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Experience of the Zambian Left in Participatory Democracy

Neo Simutanyi
Executive Director
Centre for Policy Dialogue, Zambia 1

Paper to the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Left International Forum (LIF) African Conference on Participatory Democracy

14-16 August 2008, Johannesburg

While the necessary revival of the socialist project still represents a crucial challenge in Africa, democracy remains a highly contested concept. Despite the adjectives used to describe it, whether 'socialist', 'people's', 'participatory' or liberal the experience of democracy in Africa has been very disappointing. The collapse of the former Soviet Union and former socialist bloc in the early 1990s and global ascendance of the neo-liberal agenda of economic and political reform has made the liberal perspective dominant, if not hegemonic. Under the neoliberal epistemology there is only one world view and no alternative economic model to capitalism and liberal democracy.  A counter-discourse against this epistemology in the last decade and half has been weak, timid, disjointed and to a large extent non-existent.

However, the result of the neoliberal project has not been economic prosperity and participation, but rather increased poverty and inequality, marginalization of the mass of the people and disempowerment. The World Bank now acknowledges that structural adjustment programmes it promoted in the 1980s and 1990s did not bring about economic prosperity but mass poverty and hunger and we dare add that it also contributed to reducing the capacities of the state and the people to challenge the neoliberal project. It demobilized class action.

The celebration that came with multiparty democracy has all but dissipated as the new rulers are no different from those they replaced, new political parties are nothing but electoral machines by the different factions of the elite who compete for the right to exploit the masses and plunder national treasuries. Elections have become merely symbolic as they do not reflect the real choices of the people as they are often manipulated and rigged to ensure that incumbents perpetuate their rule.

This conference jointly organized by the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Left International Forum of Sweden on Participatory Democracy could not have come at a better time. It is also particularly relevant as it also hopes to address the challenges facing the Left in promoting the socialist project amidst international hostility inspired by imperialism. The Africa left is itself an endangered species. It is organizationally weak, under-resourced, lacks self-confidence and highly susceptible to cooptation. To be sure by Left we mean the political left or left-leaning organizations and ideological tendencies. The left takes positions that seek to reform or abolish the existing social order; advocates for a society where all people have equal opportunities and struggle to fight for more equal distribution of wealth and privilege in society. The term "the Left" can encompass a number of ideologies, including social liberalism, social democracy, left-libertarianism, socialism, syndicalism, Marxism and communism. In the context of Africa all the progressive forces that daily fight for social and economic justice, democracy and human rights, equality and equal opportunities for the working class and the poor can be considered as the left.

The dream for an egalitarian society is essentially a socialist project. We members of the left hold that human development can only flourishes when individuals engage in cooperative, mutually respectful relations that can thrive when excessive differences in status, power and wealth are eliminated. Crucially we of the progressive left locate problems of power relations within a class perspective and hold that dominant classes do not only control the major means of production but also the state and use it to suppress and marginalize the mass of the people. However, there are substantial differences within the left on how to attain socialism which need not detain us here. In the context of Africa, the struggles include issues of national liberation, democratization, human and workers rights and gender equality.

Over the past decade and half a large number of African countries have made transitions from authoritarian one-party to multiparty democracy. The rebirth of civil societies, the achievement of new freedoms and liberties have all been celebrated with great enthusiasm. But now that the euphoria of these transitions has passed, the question to pose is: what has been the content and character of democracy on the continent? To what extent has it been inclusive and empowering? Has liberal democracy contributed to ameliorating severe social and economic inequalities that characterize our countries? Is Africa better now than it was two decades ago? For sure the winning of democratic struggles by mass movements has increased democratic space for the mobilization of the working class, rural and urban poor and the other marginalized groups in society. Who leads this struggle for democracy and socialism is the main challenge that faces the Left.

The democracy project in Africa is far from complete. Democracy is itself a problematic concept essentially given the institutional character of African states. Even where multiparty democracy has been attained, the question still arises as to just how participatory and responsive these democracies are. While retaining formal democratic institutions such as political parties and periodic elections, little transformation has occurred. It has been observed that modes of governance remain unchanged; sometimes it is even difficult to distinguish the new rulers from their predecessors. Further, in many instances the inherited legal regime remains unaltered thereby perpetuating a status quo that centralizes political power, marginalizes the population from political participation and provides insufficient guarantee for the enjoyment of human rights. There are of course many dimensions to this particular problematic, but none that is more central, and that has garnered more attention, than the challenge of participatory democracy.

Promotion of democracy has always been an important part of the struggle for socialism. Lenin promoted the idea of popular democracy that is the political mobilization of important interests in society including the working class, the peasants and the poor in the affairs of the state. The notion of popular democracy presupposes continuous political participation as opposed to periodic elections. But we should avoid over-romanticising popular democracy. Some of the experience of left and socialist parties with democratic centralism has been negative promoting centralization, authoritarianism and personal rule. The notion of 'dictatorship of the proletariat' in some instances was translated to dictatorship over the working class, the peasants and the poor by a small fraction of the middle class. What has been the experience of the left with participatory democracy?

Experience of the Zambian left in participatory democracy

It is not easy to characterize the Zambian left as a coherent political formation that has existed over a period of time. This is because first, the national liberation movement which had a mass character and supported by socialist countries appropriated the socialist project. For example, while the United National Independence Party (UNIP) adopted a liberal social welfare programme, it had a leftist agenda that was identified closely with the working class and the poor. UNIP's 1962 manifesto called for the establishment of a welfare state and nationalization of strategic industries. In power UNIP's philosophy of humanism provided ideological basis for nationalization of major industries and the copper mines in 1968 and 1969. While UNIP's was closer to the left and maintained ties with socialist countries, many doubted its commitment to building socialism. Zambia's first president Comrade Kenneth Kaunda did not recognize the existence of classes nor class struggle in society. But with the influence of left forces within the ruling UNIP and urging from socialist countries was persuaded at one time to even consider introducing Marxism-Leninism in the school curriculum. He faced strong opposition from reactionary forces spearheaded by the Catholic Church, who viewed Marxism-Leninism as atheist.

The introduction of one-party state in 1971 though ostensibly to promote participatory democracy in practice led to exclusion of significant sections of the population from participation, stifled individual opinion, coopted mass groups such as trade unions, cooperatives, youth and women and subordinated them to one-man rule. To maintain its rule UNIP marginalized the population from political participation and relied heavily on patronage, which undermined democracy and made its atrophy.

Unable to continue to have the financial resources to appease the population through subsidies and jobs and facing low copper prices, UNIP succumbed to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans and adopted structural adjustment programmes in the early 1980s. Instead IMF loans provoked mass protests due to the social costs it exacted on the working class and the poor. In 1986 and 1990 workers staged violent riots that left scores dead. While it was clear that UNIP's social welfare project had collapsed, it cannot be said that it was socialism that failed. Many within UNIP did not consider the erstwhile ruling party to be a socialist or social democratic political formation.

There were attempts both within UNIP and from outside to establish socialist political formations. Unable to operate openly under a one-party environment, the Communist Party of Zambia was formed and operated clandestinely bringing together the Zambia's progressive left. Other organizations that propagated socialist ideals included the Zambia Peace and Solidarity Committee which had generous support from the Socialist International. But the effective of this group was compromised by the fact that it operate within the auspices of UNIP which greatly affected mobilization capacity as it did not want to risk being viewed counter-revolutionary. Especially given the fact that UNIP had appropriated the socialist project, by claiming to be promoting socialism through Humanism.

The winds of change for the re-introduction of multiparty democracy that swept the continent did not spare Zambia. In 1990 there was agitation for political change in Zambia and the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) was formed in July 1990. The MMD was spearheaded by the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). Trade union leader Frederick Chiluba was elected leader of the MMD in February 1991 and later defeated Kenneth Kaunda in elections held in October that year. The first MMD cabinet had no less than five former trade unionists as ministers. Despite that the MMD pursued a doctrinaire economic adjustment programme and reversed almost all the social gains achieved by UNIP. Chiluba became a darling of the West especially the IMF and World Bank. But his ten-year record in office did not bring about material improvement to the constituency he previously represented - the working class.

Under Chiluba, poverty and inequality increased while Zambia's democratic performance regressed.  Zambia was much poorer in 2001 than it was ten years earlier, with 8 in every 10 Zambians living below the poverty line. All social indicators were negative, including the high unemployment levels of more than 40 percent, highest maternal mortality rates in the world, high infant and child mortality, inhabitable urban dwellings and homelessness, declining literacy rates and poverty wages. HIV and AIDS prevalence of 16 percent was high by world standards, especially when the absolute number of infected persons was 1,200,000 and close to 900,000 deaths per year against a population of less than 12 million.

The Zambian left was outmanouvred in the construction of the Third Republic. The MMD was itself an idea promoted by the left, who brought in the trade unions so as to influence the policy agenda of the new political movement. But lacking funds and organizational resources invited business people to participate. Since most of the successful business people had served under Kaunda at one time or another and would have been victimized through dismissal, denial of permit or other favour had scores to settle. Thus the content of the 1991 political change was really not transformative but rather changing the guard but maintaining the status quo.

The MMD manifesto was the complete opposite of what was envisaged by the left who had pressed for the adoption of a social market agenda. The MMD government took an openly pro-capitalist line by privatizing most of the nationalized industries, albeit corruptly done, removing most regulations and withdrawing from involvement in economic activities. Under the tutelage of the World Bank and IMF the MMD government de-legitimised any counter-discourse against structural adjustment. Thus with the cooptation of the trade unions and significant interest groups within the MMD alliance there was no credible voice to defend popular interests. Unions originally thought that the MMD's policies on deregulation would lead to more investment and jobs. Instead it led to the dumping of imported goods on the Zambian market, closing down of companies and loss of jobs. A change of labour legislation that liberalised the formation of trade unions and prohibited strike action also seriously weakened trade unions.

But it should be said that the left did not completely disappear when it was outmaneuvered by business interests in 1991. Several parties of the left sprung up between 1991 and 2000. The most notable ones were the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), the National Democratic Party (NDP), Agenda for Zambia and the Socialist Alliance. These parties tried to forge a working alliance so as to adopt common political approaches. However, none of these parties had any impact on the political system. They were under-resourced, lack organisational presence and capacity and were not linked to struggles of mass movements. Further, coming on the scene just after the collapse of the Soviet Union and de-legitimation of socialism posed a major challenge. When they failed to make inroads they changed their names to politically correct ones. For example, the Social Democratic Party changed its name to Labour Party hoping to attract the trade unions and the working class, especially given MMD's commitment to a capitalist project. Even that did not work. Thus failing to participate in electoral politics and influence the policy agenda towards socialism these political formations fell prey to cooptation and pursuit of short-term gain. Some dissolved their parties and joined the MMD, while others came closer to Kaunda's UNIP hoping to influence it is a more radical socialist direction.

Seventeen years since the re-introduction the multiparty democracy project in Zambia it can be argued that Zambian politics is devoid of a socialist ideological perspective. The policy discourse is dominated by neoliberal paradigm and members of the left are timid or embarrassed to publicly advocate the socialist political and economic alternative. The main reason for this timidity is the strength of imperialist propaganda against socialism. A general perception has been created that socialism is unfeasible and utopian. Many members of the left have compromised themselves by seeking elective office on the banner of the ruling party and enjoying the privileges that go with office. Thus socialism has become a pastime and not a serious preoccupation.

But despite this lack of organization and cohesion, there are lot members of the left. There are also a lot of progressive organizations championing indigenous land rights, fighting against resource exploitation, demanding equality and opportunity and human rights defenders. Sections of the media such as the Press Freedom Committee of the Post have provided public forums for a critique of public policies and articulation of policy alternatives. The Post newspaper regularly provides serious critiques of neoliberal policies of the IMF and World Bank and affords a platform to progressive left individuals to publish socialist critiques of the neoliberal paradigm and publicly advocate a socialist alternative. But still a distinctly left discourse on a credible alternative to structural adjustment is lacking. The Zambian left presently lacks political visibility and influence to make a credible contribution to the debate on socialism and democracy.

The Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a policy think tank established in 2007, is committed to reinvigorate the left and further policy discourse in the context of articulating a socialist alternative for Zambia. This is no easy task and we are under no illusion of the challenges involved. Funding from western sources cannot be guaranteed for left-leaning policy centres, but we hope to network with like-minded organizations on the continent such as the SACP to realize this objective.  Thus this conference provides an opportunity to establish a regional network of the left which can provide solidarity to left organizations and be a forum for the exchange of experiences.

Conclusion: Tasks that lie ahead

The experience of the Zambian left may not be different from many African countries. We now know that even European countries are going through the same phase. We are encouraged by the resilience of Cuba, Cambodia and North Korea, among others, who have defended their revolutions and kept the banner of socialism high despite serious attacks from imperialist forces. The recent gains in Latin America should also give us optimism that building socialism is possible in our generation.

But there are number of challenges that we need to address and tasks that lie ahead. The objective conditions in our own countries clearly show that capitalist solutions have failed and there is need for a credible economic and political alternative. The current high prices of fuel and food world-wide signify a dysfunction of global capitalism. Progressive left forces should understand the class forces at play and devise strategies to capture political initiative to enrich popular struggles. Those countries where there is left activism can network with those where there is none or where democratic space is limited. We strongly believe that isolation has been one of the reasons, some left formations are in decay in a world where socialism is still very much alive.

I believe this conference will inspire us to begin building an alternative society from a capitalist one. The non-capitalist road to development is feasible and the international trajectory seems to favour it. Increased poverty, inequality, unemployment, limited access to education and health services, coupled by increased marginalization of the masses from political participation due to undemocratic political structures and corruption are show that revolutionary conditions exist for establishment of socialism. The triumph of left forces in Latin America over imperialism provides hope to us in Africa that socialism is possible in our lifetime. They will need our solidarity in their struggle to build socialism.

It will be important to appreciate the concrete circumstances in our individual countries. The challenge facing the left on our continent is to link its political work with mass struggles and to ensure that our organizations are rooted in society. This is what participatory democracy really means. We should not be shy to articulate the socialist alternative; it is feasible. Marx wrote that philosophers have interpreted the world what remains is to change it.  Socialism is the future, let us build it now!

1. Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), 3rd Floor Design House, Dar es Salaam Place, Cairo Road, P O Box 31061, Lusaka, Zambia; Phone: +260 955 712089, +260 977 702089; Email: