Zambia’s presidential election – a reflection on the power of silence

Following the September 20th presidential and pegislative elections, Michael Sata (a.k.a. King Cobra) has become the new Zambian President (here’s his inauguration speech, delivered on Friday 23rd). Sata’s victory, standing on the opposition party ticket of the the Patriotic Front (PF), constituted a surprise to most observers (although not all) who had predicted that the incumbent Rupiah Banda of the MMD would benefit from the “uneven playing field” that characterises the country’s electoral process.

In reflecting on the reasons why the PF was able to ovecome the challenges that stood ahead of them, Jack Hogan writes on the African Arguments website:

One slogan more than any other has dominated Zambia’s 2011 elections, the PF’s ‘Don’t Kubeba!’, or  ‘Don’t Tell!’. It lies at the heart of the PF’s seemingly successful campaign to negate the benefits of incumbency enjoyed by the MMD. It appeared on posters, on the lips of cadres and at rallies. Dandy Krazy’s ‘Donch Kubeba’ (with appropriate shushing dance move) has been one of the most popular tunes heard out and about during the last two months. In essence, it encouraged voters to take the chitenge, maize meal, oil, or even bribes offered by the government, even attend the rallies, but not feel they couldn’t vote against them anyway. As a way of upholding the secrecy of the ballot, and running a campaign against an opponent with resources far in excess of your own, it is a risky, but clever strategy. Indeed, the EU Observer Mission stated that unequal access to resources meant a “level playing field” was distinctly lacking during campaigning. Despite this, it appears “Dont Kubeba!” paid off. (Emphasis added)

This strategy was not only extremely intelligent, but also contains an important reflection, in my view. These are times dominated by new Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs), from mobile phones to social networks. Tools we all (including myself) praise as a powerful way to bring social change, or at least help to create alternative narratives and mobilisation opportunities. More information, and the ability to share and communicate this, will help to bring political transformation. And yet, in the Zambian case it has been precisely the opposite strategy, one of silence, which has unleashed the power of the Zambian people in voting for a change of government (something possibilitated also by Banda’s acceptance of defeat, something that unfortunately cannot be taken for granted in other African cases). In an era of abundant information and a myriad of communication channels, it has been a strategy built deliberately on remaining silent, that has proved successful in bringing about political change. Something to relfect on, I think.

But before that, have a listen to “Donch Kubeba”, which is also a great song and a prime example of “kombi music” (it was my girlfriend who came up with this label, to refer to the music commonly heard on Southern Africa’s public transport system). Enjoy!

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