Most African presidents bring special meaning to the word "aloof." Even those who are not stubbornly out of touch with their own people and places are often condescending, elitist, and unabashed in their admiration of British, French, or American manners and society. Not Sata. Writes Chisala, "Whereas most political leaders fail to communicate easily to the poor uneducated masses," Chisala observes, "Sata was able [in the campaign] to effectively communicate all his ideas to everyone who listened to him."
Sata has a knack, virtually unknown among leading African politicians, for coining catchy phrases and promoting straight-forward ideas of justice and equality. "More money in your pockets" is among his latest.
For Zambians, economic equity remains an elusive ideal. Because of sky-high copper prices, the country's economy is booming; GDP growth exceeded 6 percent annually over the past three years. Mining is supplemented by a solid agricultural sector, giving this country of about 13 million an economy worth $13 billion (or$1,000 per person, impressive for the region). But inequality is rife in Zambia and rising. The rights to mine and sell copper are dominated by Chinese investors and many small retailers are Chinese-run and owned. In a smart political move, Sata has complained about foreign investors for years, risking approbation from the international community while at the same time raising the reasonable point that more of Zambia's economic power should be in the hands of Zambians. While in Latin America such a political position would be viewed as routine, even boring, in African politics -- where leaders fear upsetting foreign investors -- Sata's position is singular, even incendiary.
There's something else of Sata's populism that has echoes in the Arab Spring. "Don't kubeba," a phrase taken from a popular song that literally means "don't tell them," became Sata's signature phrase, encouraging his followers to accept the ruling party's pay-outs for votes -- but to then vote against the ruling party anyway. Sata managed to convince the urban dispossessed that the bribes were the people's money anyway, so "they could feel no guilt in pretending" to support the ruling party. In showing ingratitude for government handouts, Zambians displayed something similar to what Arabs in oil-rich Libya did in turning against their own bribe-happy governments.
After losing a number of past presidential elections, Sata's victory came as shock to Zambia's elites, who generally opposed him. Chisala and many of Sata's supporters, while proud of another peaceful transfer power in his country, know well that his success in governance is hardly assured. Sata has the chance to be, Chisala writes, either "the worst President Africa has ever seen or the best."
I am less worried about a failed Sata presidency. Already, he has stimulated a useful and overdue debate over race in sub-Saharan Africa by indicating he may appoint as vice president Guy Scott, a Zambian-born son of white immigrants who came to the country while it was still the British colony of Northern Rhodesia. Scott, already an elected official in Zambia, is vice president of Sata's Patriotic Front party; he would become the highest-ranking white elected politician in sub-Saharan Africa. A longtime political ally of Sata, Scott is both a crony of the new president and a symbol of his penchant for out-of-the-box thinking. While Sata sometimes rails against the excessive influence that Chinese investors appear to have in his country, he also seems to truly believe that Zambia will benefit from attracting and retaining foreign talent -- even if that talent is white, an often unpopular color in a southern Africa still hurting from the twin legacies of colonialism and racial segregation. By choosing Scott, Sata may be the improbably troubadour of a new, multiracial model for African society.