There’s a lot more to Zambia’s new president than his whiteness

Zambia has always been one of the least reported-on countries in the international press. There’s something about its lack of conflict, regular elections, and no great examples of easy “Africa rising” narratives that gives the country a low profile.

That is, until Wednesday.

With the death of President Michael Sata, Zambia lost an iconic leader. A man that fused populist politics with economic nationalism—who after decades in opposition—was elected to the post by a largely urban, largely poor base.

Sata’s death also unleashed a flood of speculation in both Zambian and international media around the details of succession. But while Zambian media focused on the details and interpretations of the constitution—a 90 day caretaker presidency before a mandated general election—the international buzz was mostly around race. Earlier this month, after Sata failed to make his speech at the UN General Assembly, The Economist magazine speculated on whether Zambian Vice President, Guy Scott, a white Zambian, would become acting president in the event of Sata’s death, making him “the first white man to head an African state since the end of apartheid in South Africa two decades ago.” This narrative has dominated the international response since.

But Scott’s whiteness has never been as big a deal to Zambians as it has to outsiders. At an election rally in 2008, I watched Scott take the stage in front of 10,000 rowdy supporters and launch into a passionate speech in fluent Nyanja and Bemba, Zambia’s most common indigenous languages, ending it by doing the signature dance of his party, the Patriotic Front. He was a crowd favorite—more so, it seemed, than Sata himself.

To me, the subtext around much of the giddy international coverage about a white African leader—or “reverting to white rule” as the Telegraph unfortunately led with, before changing it—is the still pervasive belief in the West that Africa’s underdevelopment is due to corrupt or backwards “indigenous” governance.

This is racist nonsense.

Despite having a Cambridge degree, as every article likes to point out, Scott is politically much like Sata, his longtime mentor—a proponent of both higher foreign direct investment and higher mining royalties with a populist streak that earns him support among Lusaka’s youth. Scott has been a fixture in Zambian politics since the early nineties and is always at pains to display his African-nationalist bonafides: a close professional relationship with Robert Mugabe (whom he reveres), and strong words regarding Chinese business practices in the country.

Another truism in the press is that Scott is ineligible to become president of Zambia because of the fact that his parents, who emigrated from Scotland before independence, were not born in the country. But while Scott himself has stated that he is ineligible, Elias Munshya, a trained lawyer who has written extensively about the Zambian constitution, believes his candidacy should not be a problem: according to him, if Scott’s candidacy were to go in front of the Zambian Supreme Court, they would very likely give him the go ahead. According to Munshya, because there was no concept of citizenship in Zambia under British colonization “residents of Zambia at independence became Zambian.” This puts Scott’s candidacy claims, says Munshya, on equal footing with anyone else whose parents were born before 1964.

But Scott’s chances of getting elected are much harder to predict. “It could go either way,” says Munshya. “The Patriotic Front is divided at the moment. If the party rallies behind him and the supreme court rules on his candidacy, he stands a chance to win.”

But by not announcing an intention to run, Scott gets a chance to play kingmaker. He can bide his time, getting a feel for public opinion and assessing who the factions within the ruling party will agree on. If he does well in the next three months, this could very well be him.

You can follow Aaron on Twitter at @aaronleaf. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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