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Can Zambia stand up to China?


Making the miners pay: Zambian copper miners are fighting to improve labour conditions.


For the first time in 20 years, Zambia has a new ruling party. Michael Sata’s Patriotic Front (PF) swept to election victory in September promising to tackle élite corruption and exploitative foreign investors.

Sata’s first official visitor to State House was the Chinese ambassador. After the meeting he said, ‘we welcome your investment, but as we welcome your investment, [it] should benefit Zambians and not the Chinese’. New mining licences and metal export permits have been suspended pending an audit of the mining sector, and senior PF figures are mooting measures ranging from increased state ownership to windfall taxes.

The PF had built its support base in the sprawling townships of the capital Lusaka and the Copperbelt mining towns. Their 2006 election campaign was notable for its anti-Chinese rhetoric. Sata dubbed them ‘infesters not investors’, accusing them of using ‘slave labour’. Beijing threatened to cut diplomatic ties. The party subsequently softened its stance, but their mandate remains based on making serious reforms of the mining industry.

But some view Sata, now 74, less as an authentic man of the people, and more as a manipulative schemer who has stayed close to power his entire adult life. How brave and accountable is he? Will his party deliver? Three months into PF’s new term, it’s a good time to measure its progress.

The Chinese government is Zambia’s largest investor. They have made its Copperbelt a cornerstone of their industrial growth, ploughing in around $2 billion in investment in the last decade. The African continent’s main copper producer, Zambia’s economic growth has averaged over six per cent for the last five years. But many ordinary Zambians – over 60 per cent of whom live in poverty – feel they have not seen the benefits.

Peter Sinkamba from advocacy group Citizens for a Better Environment says the previous government was good at ‘attracting foreign investment’ but not at channelling the proceeds. ‘From 2008-10 copper generated over $6 billion in revenue, but only $900 million was reported going into the Zambian economy – we were cheating ourselves,’ he says.

Zambia’s previous government praised China for providing jobs and rejuvenating defunct mines. But low wages and poor safety standards have sparked conflict. More than once, Chinese managers have shot workers and escaped prosecution. Civil society organizations, meanwhile, have criticized low taxes and dodgy accounting. ‘People were sick of the government protecting investors at the expense of their communities,’ explains Sinkamba.

A confident labour movement combined with a supportive government may just change mining industry practices for the better. Workers have embarked on a series of strikes demanding better wages. In Chambishi this October, China Nonferrous Metals Corp fired 1,000 striking workers, only for government intervention to lead to their being reinstated with a pay rise. Charles Muchimba, head of research at the Miners Union, explains: ‘Those strikes were a reaction to the new government; employees felt their terms and conditions should be improved there and then.’

Alastair Fraser, a Zambia expert from Cambridge University, points out that successive Zambian governments have won power through the labour movement, but ‘their initial response has been to quickly suppress their demands’. Though too early to ascertain the government’s intentions, Fraser describes the PF’s initial actions as ‘surprisingly radical’.


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