Zambia’s new, white vice president on understanding Mugabe and standing up to China

Lusaka, Zambia
Zambia’s new vice president, Dr Guy Scott, sinks into the back seat of his armoured car. Motorbike outriders clear the traffic ahead of us as we glide through the capital. ‘I am enjoying the toys, I must say.’ He means the helicopter and the two motorcades — one for the city, another for the bush.

There were two remarkable aspects to last October’s election, in which the Patriotic Front party was voted in, ending the former government’s 20-year rule. The first was the peaceful nature of the regime change. The other was the colour of Dr Scott’s skin. It is the first time in independent Africa (Zambia gained its independence in 1964) that a white man has occupied such a high office. Recently George W. Bush passed through on a visit. ‘When they introduced me as vice president, he thought they were kidding.’

Our convoy swings into the forecourt of the capital’s most expensive hotel. Sirens heralding Scott’s arrival are another novelty, but he insists they are used only sparingly. Except on visits to his own constituency, he jokes, when they are put on full blast — in defiance of ‘all those who thought I couldn’t make it, mainly my fellow whites.’

It is not surprising that his popularity among the black electorate prompted much talk in international circles of reconciliation with the colonial past, of a new style of African politics that transcends the hoary old issue of race. (Most Zambians, it should be noted, shrugged off his whiteness as a detail barely worthy of comment.)

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What may raise a few eyebrows, however, is his friendly relationship with an unlikely ally: Robert Mugabe. Or, as he calls the autocrat next door, ‘Bob’ — he has known him for many decades. He praises the Zimbabwean leader’s performance at a recent trade summit in Malawi. ‘You have this bloke presented to you as the local nutter, yet he was tremendously compos mentis. He spoke brilliantly. He was very clever. He nearly had the US ambassador crying into his tea, impressed with wonderment.’

Less than 40,000 of Zambia’s 13-million-strong population are white, but among them are many Zimbabweans forced to re-settle across the border. It goes against expectations, then, that Scott insists the central message of Mugabe’s speech — namely, that Africa should keep hold of its own wealth, instead of losing out to foreign investors — ‘was right on the money. It was very sensible stuff.’ As sensible as Mugabe’s land seizures and mismanagement of the world’s fastest-shrinking economy? He sighs. ‘What has happened is very cruel and nasty and doesn’t reflect well on anybody. But it is worth trying to understand what is happening, rather than saying it’s the lunatic act of one man. It’s not.’

It is an unusual viewpoint for a former farmer of British descent. Scott was born 67 years ago in Livingstone, on what is now the Zambian side of the Zambia-Zimbabwe border, to a mother from Watford and a Scottish father. Scott graduated in economics from Cambridge, researched robotics at Oxford, and wrote a phD in cognitive science before returning to Zambia at the dawn of multi-party politics in 1990.

Today, his is the only white face in the entire Zambian national assembly, whose members sit in horseshoe formation around a stuffed leopard and lion and a magnificent pair of elephant tusks. The man Dr Scott calls ‘The Boss’ is Michael Sata, the 74-year-old firebrand president known by others as King Cobra. He appointed his old friend as deputy after winning the election on his fourth attempt. ‘Michael knows about political symbolism. It’s one in the eye for his critics who say he’s a tribalist. Obviously, he’s not.’

It took very little time for an opponent to question Scott’s claim to be Zambian, saying his foreign parentage made him ineligible for the post. (Constitutionally, it is only the president whose parents must have been born in the country. Should Sata become unfit, Scott would act as interim caretaker.) Still, Scott doubts a white man would have got this far in other sub-Saharan African countries lacking Zambia’s stability and tolerance. ‘I don’t think I would be nearly as welcome in South Africa, for example. Or West Africa. I get the suspicion they are pretty dubious, wondering what a white man is doing there. But for some reason, I’m very popular here.’

How long that popularity lasts will depend on how he and Sata tackle Zambia’s top priority — its complex relationship with China. The history of huge Chinese investment here dates back to the 1960s, when Kenneth Kaunda, first president of the republic, won help from Chairman Mao to build the Tazara railway. The tracks China built opened up trade by allowing landlocked Zambia access to the Indian ocean through Tanzania, rather than its white-ruled neighbours. Today, Zambia is Africa’s biggest producer of copper and China is one of the world’s hungriest consumers of it, and relations between the two are increasingly bitter, as local people struggle to compete against a huge influx of Chinese businesses and unskilled labour.

Scott and Sata were swept to power on a vehemently anti-Chinese ticket. Scott admits they have had to tone down the ‘China-bashing’. ‘There was no need for it,’ he says. ‘It was a shock tactic to point out the problems with the Zambian-Chinese relationship. The Chinese potentially have something very good to give, but they have a reputation for being somewhat … inhumane. They employ far more people, but they are terrible managers.’ He points to a notorious clash at a mine last year, when two Chinese managers opened fire on workers as they protested against poor conditions. Eleven people were injured, but no one was prosecuted.

‘It’s an interesting paradox, the Chinese paradox …You get open conflict quite a lot. The Chinese don’t understand that they should be dealing with the unions. What they tend to do is cosy up to the leadership, take them shopping and hope to sterilise them. Then they don’t have a conduit through which to speak to the workers … We must recalibrate that relationship.’

Hospitable, charming, and no stranger to the unprintable expletive, Scott never quite loses the air of wily political operator. Back in his office, in a slightly chaotic ministry building, he says he is still prepared to stand up to Chinese investors. ‘We need to stop the silly things, like agreeing that so many Chinese can come here, no questions asked, then the next thing you know they have dominated the chicken market … We deport Zimbabweans and Congolese all the time, poor sods who are refugees from economic hardship. Why should Chinese of unknown origin be sitting outside Lusaka growing chickens?’

Low-flying jets roar overhead, interrupting us. ‘It’s the coup,’ he jokes. He knows the honeymoon period isn’t quite over. ‘There is a good spirit around. People are still waving at me in the street. When they start throwing stones, that’s the beginning of the end.’

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated