‘It shows democratic change is possible through the ballot box’ – John Steenhuisen on new Zambian president

In an impressive landslide victory, opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema finally overtook incumbent Edgar Lungu in Zambia’s presidential election, reports Reuters. This is also the “third time that power has shifted peacefully from a ruling party to the opposition since the southern African country’s independence from Britain in 1964”. According to the report, celebrations will be short-lived as Hichilema – a former CEO at an accounting firm before entering politics – now faces the task of “trying to revive Zambia’s fortunes”. John Steenhuisen of the Democratic Alliance joins BizNews founder Alec Hogg to give his view of the election result. Like former DA member Herman Mashaba, he feels it could be a positive omen for South Africa’s own political future. “We’re really excited about what his victory means, not only for his country, but I think for other opposition parties on the continent.” – Claire Badenhorst

John Steenhuisen on Hakainde Hichilema’s victory in Zambia: 

Well, his party and our party are all part of the African Liberal Network. We were also very privileged two years ago to host Hakainde Hichilema here in South Africa. He came and addressed the DA caucus and parliament and a few other engagements. So we’re really excited about what his victory means, not only for his country, but I think for other opposition parties on the continent, that particularly in the growing era of the strong man in African politics, the big man in African politics, to be able to unseat someone like Edgar Lungu I think is a significant achievement. I think it gives us some hope down here in the South that democratic, peaceful change is possible through the ballot box.

On his victory being completely unexpected: 

No, it wasn’t expected. I mean, if you look at the past three elections, Edgar Lungu has been very, very adept at using the resources of the state to maintain control and to rig the elections. But I think that the hunger for change in Zambia was so strong this time that it was impossible given the numbers, and if one looks at the margin of victory for Hakainde Hichilema and his party, I think it was very, very difficult for Lungu to try and manipulate those results. He’s now said that he’s going to hand over power peacefully and let’s hope that that is the case. This is the third time that Hichilema has attempted to get the presidency and this time he’s won it and won it with a big majority.

On what Hichilema stands for versus Lungu:

Well, I think that Lungu would be very much in the vein of the ANC, sort of autocratic state control or power to the state, whereas Hichilema is more liberal in his outlook in terms of allowing market forces, business-friendly, investment-friendly. That’s why he’s been doing the circuit around Africa and around the world to try and say that Zambia is open for business. It wants the investment, it needs investment, and it’s now got a president who’s pro-business and pro-investment and pro-reform. I really think it bodes very well for the continent.

On Lungu’s close relationship with China: 

If you look at a lot of the repressive regimes in Africa, they rely on China for funding and for loans, etc., because their behaviour disqualifies them from World Bank loans and IMF loans because they don’t practice democracy and respect human rights in their countries. There’s a lot of repression of those societies which are not tolerated by this agency. So China has become, unfortunately, on the continent a lender of last resort to many of these despotic regimes, and I think that also there’s a huge extraction for that. I’m sure you’ve discussed it many times on your show, the extractive nature of the belt and road policy. It’s not all about philanthropy and helping smaller countries. And there are countries that have had to lose significant infrastructure when they default on those loans and obviously that turns into a resource extraction opportunity for China who is very resource hungry. So that builds up a lot of resentment. I mean, certainly, if you look at places like Mozambique, you look at Zambia, there’s a great deal of resentment that’s been built up at what looks like a destructive extraction for which there’s no beneficiation for local communities, and that they benefit nothing from the resources of their country because they’re simply being abused. I think that it may have played a big role in the way people vote in this election, as much against Lungu as against the overweening influence of China in the country.

On whether Hichilema appealed to the youth of Zambia:

Well, I think he did appeal to a broad section of the country, but I certainly think that the youth were very excited about the prospects of what he offered for a better future. I think that if one looks at the state of the economy and the finances in Zambia, there’s very little opportunity for young people. I think they were looking for something different and I think voting for their future, and I think that’s reflected in the higher turnout from younger voters in Zambia.

On the DA doing the same in SA: 

Yes, of course. It’s about that generation – the under 40s – who don’t have any emotional ties to apartheid and who are looking for a future. We have the highest youth unemployment rate in the world – not something to be proud of but there it is. 42% unemployment rate of adults, working population. These are people that are going to be looking for a party that’s able to offer them a future and we better make sure that we are the party that’s positioning ourselves there to offer them that future. I think that’s the work that I have cut out for me and the work that my party has cut out for us. To be able to get that positioning right so that those youth don’t find comfort in the radical policies of the radical left and parties like the EFF.

On the rioting and looting in KZN: 

I’ve had a visit to the Chatsworth and the Phoenix police stations today to engage with the SAPs over their perspective – what went wrong. It was probably the darkest day I’ve experienced in my political career, to see your hometown burning the way that Durban was burning and to see the widespread looting and destruction, but also the huge cost to the economy. As international investors watched those plumes of smoke going up, it would have been like watching international investments just literally burning and disappearing.

I think that we’ve got a problem in South Africa in that there’s a deeper underlying issue of poverty, of exclusion, and of unemployment, and I think that was tinder for what was essentially a political spark set off by an internal ANC battle. So, yes, the big takeaway is we’ve got to address these issues of the lack of policing, the lack of intelligence, all that. But South Africa’s bigger challenge is to address those 30 million people living in poverty and the unemployment and exclusion that still exists.

It was an internal ANC battle that set the spark off this time – there’s plenty of other things that could set off sparks, and then if it catches fire and rages across the country, there’s no police service or army that would ever be able to contain that. So we really are in a race against time and the rational centre better get its act together quickly because we’ve seen what happens in countries like Venezuela and Zimbabwe –  when populism and that type of thing gains ground and finds fertile ground in those inequalities, those deprivations, and those exclusions – what disastrous consequences there can be. So the president needs to get moving with this reform agenda. We stand ready to help him get his reforms through parliament, but we can’t sit on our hands anymore. We’re on a burning platform in South Africa and if those reforms are not implemented in South Africa, then we’re going to have a significant problem.

On businesses in KZN closing up shop: 

Yes, that is the case, unfortunately. Look, there was a number of international investments there that were damaged and it’s unlikely that they will reestablish themselves. There are companies that are already looking to relocate to other locations, either in South Africa or outside of South Africa in order to reestablish their businesses. This is obviously a big concern for the KZN economy. The big wobble would have been Toyota – they are a significant employer in Durban and a significant player in Durban, and if they were, for instance, to relocate even one of their lines out of Durban and diversify, that will have a massive knock-on effect on the economy. So KZN has got a lot of work to do to reestablish investor confidence in an already fraught environment.

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