[By Cleopas Sambo]
On 14th March 2020, Lusaka Province minister Bowman Lusambo, at the invitation of Shoprite management, stormed into the retail store and ordered the arrest of customers, mainly youth, who had queued up to buy mealie-meal. In a video clip that has since gone viral, Lusambo, accompanied by uniformed Zambia police officers, is seen and heard harassing the young men and ordering them to sit down. After his victims complied with his order, the minister demanded to know their identity, where they were coming from, who had sent them to buy the mealie-meal and how many bags they are buying. Visibly shaken, the several youths attempted to put together a few responses that only prompted the minister to issue another order, this time to the watching police officers: “arrest all of them”. The police obliged, loaded the youths into a police vehicle that had been parked outside. As expected, Lusambo’s actions attracted widespread public backlash but the provincial minister responded by pledging to arrest anyone who buys mealie-meal in bulk. This episode is problematic for three reasons.
The first is the unprofessional conduct exhibited by the officers of the Zambia Police Service who had accompanied Lusambo. The core operational duties of a professional police service are to maintain law and order, protect members of the public and their property, prevent the commission of offences and to bring the offenders to justice. In executing these duties, the police are obliged to conduct investigations and, where necessary, arrest the culprits. They are also required to disclose what law the arrested have violated and the appropriate charges that the violation of such laws attracts. This is not what happened in the case involving Lusambo. Instead, the police simply took instructions from a politician and, as if his word was law, arrested the innocent customers without telling them what offence they had committed. Here, we see the regrettable politicisation, loss of autonomy and lack of professionalism that have become characteristic of the Zambia Police Service under the watch of the Edgar Lungu administration.
What was unlawful about the conduct of those customers? From Shoprite’s own admission, these were customers who were in the store to buy mealie meal – not to steal the commodity. The interest of Shoprite was to ensure that the customers paid for all the bags of mealie-meal they collected. What they were going to do with the mealie-meal, who had sent them or where they were coming from is inconsequential to Shoprite. In a free market economy like Zambia’s, customers are free to purchase goods in any quantity that they can afford to pay for. There are currently no laws that prohibit the procurement of more than one bag of mealie-meal. The burning question that arises then is; why did the police arrest those Shoprite customers? Why did they obey Lusambo’s unlawful commands in the absence of any investigation to establish whether an illegality had occurred? And, would Lusambo have harassed those innocent young people if they appeared to be children of the elites from Kabulonga, not of the weak and vulnerable from Matero?
The second issue relates to how Lusambo’s mealie-meal antics function to obscure the real problem at hand by pointing public discussion elsewhere. If there is sufficient stock of mealie-meal in the country, why is Lusambo troubled by customers who are willing to pay for any quantities that they can afford? In the video clip, Patricia Lungu, who introduces herself to the world as the Shoprite sales manager, is heard declaring that ‘there is no shortage of mealie-meal, just people who are bulk-buying.’ This is curious to say the least. What investigation did Patricia conduct, which ascertained that there is, in fact, no shortage of mealie-meal in Zambia? By turning himself into a policeman of mealie-meal, Lusambo is attempting to resolve the mealie-meal shortage without addressing its causes. It must be understood that mealie-meal is an end product of a long chain of production. This process involves the distribution of arable land, irrigation systems, farming inputs and tools as well as payments to farmers and agro dealers. Ending mealie-meal shortages cannot be done by guarding the bags of the commodity in Shoprite. It should start with proper government planning by way of instituting agriculture policies that direct resources to farmers on a timely basis. While there are many faces of poverty, nothing communicates the indignity of poverty in Zambia as much as the hunger that comes from lack of mealie-meal. This indignity, understood so well among Zambians, sparked the riots that contributed to the collapse of President Kenneth Kaunda’s one-party state and ended UNIP’s hold on power. Are we seeing the repeat of history here – shortage of the staple commodity accompanied by cheap stunts from the governing elite that seek to present everything in the country as rosy?
Lusambo and his crew in the government will do well to address the underlying issue at hand: the scarcity and, for most Zambians, increasing unaffordability of mealie-meal. For as long as the mealie-meal shortages continue, this bulk buying will continue. And unless we have a law preventing people from buying more than one bag of maize meal at a time, no one must be bullied or arrested for doing so. If Zambia’s economy does not improve, the government should brace itself for social unrest. Unlike middle class Zambians who pay attention to the niceties of the Public Order Act when they seek to protest against any disruption to their elite concerns, the expression of the discontent of Zambians from lower social classes is boundless once they have resolved to show displeasure. If a time comes in the near future that they have nothing to eat, these Zambians have the capacity to eat the political elite, literally.
The third and final issue concerns the careless and xenophobic comments of the Shoprite managers. In the video clip, the chain store representatives – sales manager Patricia Lungu and acting stock administrator Lombe Mulenga – are heard claiming that the people who are creating artificial shortages of mealie-meal are foreign nationals of Rwandan origin who buy the commodity in bulky for reselling in their small shops scattered across many of Lusaka’s compounds. Since when has the procurement of anything in a free market economy become tied to citizenship? Assuming that their comments were correct, what is wrong with Rwandans, or indeed any foreign national, buying mealie-meal in Zambia? What is the link between shopping and the citizenship or nationality of customers? Or is Shoprite telling us that its products are sold to customers on account of their citizenship? Was the aim to incite Zambians against hardworking traders of foreign origin? It is the dangerous and exclusive language of Lungu and Mulenga that fuel xenophobic attacks against foreign nationals. As former president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki once noted, we dehumanise ourselves the moment we start thinking of others as less human.
To summarise: Lusambo’s antics show that we Zambians lack a professional police service, have clowns for national leaders who have little capacity to tackle our most pressing challenges, and are, simply put, xenophobic. We hunger for the end of our poverty: the poverty of public leadership at political, national and institutional levels.
Cleopas is a Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Zambia. When he is not listening to PK Chishala’s song “Common Man”, Sambo, who holds a PhD in Social Policy from the University of Oxford, works on issues of multidimensional poverty, inequality, wellbeing and the ethics of everyday life.