SA ripe for Zambia-style opposition sweep to power – Zoran Zuze

In Africa where strong men have traditionally ruled and many leaders stay in office well past their constitutionally mandated expiration date, it is heartening to see the electorate in Zambia chose an opposition leader, Hakainde Hichilema, as the country’s seventh president. Hichilema is a ‘vasbyter’; this is his sixth attempt at winning the country’s presidency. Zoran Zuze, a Zambian consultant writes that it “has taken a political governance catastrophe never before seen in the country’s history to lend legitimacy to Hichilema and the UPND”.  An exhausted electorate baying for change turned out in large numbers to unseat the ruling party that was accused of human rights abuses, corruption, a failing economy and massive unemployment. Does some of that sound familiar to you? Zuze certainly thinks there are many similarities between Zambia and South Africa and says that although South Africa is a very different country to Zambia, our country has the best chance for a Zambian-style opposition sweep to power. The one missing element is a solid centre right black political movement that would be able to get support from black middle classes and the urban youth vote. – Linda van Tilburg

Hichilema’s election victory – implications for Zambian and African politics

By Zoran Zuze


On 24 August 2021, Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND), was sworn in as the seventh president of the Republic of Zambia. The event is a significant one on many different levels not least because of the sheer resilience of the man having failed to get over the finish line on five previous attempts. It is also a rare watershed democratic moment on a continent where sadly true democracy is a distant dream in far too many countries.

It marks the final ascension to the top of Zambian politics for a political party that was formed 23 years ago by late Lusaka business executive Anderson Mazoka. During that period of time, it has oscillated between being the largest opposition party in the country from ’01 to 06’ to being a regionally anchored third party from ’06 to ’16 to once again being the country’s largest opposition party during this past political governance cycle to finally being the dominant force in Zambian politics.


For purposes of clarity, correctness and context, it is important to state that UPND/Hichilema have at times done more than their fair share to make their path to the summit of Zambian politics unnecessarily difficult. Suspicions of tribalism/regionalism have never been very far from the surface and addressing them never seemed to be a big priority for the party. A low-hanging fruit for UPND and a smoother and quicker path to power always seemed to lie in grafting itself onto the ‘Mwanawasa Coalition’. This is essentially a voting bloc made up of the territories of the old Barotziland-North-Western Rhodesia¹ (BNWR) less UPND’s Southern Province heartland, the Eastern Province of the country whose inhabitants make up what are generically known as the Ngoni tribes and the northern parts of Zambia’s Northern Province, which is populated by the Namwanga tribes.

The Mwanawasa Coalition, combined with UPND’s historical stronghold in the Southern Province of the country, collectively make up over 50% of the country’s voting population. Even without significant votes from Zambia’s important urban electorate – where the outgoing governing Patriotic Front (PF) has until recently enjoyed strong support – Hichilema and the UPND could well have ascended to the top of Zambian politics much sooner had it gone down this path.

A coalition situation along these lines was reportedly mooted by former president Rupiah Banda and his Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) party in 2011. Hichilema reportedly turned it down. It has been suggested that it would have seen him become vice president and lead the coalition as presidential candidate in 2016. The combined vote received by UPND and MMD in general elections held that year came in at around 60%, roughly the same percentage of votes garnered by Hichilema in this past general election as a matter of irony.

That said, the Mwanawasa Coalition + UPND isn’t exactly what was reproduced in the 2021 general election. PF has made considerable ground in the Eastern Province since the 2015, not least because they were judicious enough to select as their leader a person with ethnic origins in that part of the country – former president Edgar Lungu – following the death of his predecessor Michael Sata. Lost ground by the Mwanawasa Coalition in the Eastern Province has been more than compensated by ground gained by UPND in Zambia’s main urban areas; Lusaka and the mining towns of the Copperbelt Province. In some constituencies in these areas, UPND has taken over PF’s dominance. This is in no small part due to a strong turnout by young voters in the aforementioned areas. The Hichilema Coalition can therefore be said to be grounded in the former BNWR, a majority of the urban vote and a slight edge in the northern parts – i.e. the non-ethnic Bemba-speaking parts – of Northern Province.

PF has maintained its grip in the ethnic Bemba-speaking parts of the northern provinces of the country – Luapula, Muchinga and Northern Province – and is today a very balkanised regional/ethnic party. The Hichilema Coalition enjoys more broad-based support. This has made a significant dent in PF’s historical political messaging that revolved around suggesting that UPND was an ethnically focused movement.

It can finally be opined with a high degree of plausibility that it has taken a political governance catastrophe never before seen in the country’s history to lend legitimacy to UPND and Hichilema. In other words, Hichilema hasn’t suddenly become more astute politically or the country suddenly fallen in love with UPND. What has more likely happened is that the economic collapse of the country combined with evidence of corruption on a truly gargantuan scale and an apparent collapse of good order and the rule of law resulted in an exhausted electorate, which was baying for change and turned out in large enough numbers to oust PF. UPND being the only viable alternative clearly benefited from this prevailing sentiment.

Also at play was Lungu’s lack of sensitivity in making appointments to key positions more ethnically balanced and PF directing most capital for development projects to urban areas and the northern provinces of the country. This apparently worked to unite the BNWR populations behind Hichilema. Official certified returns would appear to suggest Hichilema received over 85% of votes from these parts of the country.

It also must be noted that the Covid-19 situation in the country and the restrictions this placed on political campaigns played a significant role in restricting PF’s famously effective campaigning machine and its habitual accompanying voter intimidation tactics; under normal circumstances, the latter could well have restricted voter turnout, which if anything would have probably benefited Lungu and the PF.

Lasting impacts on the continent?

As to how this will affect future election/political outcomes for opposition parties elsewhere in Africa, it is probably too simplistic to suggest it is the beginning of a wave of opposition victories. In two countries in Zambia’s neighbourhood – Uganda and Zimbabwe – the enfants terribles rulers of those countries – Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Emmerson Mnangagwa and ZANU PF in Zimbabwe – are quite possibly keenly studying what has taken place in Zambia to prevent a similar occurrence in their countries. However, important differences exist in the above cited countries.

In both countries, regimes ascended to power due in no small part to armed conflicts against governments that preceded them. Senior figures in the military and security establishments in both countries are still drawn from personnel from the former revolutionary military wings of the political organisations that control both countries. Ties between the military and the political system are hard to break. In other words, the national military/security leadership still sees itself as the army of the party rather than the army of the country and is as a consequence not shy or hesitant about crushing political opposition to the government. This willingness to use extreme force to maintain the governing party in power is an extremely effective deterrent to sustained political opposition in both countries.

Specifically in the case of Uganda, her security forces have been important allies of the West in the fight against Islamic insurgency in the horn of Africa. It is therefore reasonable to assume that though the West may publicly condemn Museveni’s dictatorial tendencies, privately many figures in First World security establishments are probably quite happy for him to remain in power.

In Zimbabwe’s case, the mass exodus of its famously well-educated middle classes for pastures new and greener not only deprives a potential revolutionary political movement of intellectual zeal and organizational energy, it has been opined in some quarters that remittances by émigré Zimbabweans are a sub-economy in and of themselves. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), they reached a level of US$ 1bn in 2020. In short, as long as enough people are able to sustain themselves from remittances by overseas-based Zimbabweans, it is considered doubtful that there will be enough popular energy and angst in the general population to oust ZANU-PF.

Both countries also do not have Zambia’s heritage of peaceful political change. This quite possibly has conditioned the psyche of populations in terms of believing that peaceful democratic change is possible. A ‘mental revolution’ may well have to precede a political one in both Uganda and Zimbabwe. It is a safe bet that we will not be seeing a Zambia-style revolutionary democratic change in either country any time soon.

South Africa strangely enough – strangely because it is in many ways a very different country to Zambia – provides the best chance for possibly achieving a Zambian-style opposition sweep to power. The mix of factors – a very professional military, a well-organised and vocal civil society space, a ruling party with many internal divisions and squabbles, a collapsed economy weighed down by massive corruption and a history of peaceful political change provide some scope for believing a Zambian-style change is possible.

The missing element at the moment would appear to be a solid centre right black political movement to potentially draw votes from South Africa’s not insignificant black middle classes and the urban youth vote. The latter is yet to be fully politically engaged by any of South Africa’s major political parties. What also must happen is parties that ostensibly represent white interests must adapt their messages from complaining about how bad blacks are at running countries to offering a constructive vision of South Africa’s future.

Both a centre right black political movement and more constructive approaches by white-dominated parties are not on the immediate horizon. But were they to emerge and join forces by the time of the next election, a political earthquake in South Africa is not out of the question. A significant majority of votes from the Cape region, where black Africans are not the majority of the population; a significant majority of white votes as well as other significant minorities – the ethnic Indian population in KwaZulu-Natal – topped up with strong black middle class and youth voter support in large urban centres like Johannesburg and Pretoria could well tip the balance of power against the ANC.

Hichilema’s legacy

The enduring legacy of Hichilema’s victory will be the template it has provided for removing well entrenched and repressive incumbents in Africa. As illustrated by the Ugandan and Zimbabwean examples, this is not necessarily a linear process, particularly in countries where the military is heavily involved in the politics of the country. Zambia also has specific advantages in its favour such as an established record of peaceful democratic change and a very professional military.

This notwithstanding, the ‘Hichilema Template’ as it were could be said to have the following components:

1. Young people matter: ample warnings about the problem of youth unemployment on the African continent have been sounded by many persons who matter, repeatedly by former Nigerian leader Olusegun Obasanjo, no less. Not only are they a concern in terms of their ability to cause unrest and indulge in crime, the advent of technological devices and social media have provided a platform to act on violent and criminal urges as the unfortunate events in South Africa in July illustrate. The implications of tech will be weighed on more in point 3. Suffice to say for now that this is likely to be a sustainable political dimension going forward. According to the United Nations (UN), Africa has the youngest population in the world. The top 10 countries where the percentage of the population is below the age of 15 are all in Africa per 2019 figures. Ironically, Zambia reportedly broke into the top 10 in 2019.

Country % of population Younger than 15 y/o
Niger 49.8
Mali 47.3
Chad 46.8
Angola 46.6
Uganda 46.5
Somalia 46.4
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) 46.0
Burundi 45.4
Burkina Faso 44.7
Zambia 44.5

Source: United Nations

2. Messaging matters: this was the first election in which Hichilema honed in squarely on his opponent and drew distinctions between the two of them, famously through the now widely circulated “a tale of two professionals” video. Focused messaging such as this was easy to understand by the electorate and therefore had more resonance. Hichilema’s preferred method of messaging in previous elections was high-minded esoteria , which only served to confirm assertions that he was out of touch with the average voter. This down-and-dirty pivot by Hichilema clearly paid dividends for him, particularly in areas of high internet connectivity; for all practical purposes, Zambia’s urban areas.

3. Tech matters: according to the World Bank, internet penetration in Zambia has been on a sharp upward curve – apparently peaking at roughly 28% of the general population during 2017. A sharp depreciation in the value of the national currency, the kwacha, is thought to have slowed growth since then as it raised the cost of internet-enabled mobile telephone devices. Important dimensions said to be at play during the recent general election included an ability to organise in closed environments such as WhatsApp groups. This is said to have served as a counterweight to Lungu’s repeated bans on political gatherings. Widely used social media platforms such as Facebook were reportedly Hichilema’s primary channel to reach youth voters. It is indeed a fact that many first-time voters, those born in 1999 and after, have grown up in the era of social media and mass market tech and are much more easily reached through this channel.

4. Money matters: there are said to be no legal requirements for Zambian political parties to submit financial returns. It is also understood there are no requirements for political parties to disclose the source of their donations. So it is difficult to say with certainty what different political parties had at their disposal in terms of financial resources during the recent elections. Qualitatively, UPND human and material resources were far more visible than they have been in any previous elections in which they have participated. A monumental vote protection operation involving some 20,000 persons is rumoured to have been developed and applied by UPND.

It can be reasonably assumed that both the ground level campaign operation as well as the reported vote protection exercise required considerable financial resources and UPND must have seen to it that these were available when required.

Where they emerged from is open to speculation. Hichilema is clearly a wealthy man. So it is not out of the question that he drew down personal resources as part of the fund-raising effort.

But, as mentioned above, UPND’s deployment of human and material resources was on a scale not seen before. It is therefore not out of the question that significant third-party funding emerged from an entity with significant financial resources.

Suffice to say money is a big part of democratic politics in Zambia and round the world. It is a lesson that has been well learned to good effect by UPND.

5. Post-election period matters: last but not least. the post-election period matters. Having an effective vote protection strategy and the personnel and money to implement it have been alluded to above. Added to this however, must be a plan to engage the incumbent to guarantee his safety – or give him few options but to accept defeat – in the event of exit lest he unleash violence to steal an election.

Following the announcement of final results in the recent general elections, there is rumoured to have been strenuous engagement with Edgar Lungu by former Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma, who lead the African Union (AU) monitoring team, former Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete who lead the Commonwealth monitoring team and former Zambian President Rupiah Banda. Whether this was decisive in eventually persuading Lungu to accept the election results or whether he was backed into such a corner – by returns from security establishment voting points that seemed to suggest an overwhelming majority of security personnel voted against him – is open to question.

But accept the results he did and the ultimate winner was not just Hichilema and the UPND, but the people of Zambia.


Hichilema’s and the UPND’s achievement is a monumental achievement for both Zambia and the African continent. He is walking into a fine mess on the side of the economy. With seemingly few tools to fix the problem without incurring some additional short-term pain, e.g. through the much-vaunted IMF lead recovery programme, addressing the challenges currently prevalent will test how durable his hard won urban/BNWR coalition is. His demonstrated lack of political finesse and a rumoured tendency to over-think and micro manage situations are certainly a cause for concern. The length of time he has taken to choose a full cabinet and decide on important civil service positions such as the secretary to the Treasury and the secretary to the Cabinet suggest a woeful lack of preparation to transition from campaigning to governing.

But, there is a feel-good factor and he has won a lot of political capital from the electorate. It must be spent quickly and decisively and results must be apparent to the general population lest it erode quickly.

1 Barotziland-North-Western Rhodesia was a contiguous territory that existed from 1891 to 1911 as a protectorate of the British South Africa Company (BSAC). In 1911, it was merged with North Eastern Rhodesia to form Northern Rhodesia. It continued to be administered by the BSAC until 1924, when administration was transferred to the Colonial Office in London. It was this legal entity that eventually became the Republic of Zambia in 1964.

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