By Aislinn Laing, Lusaka (Daily Telegraph UK)
Michael Sata, the former Victoria station porter recently elected as President of Zambia, has told how the “humiliation” of his work as a menial labourer in Britain is what drives him to raise his own country out of poverty.
Mr Sata, 74, known as King Cobra for his sharp tongue, campaigned on a pro-poor and anti-corruption ticket and promised Zambians he would begin to “restore dignity” within 90 days of taking office.
Since his victory over the party which had led the copper-rich southern African country for over 20 years in September, he has dismissed a string of senior army officers, ministers and senior industry officials, dropped taxes and raised the health and education budgets.
In his first interview with the international media since coming power, he says it was his time in Britain that helped shape him into the leader he has not become.
Mr Sata moved to Britain when Zambia was still under British control. He worked first in a laundry in Bromley, before moving to the Vauxhall car plant in Luton. He then moved to British Rail where he worked at Victoria Station then London Bridge first as a porter, then a shunter, then conductor and eventually driver.
“I had no choice but to do what all black people were doing in England,” Mr Sata told The Telegraph from behind a mahogany desk in the red-brick State House in Lusaka once occupied by British governor Sir Roy Welensky.
“I swept London Bridge, I swept Victoria and I enjoyed it. If I went to England and I was treated like a gentleman, I would not have had any resolution to look after this country.
“But every hour I spent on manual work, every hour I was humiliated in England or degraded has helped me because that’s the same way other people feel in the townships here. People are still walking long distances and are working long hours.”
Some criticise Mr Sata for his authoritarianism, saying he is unable to delegate and could struggle with modern diplomacy.
He sees himself as a visionary, and expects his ministers to follow his lead.
“To be a parent, you must be authoritarian. If the Zambians want to succeed they must learn to work hard and they should not expect to be treated with kid gloves,” he said.
“I have to try and uplift the standard of living for the people in Zambia. If I cannot do that, I will have failed.”
Zambia’s peaceful transition following the election was held up as an all-too-rare beacon of democracy in the region. It was hoped that Mr Sata might use his strong mandate to speak truth to other regional powers like Zimbabwe.
However, Mr Sata said he believed Zambia would do better to solve its own issues before meddling in those of others.
He said that he would not block Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s push to abandon his troubled coalition with the Movement for Democratic Change, dismissing Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai – well regarded by the West – as a “stooge”.
“We don’t know the policies of Morgan – he has other people speaking for him rather than speaking for himself,” he said.
Jacob Zuma, the South African President who leads the regional team mediating in Zimbabwe, has insisted that Zimbabwe write a new constitution and reform its voters roll before new elections.
But Mr Sata said that such reforms were unnecessary. “You people, the Western countries, you taught us that democracy is elections. Now somebody wants elections and you say no,” he said.
“There will be elections and Mugabe will go and someone else will take over but not someone imposed by the Western countries.”
He is however keen to court British influence in Zambia as a counterbalance to the heavy Chinese presence which he campaigned against so fiercely in previous elections, angered by alleged abuse and poor pay of local workers. Britain remains Zambia’s biggest bilateral donor but as in many other countries on the continent, its involvement in the country has waned.
“Africa and Zambia in particular drifted away from the West for a long time and we have to reconcile,” he said. “We need you people more than ever before because it will cost us less when we have publications from Britain, or equipment, we don’t need an interpreter. The language, the mode of operation, everything is British and we don’t see why there should be gap. Better the devil you know than one you don’t.”