I grew up in Zambia in the 1980s and 1990s. I am old enough to remember some of what it was like to live under authoritarian one-party rule in Zambia. I remember that people felt afraid of speaking openly and frankly over the phone. I remember stories of people dying under mysterious circumstances. I remember the effects of exchange controls, the scarcity of goods that now appear in abundance and even the food riots in the late 1980s that eventually led to the end of President Kenneth Kaunda’s twenty-seven year rule. I remember the jubilation people felt when multi-party democracy was restored in 1991. I remember the portrait that one of my relatives kept of President Kenneth Kaunda inscribed with the words, “Fallen, never to rise again!”
Twenty-eight years on from the restoration of multi-party democracy, Zambians appear to be retreating inwards. They are afraid of publicly expressing a widely-felt sense of dissatisfaction and dismay with the state of the nation: protracted load-shedding, rising mealie-meal prices, rising exchange and inflation rates, and of course rising corruption which appears to know no bounds. I get messages from people who encourage me to continue speaking out on what is ailing our country. They do not do so themselves for fear of reprisals by ruling party cadres or the government. Everyone, it seems, feels vulnerable because they are connected to the government either directly or through relatives.
Can a few people save Zambia? I do not think so. We only have to think back to the times in our history where the powerful force of unity of purpose has saved Zambia: through the independence struggle, through the struggle to restore multi-partyism and through the fight against President Fredrick Chiluba seeking a third term in office. We are the sum of our parts, stronger together. Even during those times there were naysayers, people afraid of standing up for what was right because there were consequences. There were people who actively dissuaded others from joining the struggle out of a fear for their lives or their livelihoods.
American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Not everybody can be famous but everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service”. And we can all serve our country with what we have, where we are. It starts with the individual but the cause should be owned by the collective. We are stronger together and, in the words of our national anthem, “victors in the struggle for our rights”. As history has shown us, there is strength in solidarity and every citizen can take part. In the words of the late Kwame Nkrumah:
“Countrymen, the task ahead is great indeed, and heavy is the responsibility; and yet it is a noble and glorious challenge – a challenge which calls for the courage to dream, the courage to believe, the courage to dare, the courage to do, the courage to envision, the courage to fight, the courage to work, the courage to achieve – to achieve the highest excellences and the fullest greatness of man. Dare we ask for more in life?”
Like Martin Luther King Jr and Kwame Nkrumah, I too have a dream. I dream that one day Zambians will put patriotism above partisanship; I dream that Zambians will elect people with integrity and punish those that act with impunity; I dream of a Zambia where our values are reflected in our aspirations; and I dream that one day people will once again believe that Zambia is worth fighting for. Nelson Mandela once said, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears”. I think we Zambians have spent so long recoiling in fear that we have forgotten how to reach for what we hope for. We will never be free unless we understand that sometimes we have to pay the price of that freedom. Sometimes we need to dream but, more importantly, we also need to wake up and realise our dreams.
The author is a lawyer, civil society activist and Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellow.