The Zambian president, Michael Sata, died in London on 29 October at the age of 77, after months of ill health and rumours of his death, and just days after Zambia celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence. Known as King Cobra for his venomous rhetoric, the president—’a chain-smoking former Victoria Station railway porter’, according to the Telegraph—was described by the BBC as authoritarian: ‘At first he looked as if he would keep promises to tackle corruption and create jobs and prosperity. But his term in office was marred by a crackdown on political opposition and a decline in the economy.’
His vice-president, Guy Scott, 70, became head of state until the presidential by-election set for 20 January. The interim president then prompted a wave of headlines by describing himself, somewhat mystifyingly, as Africa’s first white democratic leader ‘since the Venetians’, according to the Telegraph. Martin Plaut, writing in the New Statesman, pointed out that Scott was actually the second democratic white president in Africa (the Mauritian Paul Bérenger being the first) and argued that, like the US electing Barack Obama, astonishment at the existence of a white president in Africa was racist: ‘Zambians seem to have taken his rise to power in their stride—the rest of the world should follow suit.’
Although he was born in Livingstone, his father was from Glasgow, so Scott is barred from the election. ‘I won’t run for the presidency at the election because constitutionally, I can’t,’ he said. The Lusaka Times also noted that Sata had never appointed Scott to stand in for him, preferring other ministers. A clue as to why came in a statement carried by Zambia Reports from the ruling Patriotic Front’s central committee clarifying the stalemate over choosing the party’s candidate for the forthcoming election. ‘Dr Scott ended the meeting in disarray and without reaching conclusion on the matter,’ it said, adding: ‘In our view, Dr. Scot returned to his old ways of acting unilaterally.’
Writing in the Guardian, Namwali Serpell declared: ‘Zambians don’t care about our new president’s skin colour.’ Onetweet declared: ‘The western media probably cares more about #GuyScott‘s whiteness than Zambians do.’ Others made fun of the postcolonial tropes: ‘Proud African Leader Meets Imperialist Western … hang on a second,’ went another tweet under a picture of Obama meeting Scott.
There was also gentle criticism of Scott himself. Writing in Al Jazeera America, M Neelika Jayawardene said the man ‘Zambians refer to affectionately and derisively as “Uncle Scotty” … has long been ridiculed because he is a somewhat bumbling figure who lacks statesmanship and authority. ‘The list of his faux pas is as long as Zambians’ legendary patience with its elderly patriarchs. He’s a little fearful of anything too new and different.’ In short, he concluded, ‘debate about his heritage aside, Scott’s short time leading Zambia is not a big deal.’