went on the rampage. We stoned the buses belonging to the United Bus Company. And those of us who could drive, collected passengers and appointed our own bus conductors. It was a revolution!'
Rioters targeted state-owned properties: attacks on these buildings represented a public statement of indignation against the Government. Kitwe city centre resembled a war zone. Looters carried clothes out of shop windows along with anything else they could lay their hands on. Many stripped off their clothes on the spot and changed into new ones.
They raided the main city bakery to dispense scones and cakes to workers at the civic centre. And seven new Peugeot cars were driven off from the Central African Motor Services: two were never found. One of the three supermarkets looted was razed to the ground.
The most violent rioting was in Chimwemwe, a sprawling impoverished township on the outskirts of Kitwe: the hub of the Copperbelt. The Copperbelt has been a political melting pot for years. In the 1950s the newly-urbanized mineworkers provided the centre of anti-British nationalism. The rioting ignited here in 1986 became so severe that on the second day President Kaunda imposed a curfew and closed all of Zambia's borders.
Although the borders have long since reopened, Zambia's relationship with major international bodies like the IMF and the World Bank has ceased: the economic packages prescribed by these organizations were ditched in May last year. The country now survives largely on individual grants. But with an external debt of $5 billion and scheduled interest payments of over $180 million1 annually, there is little hope that the meagre amounts pledged by sympathizers will be sufficient.
The country's economic troubles are rooted in a string of global crises: specifically the oil crisis of the 1970s and the steep drop in copper prices, a commodity upon which Zambia depends for over 80 per cent of its foreign earnings. There has been an 80-percent decline in trade since 1970 and an equivalent decline in government capital expenditure from 1975-1979.
Prices have gone up and up for as long as Texas can remember. This July for example the government hiked up the price of milk by over 40 per cent. Texas can't recall when he last drank milk. Even black market bread is difficult to come by. Having no steady work means Texas has little money for such luxuries, anyway.
The technicalities of Zambia's international grants and debt mean little to Texas Kasonde. The struggle for survival is all that he knows: 'When we were in charge during the riots,' he says 'we pulled down the national flag outside the supermarket. In its place we hoisted our own flag. It symbolized victory. Do you know what it was?' I didn't. Texas looks wistful. 'It was an empty polythene bag of maize meal.'
John Mukela is a Lusaka-based writer and broadcaster who specializes in ecological and development issues.
1 World Bank Debt Tables 1987-1988