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Zambians’ love-hate relationship with poverty, money and wealth

By Amb. Emmanuel Mwamba

Zambians have a love-hate relationship with poverty, money and wealth. The story attached typifies the true reflection of the Zambian society. Institutions that criminalize wealth and a society that displays abhorrence against it.


In 1964, Zambia’s first President, Kenneth Kaunda inherited a relatively wealthy country with a growing middle-class. But it went all downhill beginning in 1968. With policies promoting indigenization, Zambianisation and localisation of most of the businesses and national assets as a route to creating a prosperous society, something was lost along the way! Instead of empowering Zambians and the Zambian economy with wealth, it spawned poverty and destitution – clearly the opposite of the intention.

And when Kaunda enacted a leadership code, that prohibited leaders from owning or having businesses, enterprises and or holding private equity or interest in companies, things went haywire! Leaders were also barred from owning the property where they would extract or derive income such as rent. The Code covered a broad spectrum of leaders and public officials that included; Not only Members of the Central Committee, Ministers, and District Governors but also, heads of state agencies, institutions, state-owned enterprises, and institutions of higher learning.

However, they were allowed to own small-holder farms or plots other than their own home. This was to help with the agrarian revolution. Under these conditions, Kaunda believed that leaders and public officials would not abuse their authority or the measures would inculcate a sense of civic commitment by the ruling elite.

To fight economic, trade and financial crimes, the Government enacted the Special Investigations Unit on Economy and Trade (SITET). This unit morphed into literally a terror unit that resulted in thriving private businesses nationalized or shut on flimsy allegations such as overpricing or hoarding of goods that would allegedly influence high market prices. Under these pseudo-socialist settings were a spirit of an unbroken cycle that fostered long stay in employment for the small group of workers until the age of retirement and until one got repatriated back to their village after last lumpsum payment.

The effect of these measures was high deception of those keen to cheat the system in order to supplement their meagre incomes and a terror group of law enforcers that literally criminalized wealth and wealth creation and publicly embarrassed and humiliated those caught offending or breaking the strict leadership code. Businessmen hid their money under pillows and the few that could externalise it, did so.

It was a code of poverty!

Underlying these actions, we’re a society that abhors wealth, that believes strongly that the rich are a circle of wizards and a coven of witches that prey on their unborn infants, cause the death of their children and bring bad luck and suffering to relatives friends and neighbours.

The foundation of all this is partly in established superstitions steeped in tradition and a religion that celebrates the poor and preaches against the rich and their wealth. The import of these measures invited fear of retirement in many, as those that did retire was shortly after recorded dead of possible depression.

They left high flying lifestyles and settled back in the village where they couldn’t cope, and couldn’t face reality seeing their urban socialized children reduced to a life of a bare existence of the villager. With the economy speedily deteriorating, two markets, a real market with empty shelves and shortages of essential goods and another, a black market with plenty of goods and with street Bureau De Change of Foreign exchange. In fact, the black market became the only reliable market! Cholera outbreaks emerged for the first time since the 1950s.


In 1991, came liberalisation of the economy, the abolition of both the terror group-SITET and the dreaded Leadership Code.
The result was an out-pouring display of wealth, business deals, and ingenious entrepreneurship. Wealth and prosperity were for the first time, celebrated. Posh cars littered the streets of the cities, luxury goods that were previously prohibited, flooded the country and Apple fruits, Coca-Cola and other previously opulent goods yearned for that symbolized wealth or a successful lifestyle to ordinary people, were available and abundant on corner streets and markets.

Shopping Malls, open restaurants and boutiques, and shops that stocked the goods of this new society emerged. But this came at a price…public officials cut corners, the spirit of wealth without hard work crept in, get-rich-quick schemes, theft, fraud, plunder of public resources became the easy route to instant wealth without hard work. A new religion that celebrated wealth also emerged with success. It was invaded by con artists and false prophets.

Like every “successful” society, the gap between the rich and the poor widened, and beneath the veneer of prosperity, lurked a growing number of the poor. After the early 30 years of an enforced poverty mentality and another 30 years of accepting and admiring wealth, Zambians should by now settle for a middle ground.

Poverty, whatever its perceived honour in religion, culture or tradition, must be eradicated. On the other hand, wealth and prosperity must be embraced but its root must be founded on hard work, entrepreneurship and innovation, not on theft, embezzlement or plunder of public resources.

Let us make Zambia a prosperous country for all.