Tuesday, 18 October 2011
Fear From the Madding Crowd
From a very early age I remember being told by mum, never to repeat anything I heard at home to anyone outside the family, because careless talk got you into trouble. Everyone was at pains to avoid giving any kind of political opinion openly, but when you forgot yourself and started to say something 'controversial' in public, a good friend would say "Ssh, Bwembya is behind you, he's a Government informant". It was commonplace for dad to come home in the evening and over dinner recount a story of how he was called to this Police station or that Prison, to represent a client who had been ' picked up ' because the opinions he expressed were contrary to those of the party. Whispering in dark corners and big ears straining to overhear conversations, became a part of daily life. 'Shush, Shush, Shush' was such a part of everyday speech, that the State Intelligence Services and informants in general became known as 'ShuShuShu'. The joke became that if you wanted to get a message to KK, you didn't bother writing a letter to State House, you just spent a couple hours at Lusaka golf club and said your peace. There were enough 'friends' and straining ears around eager to report any interesting conversations to State House, hoping to curry favour with KK.
The Mulungushi Reforms and the Matero Declaration was a watershed, after which the State controlled 80% of Zambia's economy. This meant that ones ability to obtain jobs and promotions depended less and less on merit and more and more on ones blind commitment to the party. With every passing day, the oppressive control by Government began permeating every aspect of the daily lives of Zambians. It soon became necessary to produce your party membership card, your National registration card or your voters card before being allowed access to markets, to board buses or to jump onto trains. My dad remembers that in the colonial days they were required to carry their Chitupa's (Identification Books), and that they took great pleasure in burning them whenever they could. They burned at the stake of the colonial pyre. How quickly those days were forgotten as, 'The Party and its Government' took total control of Zambia, demanding obedience from its citizens. Zambians were left in no doubt that their freedoms and their livelihoods depended on their loyalty to the party. This was just part of KK's insatiable demand to make everyone become uncompromisingly committed to His objectives. It is no wonder then that as many as one in five Zambians were either directly employed by State Intelligence or they were informers for State Intelligence.
Governments are always looking for someone to blame for their failures and for KK, the One-Party State and State or emergency provided the perfect vehicle with which to bring those that were considered enemies of the state to book. The sky rocketing food prices and resulting riots had to be blamed on someone. Corrruption and bribery was on the increase, and something tangible had to be done to appease the people, who were becoming ever more disenchanted with their lot. Clearly the millers, among others, were all greedy entrepreneurs that had to be investigated. The fact that the Government had removed food subsidies was irrelevant, they took the view that private enterprise should be 'good Comrades' and should absorb the additional cost of production themselves, all for the good of the Nation!
In his diaries, my dad recounts a press conference on the 20th February 1988, during which President Kaunda made serious charges of corruption against senior figures, including parastatal chiefs, whom he accused of among other things of aiding and abetting the black marketeers. In what was seen as a serious crackdown on rampant corruption, President Kaunda dismissed four parastatal chiefs ' In the national interest ', he suspended eleven others, and a further twenty were under investigation. In addition, the Special Investigations Team on Economy and Trade, SITET, was charged with the task of seizing all businesses accused of dealings in the black market. On the first day alone, following these pronouncements, sixty-six businesses were seized and their owners declared Enemies of the State. The President gave instructions that the businesses and all their assets must be seized, that the individuals themselves should have their property confiscated, and that they should be summarily detained if they were Zambians and deported if they were aliens. Police and paramilitary were detailed to guard these business premises while a search was done for cash and hoarded goods. This was all against the background of an earlier scandal at the Central Bank, in which the Deputy Governor among others were accused of various irregularities. They were dismissed and investigations ordered, but ultimately the public was none the wiser and no satisfactory solution resulted. Yes corruption was rife and controls had to be put in place to manage this. SITET had a role to play and indeed had many successes, but in the end it simply became yet another political tool to use against those seen as anti-Government.
What did we really expect? Did we really think that there could be any creativity, freedom of thought and positive exchange of ideas in an atmosphere is distrust, fear and overbearing State control. Party loyalty and not merit were the deciding factors when appointments were being handed out by KK. The solution of appointing preferred government figures, who had no skills to do the jobs they were being asked to do, could only have one result, failure. The appointees were all too aware that Kaunda would replace them without notice, if he decided that their loyalty was waning. So what did many of these parastatal chiefs do in this atmosphere of fear and recrimination? Of course, they made hay whilst the sun was still shining. Inevitably the parastatals ran inefficiently at best, and the substantial business empires that were confiscated from private hands collapsed, and the resulting loss of jobs and revenue was a National disaster.
Press Conferences have become events to be feared by those already in high flying government positions and events to look forward to by those hopeful of an appointment into the higher echelons of power. It is amusing to think that one of the first purchases made by top government officials and parastatal chiefs when they took office, was that of a radio, to be kept in the office in readiness for the dreaded press conference. Dad used to say that even in the prisons, detainees, political prisoners and those on death row were huddled around a radio when there was a press conference, hoping for a pardon or for their sentences to be commuted. It seems times have not changed that much in this regard. Press Conferences today are as much soap operas as they were in KK's day, and as compelling listening as many of the popular TV soap operas and probably draw more listeners and viewers. I wonder what effect this has on business productivity during these pronouncements, after all life seems to come to a halt as all ears and eyes are glued to TV sets and radios up and down the country.
Are we witnessing the dawn of a new era, or is it just Deja vu?