Fairer creatures may believe in coincidence, but I do not: Section 69 of Zambia’s penal code – criminalising Defaming the President – was repealed on the 23rd December, last year, exactly two weeks after my previous column was published, which politely wondered what sort of insults would qualify as defamation. I have always privately upheld that His Excellency is one of the dozen keen followers of my monthly column, and evidently, he listened, finally proving that I wasn’t just talking smack. Thanks for showing up the haters, Pres.
This, however, puts me in a quandary. I was counting on riding the defamation-train till I became (in) famous, waiting for that day when videos of me being hounded and rounded up by the police went viral on Facebook. Then I’d have two dozen keen followers, and could probably become some sort of influencer-intellectual, like our esteemed ‘UNZA Don’ Dr Sishuwa. Alas, I will now have to find other means to provoke the sleeping beast that is the Zambian establishment, although opportunities do abound. What will be certain is that aspirant Zambian politicians will have to refigure their coming of age– no longer will a simple Facebook rant comparing the Vice-President to a duck, for example, do.
But, the road to my impending fame aside, there is something admiral about Hichilema’s decision to repeal Section 69, along with abolishing the death penalty. He did, after all, promise this in his years in opposition; thus, there is a form of public truth, or accountability, he abides by. That we can test the truth of a political figures’ actions against his or her words is not to be taken for granted, and is perhaps overlooked in many of the liberal responses to the announcement, which ask: yes, this promise is fulfilled, but what of others?
Of course, they have a point, and I broadly agree with the timbre of their protestations. New Dawn politics reeks of opportunism on many levels. It is only when an opposition leader is arrested, and a public storm brews, that a regressive and oppressive law is repealed. One naturally wonders here: did the establishment wait for an opportunity when the spectacularity of the law – which is in its nature – is publicly acknowledged, to repeal it? Are we meant to consider The President and his regime as saviours, having rescued us from the grips of an oppressive history, whilst leading us to a glorious future, albeit a little late? This would explain the symbolically significant act of announcing these reforms two days before Christmas; one could argue that Hichilema paints himself a figure in the vein of the Christian saviour here, proselytising His Good Word across the world, and performing miracles to his Flock when necessary. Indeed, The President’s social media accounts during the Christmas period have shown his reliance on the gospel for justification, and perhaps at times, guidance.
However, this opportunism also reflects the anxiety of the New Dawn administration. Not only was Section 69 repealed as an early Christmas gift, but it also took place at the time when an extended – and to many, unexpected – series of power cuts were to come into effect across Zambia. One imagines that we are meant to celebrate our new freedoms (look at me, I can now insult The President on Facebook) whilst there is loadshedding of up to 12 hours a day (ah, but my phone is dead! I’ll insult Him when the power is back).That we are granted freedoms the moment we are unable to fully use them has along history across both the world and in Zambia. Some will recall a similar situation here in the early 1990s, where the newfound freedoms that signaled the end of Kaunda’s one-party state were met with material insecurity and newfound levels of poverty previously unimaginable.
And so, naturally, I wonder if The President, in another life, would have chosen a different career. Something closer to his calling, like a saint, or a Jehovah’s Witness. Going door to door, promising heaven to followers, and damnation to the Enemies of Progress, perhaps performing a little sleight-of-hand miracle to aid his bidding. God knows I need a career change (without defamation, this satirist thing doesn’t really pay off) – maybe The President should think of one too.