Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Lying in south-central Africa, Zambia shares borders with eight countries. Its extensive and convoluted boundaries betray its origins as an artefact of imperial competition, taking no real account of indigenous cultures and histories. Much of the tropical country consists of a high plateau, drained by the Congo River basin and that of the Zambezi River, after which the country is named. Zambia has rich deposits of copper.
Khoisan hunter-gatherers began to be displaced by Bantu peoples some two thousand years ago, and the influx of various Bantu peoples continued through the 19th century. In 1855 English explorer David Livingstone encountered the spectacular Mosi-O-Tunya falls on the Zambezi river, and called them ‘Victoria Falls’. In the late 19th century, British companies began mineral extraction and in 1911 the territory was consolidated into Northern Rhodesia, which became a British protectorate in 1924. Northern Rhodesia was forced into a federation with Southern Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland (today’s Malawi) in 1953, but this sparked protests and independence movements, particularly in Northern Rhodesia. The federation was dissolved at the end of 1963 and independence activist Kenneth Kaunda became the president of the new Republic of Zambia in October 1964.
People of Indo-Pakistani origin in Zambia today number around 11,900, little changed from the figure of 10,705 in 1970, despite periods of government intimidation. Most Asians work in commerce and transport, mainly in urban areas. Up to 1971, only 298 Asians had elected to take up Zambian citizenship following independence in 1964. In 1970 the government forced many non-citizens to abandon their businesses, especially in rural areas. In 1988, during a crackdown on the illegal parallel market, the government seized 203 shops suspected of illegal dealings. Most belonged to Zambian Asians. Many of the shops, assets and trading licences were soon returned, however, and compensation promised.
Under Kaunda’s one-party rule, which lasted until 1991, the country initially experienced economic growth. 1976 saw a precipitous drop in the world price of copper-on which Zambia’s economy was almost entirely dependent-leading to drastic economic decline. Kaunda’s regime supported black liberation movements in Southern Rhodesia, South Africa, and Namibia, as well as UNITA rebels in Angola. The apartheid government of South Africa launched military raids on offices of the African National Congress in Zambia, and many refugees fleeing the fighting in Angola and Mozambique made their way to Zambia.
Zambia is one of the most urbanized countries in Africa. The growth of cities and longstanding patterns of labour recruitment to mines and farms mean that to an extent the experiences of urbanization and resulting contact among ethnic groups are shared. However, until the 1950s recruitment was limited to specific ‘feeder’ areas, which established broad patterns of ethnically based recruiting to specific industries and areas as a form of patronage. Thus Bemba speakers provided the bulk of labour for the copper mines, Nyanja were disproportionately recruited to work in Lusaka and on commercial farms, the Lozi dominated industry and agriculture around Livingstone, and the Tonga people dominated urban markets. Such early favouritism established patterns of dominant and marginalized ethnic groups.
Main languages: Bemba, Nyanja, Tonga, Lozi, Lunda, Luvale, Kaonde, English (official)
Main religions: Christianity, indigenous beliefs, Islam
Main population groups are Bemba 3.3 million (33.6%), Nyanja 1.8 million (18.2%), Tonga 1.7 million (16.8%), North-Western peoples 1 million (10.3%), Lozi (Barotse) 770,000 (7.8%), Mambwe 580,000 (5.9%), Tumbuka 500,000 (5.1%), Lamba 165,000 (2%), Asians 11,900 and Europeans 6,200. (data: 2000 census)
Zambia’s vast territory is quite sparsely populated, its people settled mainly in on its plateaus and in urban areas. Although shifting and amalgamating throughout the twentieth century, at least 73 linguistically similar, yet culturally specific, indigenous African ethno-linguistic groups have been identified in Zambia. The Zambian census grouped these many small groups into seven major ethnic categories, as listed above.
Bemba-speakers (who are not always Bembas) have held key positions in central government, but there is no one dominant ethno-linguistic group. English is used in upper levels of primary school and above and is the language of government. As such, it spans all ethnic groups; however, lack of mastery of English can entail social exclusion. Shona, Swahili and various Zairian languages may be heard among immigrants and traders.
Lozi make up nearly eight per cent of the population and are highly concentrated in the flood plain of the Zambezi River in Western Province. Favoured under British colonial rule, some Lozi have chafed at their loss of privilege since independence. Lamba comprise slightly over two per cent of Zambia’s population and live in northern-central Zambia, along the Copperbelt. There are several thousand Asians living mainly in urban areas.
By 1990 many Zambians were clamouring for the end of one-party rule, sparking riots in the capital, Lusaka, and even a coup attempt. Kaunda entered into protracted negotiations with his opposition, led by the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD). In 1991, Zambia enacted a new constitution and the MMD candidate for the presidency, Frederick Chiluba, easily defeated Kaunda at the polls in October of that year and the MMD dominated the new National Assembly.
Toward the end of his first term, Chiluba’s reputation as a reformer increasingly gave way to a reputation for corruption at a time when many state-run companies were being privatized. With central government approval, rights to forest land traditionally used as ‘commons’ by Luvale and Lunda minority communities in western and north-western Zambia were transferred to foreign business interests on easy terms, with little or no public consultation.
Chiluba was re-elected in 1996 amid allegations of vote-fraud and after sidelining some opposition leaders including Kaunda. However, when Chiluba moved to amend the constitution to allow himself a third term, a coalition of civil society organizations and political opponents were successful in forcing him to back down. At the 2001 polls, MMD candidate Levy Mwanawasa barely eked out a victory.
Feared by many to be too close to Chiluba, Mwanawasa quickly demonstrated independence by investigating corruption in the prior government. Those investigations led to charges against Chiluba himself in 2003, in proceedings that are ongoing.
Under President Mwanawasa, the Zambian economy has shown new signs of life, achieving growth above five per cent per year and attracting new foreign investment. In June 2005 international lenders forgave over 90 per cent of Zambia’s crushing foreign debt. Growth has been aided by a rebound in copper prices, as well as efforts to diversify the economy, especially tourism, diamond mining, hydro-electric power, and agriculture.
Nevertheless, around 70 per cent of the population lives on less than US$1 per day. Miners in the north-central Copperbelt Province, decrying poor working conditions and inadequate pay, have heavily criticized foreign, often Chinese, investment in the mines. Prospects for broad-based economic development are weighed down by the HIV/AIDS pandemic; one in six adults is HIV positive and nearly 100,000 Zambians died of AIDS in 2005. The disease has eviscerated much of the country’s young talent, and the costs – social and economic – will only mount.
Mwanawasa was elected to a second and final term as president in September 2006. Local observers criticised the conduct of the elections, in which Mwanawasa’s MMD lost every urban seat in parliament.
Zambia is a country of numerical minorities. While certain minorities in Zambia have occasionally faced stress and outright discrimination, this has never been on a scale and depth of brutality seen in neighbouring countries. Despite material want, the chief preoccupation of most Zambians, national policies and programmes have gone some way towards taking legitimate interests of minorities into account. The Commission for the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights did find in 2001 that a 1996 amendment to the Zambian constitution requiring that the parents of presidential candidates must have been Zambian citizens was discriminatory. Although the Commission did not find that the provision targeted any particular minority, it urged the government to bring its laws into conformity with the Charter.
In 1997 the Commission had also found that the mass expulsion of 517 West Africans from Zambia in February 1992 had been in flagrant violation of the Charter. Zambia has long been a refuge for those fleeing conflicts, with many arrivals from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In 2004 there were an estimated 300,000 refugees in the country. With the end of the conflict in Angola, some 65,000 refugees have voluntarily returned home from camps in Zambia.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Tel: +260-1-251-813, 251-776
Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace
Foundation for Democratic Process (FODEP)
Women for Change
Sources and further reading
Bratton, M. and Liatto-Katundu, B., ‘A focus group assessment of political attitudes in Zambia’, African Affairs, no. 93, 1994.
Burdette, M., Zambia: between Two Worlds, Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1988.
Caplan, G.L., The Elites of Barotseland 1878- 1969: A Political History of Zambia’s Western Province, London, Hurst, 1970.
Mahmood Mamdani (1996) Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism
Siegel, B., ‘The ‘wild’ and ‘lazy’ Lamba: ethnic stereotypes on the Central African copperbelt’, in L. Vail (ed.), The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa, London, James Currey, 1989, pp. 350-71.