On August 12, 2021, Zambians reprised, what we must by now consider settled habit—they elected a new government. They have made a custom of changing governments with a certain directness and dispatch to the process: no self-doubt, no longing regretful glance back over the shoulder, no breakup tears, no hint or hedge leaving the door open for a future reunion in the curt goodbye. They did so for the first time in 1964 when the Zambian flag; amber, black, red, and green replaced the Union Jack and unfurled atop flag poles across the newly independent country of Zambia; again in 1991 when they said goodbye to the first Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda; and again in 2011 when they bid farewell to the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy and, once more, in the latest iteration, when they said enough to the Patriotic Front (PF) and choose the United Party for National Development (UPND) to manage their affairs.
Every single one of these changes have felt like a revolution that simmered beneath the surface and erupted on election day. I was not around to experience 1964, but I have witnessed all the rest. At the head of the latest slow-burn revolution began about 6 years ago when discontent with PF started setting in on the margins are the youth—the Millennials (Generation Y) and Generation Z. These are the same generations derided for being soft, of unfocused minds, pursuing little of substance and being hooked on internet consume technologies of big tech—Facebook, Netflix, Google, Tencent etc. Older generations view them with a mix of benign skepticism and angst—to be apathetic toward real human experiences prefering virtual experiences is the understandable end of so much sensory addictive diversions at one’s disposal. Older folk think young people are wedded to exchanging memes, shutting out the real world by listening to incomprehensible music, warning off the much younger and much older with a palpable impatience and hostile disdain symbolized by game controllers, earbuds, and headphones; frittering away hour upon hour searching and viewing viral Tik Tok posts that may become the next fad. Indeed, there are some who believe tech firms like Facebook are a net-negative for technological developments, for kids and society in general:
To me, it’s entirely plausible that Facebook and Tencent might be net-negative for technological developments. The apps they develop offer fun, productivity-dragging distractions; and the companies pull smart kids from R&D-intensive fields like materials science or semiconductor manufacturing, into ad optimization and game development.
My reading of the situation in Zambia is these are the generations—whose intense engagement with social media worries parents that the children have detached themselves, pulled up stakes from the real world, gone to town and signed a 99-year lease and moved into the virtual world—who, by showing up at the polls just past midnight, and by voting in large numbers, choose a new direction for themselves and for Zambia. It is their omnipresence on social media that raised their consciousness, raised it so they could talk and, together, imagine and launch a different future for themselves. They rekindled the idea of people power that Zambians first tasted in 1991. That the sixth president handed over the reins to the seventh president in a peaceful ceremony witnessed by tens of thousands and perhaps millions on TV cannot be taken for granted, and it is a testament that the desire for change, the vote for the new president was so overwhelming it left little room for the arts of elections rigging that often tint elections in not a few African countries.
Before January 6, 2021, I would have said successful elections in Zambia, and the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to another is only remarkable because it happened in Africa. But the events at United States congress, and the all-or-nothing campaigns of Brexiteers and Remainers in the United Kingdom pushing misinformation—events in countries that are two of the best examples of working democracies, show that the belief in democracy sometimes only goes so far as it aligns with one’s views more so now that the extreme left and extreme right view any compromise as selling out and handing the playbook to the enemy. When those beliefs are challenged or threatened, the democratic process can be upended or manipulated to achieve narrow goals. Even with the attendant flaws, what Zambians have done four times, inclusive of this last time, ushering in a seventh president is noteworthy not because it happened in Africa, but that it can happen anywhere at all.
Zambia lives in a neighborhood where it is routine and perhaps expected that hot civil wars flare up to resolve issues of who governs—this is true now in Ethiopia, in South Sudan, in Sudan, in Central African Republic, and in Chad. Or where Army officers intervene under the guise of guardianship of the people’s aspirations and to keep the elected true to the will of the people—true in Zimbabwe, in Guinea and in Mali. It is the neighborhood of the endless paternalistic reigns of Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Denis Sassou Nguesso and Paul Biya and their routine re-election victories greeted with sighs accepting the tedious sameness of prior years for a further five or seven years. Zambians observe these happenings in other countries and worry we are headed that way. Then 12 August 2021 happened, and we believe again that we are in control of our destiny; someone else’s lot need not be ours.
But electing a new president, however, is not an arrival for Zambia; it is not job done, not mission accomplished—it is only an opportunity for Generation Y and Generation Z and all other Zambians, in concert with the new government, to create an environment to pursue their goals freely and live in a society that rewards merit, hard work, and to shape a future they imagine for themselves.