How Zambia prevented xenophobia: Lessons for South Africa


Article by: South African Institute of International Affairs

It is our preference that if you wish to share this article with others you should please use the following link:

“Isaac, we can no longer go to the movie today. We have a curfew,” my late dad told me. “I understand, dad” I responded – and I genuinely did.

This was a conversation taking place on a Saturday at home in Ibex Hill, in my hometown of Lusaka in 1978. I was a young lad, and my dad was due to take me to watch Jaws 2, which had just come out. The movie was due to start at 4pm, and there would not be enough time for us to be back home by curfew time. Young as I was, it was not difficult for me to understand.

A curfew was was a general blackout from 6pm – 6am. We closed curtains, so that no light was visible. No traffic or movements were allowed – other than security forces.

In those days, the Selous Scouts of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, supported by the apartheid regime’s SADF, carried out air raids in Lusaka. Their targets were strategic government liberation movement points, including ANC, SWAPO and ZAPU. Because radar systems were not that advanced then, the curfew ensured that the invading pilots could not see any landmarks. While not completely effective, it helped.

Fast forward to January 2012 in Mangaung: “This was a very memorable day, and Africa’s unity is now complete. No one can ever divide us,” Kenneth Kaunda told me. We had just returned to the house we were staying in for the duration of the celebrations from a dinner during the ANC 100 Celebrations, and KK was in a very happy mood. “Yes, Your Excellency,” I responded in agreement. We went to bed very jubilant.

Making Zambian children sensitive to the plight of others

Kenneth Kaunda’s Government recognised that xenophobia needs to be pre-empted from childhood. It introduced a subject called Civics in the educational system from Grade 4, which was compulsory in all public and private schools. A fascinating subject, Civics taught children about the history of the region.

We were taught about the racism that was taking place in South Africa and the region, and apartheid was simplified for our small minds to understand, and why people from those countries had to seek refuge in Zambia. Presented in a humane manner, Civics made children very empathetic towards others. By the time children got to secondary school, xenophobia had been pre-empted in them. This was one of the most important interventions against intolerance. As a result, government’s position on the freedom struggle was well understood and supported.

Some major sacrifices

Zambia committed itself to the struggle from the very onset at independence in 1964. The sacrifices were many:

» At one stage, 25% of the intake at the University of Zambia (UNZA), Zambia’s only university at the time were freedom fighters – who were also provided with scholarships. This was highly significant because UNZA was the only university in the country. Many Zambians were unable to enter university simply because the Zambian allocation had been exhausted.

» Freedom fighters were themselves provided with free accommodation, transport, free medical care, financial grants to meet personal needs and security when necessary.

» Principles are expensive – and because of not wanting to import and export through Rhodesia and South Africa – Kaunda and Nyerere negotiated with China to build TAZARA railway line from Dar es Salaam to Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia, completed in 1975 and at a cost of $500 million.

» At the height of the struggle, Kaunda did something that had never been done anywhere in the world: he brought in Oliver and Adelaide Tambo to live with him at State House – specifically so that they could benefit from the Presidential security.

» At great expense to the country, all Zambians that completed Form 5 had to undergo a 6-month compulsory military training at National Service. This was because it was understood that the risk of a full scale war with Rhodesia and South Africa was possible, and all able-bodied citizen had to be ready.

Economic Diplomacy and Foreign Policy implications

If the perception that the South African government could have done more to prevent a repeat of 2008, there are a number of possible consequences:

» It could make the continued expansion of South African companies into the rest of the continent more complex.

» South African foreign policy on the continent could take a serious knock, with an accompanying loss in prestige

» The current discussions to reform and expand the UN Security Council Permanent Members and have either Nigeria or South Africa representing Africa could weaken its position.

Some observations

President Zuma has been very correct in strongly condemning these xenophobic acts, as have some of his cabinet ministers. A number of observations, however, come to mind:

» Given that this is a repeat of 2008 – it is important to come up with a long-term strategic intervention, otherwise the problem will keep on recurring. Perhaps a Presidential Working Group on Xenophobia, consisting of local and foreign stakeholders could be one of the interventions. Its primary task would be to render advice of a pre-emptive nature.

» There is no medium to educate South Africans on an ongoing basis on the role played by other African countries in their struggle. There is nothing in the school curricula, and so after the current generation of exiles is no more – that history will disappear with them.

» With the exception of President Zuma and a few others, very few leaders publicly speak about how other countries stood with South Africans. People cannot be blamed for not knowing certain things if they are not taught those things, and this is a very big part of the problem.

» Business bodies need to speak up, so that they spare their individual members the discomfort of doing so. Prominent South Africans who were hosted in exile also need to do so.

Prominent Black Africans in South Africa not helping

In the US, Americans are either African-American, Mexican-American, Chinese-American and so on. That is because they see no contradiction in being both Chinese and American: they acknowledge their origins while embracing their new environment.

In many instances, prominent black people in South Africa from other countries tend to shield their origins or appear apologetic about them. “My parents were in exile in Zimbabwe, that’s why I grew up there,” is a very common one. One even went to ridiculous lengths: “I come from SADC,” was how one responded to my question of his origin.

It is this kind of conduct from amongst these prominent people that also perpetuates the perception that there must be something wrong with coming from other countries. Along with all of the other stakeholders, some African executives in South Africa must take collective blame.

Isaac Nkama, a Zambian based in South Africa, is a member of the National Council of the South African Institute of International Affairs. His late father Moto Nkama served in Zambia’s independence struggle under Kenneth Kaunda, and served as Minister and Ambassador after independence. He is a close associate of Kaunda, and writes in his personal capacity.


Article by: South African Institute of International Affairs

Please visit the original post on