Heading Zambia’s second major political change since its independence in 1964 – the first being the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1991 – Michael Sata caught the incumbent Movement for Multiparty Democracy by surprise with his party’s victory in September. Here, he tells Global about his principles and his vision for the future.
Elected as president in Zambia’s general elections of 20 September 2011, Michael Chilufya Sata is widely seen as heralding in a new era in his country’s political and economic development. A veteran politician and a former member of both of Zambia’s previous ruling parties in turn, he has built a reputation for challenging and questioning the status quo. In 2001, he left the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) and set up the Patriotic Front (PF) which steadily built up its support base and capitalised on the growing discontent with the MMD. In September, Sata took 43 percent of the vote against 36 percent for President Rupiah Banda, and the PF became the largest party in parliament. In this exclusive interview with Global in early December, President Sata outlined the wide range of measures taken by his new administration, several of which, he points out, are intended to reduce corruption and bring wider benefits to the people of Zambia.
Global: Your recent election victory seems to indicate that Zambians responded to your party’s promises for a better deal for ordinary citizens and are ready for a change in political direction. How will your administration go about trying to make life better for the majority of Zambians?
President Michael Sata: We are first of all attacking corruption in high places and curbing wasteful expenditure in the public service. We have cut unnecessary travel at presidential and ministerial level and this will result in some saving to invest in social services. We have launched a strong anti-corruption crusade to probe the embezzlement that occurred under the previous administration. Some of the immediate measures we have undertaken include the reduction of tax for the poorest workers. Those who earn ZMK2 million (US$400) a year are now exempted from paying any tax at all.
We have invested a lot of money in infrastructure development and this will create jobs for the jobless youths. We have also doubled the health care budget; second to that, our 2012 education budget has gone up significantly. Ultimately, spending in these social sectors will result in poverty reduction. The new mineral royalty tax will earn us more than US$300 million in new revenue to invest in social services.
One of your party’s key campaign promises was to produce a revised constitution within 90 days. What kind of constitutional changes do you favour, and which of these do you think are the most necessary?
We have appointed a 20-member technical committee of experts to review the constitution. The experts will examine all the four previous reports and constitutional drafts that have been produced since independence and will come up with a document that will be subjected to a referendum if they deem it necessary to do so.
We are looking at changing those provisions that make government big and civil society small. We want smaller government and a bigger civil society. We want to bring about fundamental changes in the electoral system, provide for the independence of the judiciary, parliament and, most importantly, create a functional local government system, with devolution of powers from central government to localities in the ten regions of the country.
Another campaign promise was to attack corruption. What measures have you taken already and how do you propose achieving greater transparency in both government and business dealings over the longer term?
We have seen the fruits of a strong message on corruption. Most Western donors who froze their support to critical sectors like education, health and infrastructure development have resumed their support and we are in open dialogue with many of them on future cooperation. We are making sure that we bring about policies that enable us to invest in people, rule justly and create economic opportunities for all. We are reviewing the scandalous amendments that were made to the anti-corruption law and ensure that we bring back the clauses that were deleted from the statute. The first steps taken have been to ensure that we appoint competent people of high integrity to positions in anti-corruption bodies.
In the parliamentary elections, the Patriotic Front didn’t manage to secure a working majority, which suggests that you will have to be ready to make concessions to the other parties. Do you think this will slow down the pace of change that you envisage?
We expect that the opposition will reason with us and not seek to slow down the pace. We had a clear victory at the presidential level and we expect that the political battle in the house will not be easy, but so far we have put forward progressive policies and bills that the opposition has supported.
By putting more emphasis on social justice, improved conditions for workers and perhaps even a degree of increased public ownership of some economic sectors, is your government, in some ways, a throwback to the days of Zambia’s founding president, Kenneth Kaunda?
There is no return to nationalisation but we shall ensure that the existing public utilities remain as such, and we shall not allow public economic assets to be sold off corruptly in the name of privatisation. Those like Zamtel, which was dubiously sold to a foreign company, will have to be repossessed if we prove, as is likely, that it was corruptly sold. Those are people’s assets. Workers have to get a decent pay and decent working conditions. That is the only way to fight poverty – by putting money in the pockets, more disposable income in households.
Observers have commented that your government is more conciliatory in its dealings with Chinese investors than was suggested by some of your earlier rhetoric. What is your government’s general attitude towards the larger Chinese corporations that have become established over recent years, as well as towards the Chinese entrepreneurs who have been setting up in Zambia in many different sectors? Do you expect a new relationship to emerge with which all sides will be more comfortable?
Mutual cooperation and equitable benefits from Zambia’s resources has been and will remain my core message on this subject. We have so far held fruitful conversations with Chinese government officials and their business community in Zambia. You may wish to know that the Chinese investors have embraced this government and have changed dramatically. We have already seen results that point to a win-win situation.
We have prescribed the parameters for the Chinese and we have seen that the Chinese will respond according to what we tell them. Some of them have already reviewed the pay and conditions of services and safety at work places. We shall not send away the Chinese but we shall let them follow the law and we shall make use of them as partners.
We have seen how hard working the Chinese are and so we need to exploit this to the maximum. We have to blame the previous government that allowed violations to go on by some Chinese investors, but in our case we are creating a comfortable situation for both sides.
What will be your government’s approach to the management of the mining sector – which has seen a renaissance over the past decade and where most of the new investment into Zambia has been directed? Will you be pushing for substantially greater government revenues from Zambia’s mining activities?
Yes, we shall continue to bring about laws and policies for equitable benefits from the mining revenue. We have so far raised mineral royalty tax from 3 percent to 6 percent to increase state revenue. Mining is our mainstay and so we shall make the best out of it.
Experts say there is a risk that too much focus on the minerals sector threatens to undermine progress in Zambia’s agricultural sector, and that much needs to be done to make farming a more attractive option for entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens alike. What will be your government’s key economic priorities outside the mining sector?
We intend to use the booming mining sector to invest in other sectors such as agriculture and tourism. The other sector is the construction industry. These are the key areas where we want to diversify the economy.
How do you see Zambia, as a landlocked country, improving its economic and political relationships with its different neighbours? Is your government going to pursue any new initiatives in this regard?
We are working at creating rail and road links with regional neighbours such as Angola and Namibia. We have plans to link Zambia with the Angola rail system to shorten the route to the Atlantic Ocean. This will make our exports cheaper.
How do you define your political philosophy?
We are social democrats. We seek to bring about fundamental political change that must bring about the greatest good for the greatest majority that we possibly can. Politics is an opportunity to serve and not for personal aggrandise.