“The period of national mourning started today. We will miss our beloved president and commander. Elections for the office of president will take place within 90 days. In the interim, I am the acting president,” Guy Scott told Zambia in a radio address. (Image: Patriotic Front)
For the next three months an African country will be run by a white man, the first since Paul Berenger became prime minister of Mauritius in 2003. The death of President Michael Sata in a London hospital on 28 October has elevated his deputy, 70-year-old Dr Guy Scott, to the most powerful office in Zambia. In a country of 13 million, a white farmer will be the leader, at least for the next three months.
For Scott, a Cambridge educated economist, the strangest thing about his day is his motorcade, or the “truckloads of guys following me on motorbikes”. And the helicopter – for travel to the sylvan hinterlands of Zambia. As he told The Spectator magazine: “I am enjoying the toys, I must say.”
Coverage of his ascendancy in the media outside Zambia has focused on the colour of Scott’s skin. Some commentators talk of it as evidence of Africa’s post-colonial rebirth. In Zambia, though, there has been nary a comment on his race.
Most of the country’s white farming community are refugees from Zimbabwe, farmers who were forced off the land by Zimbabwe’s Africanisation policies. Belonging to this 40 000-strong white minority, his ascendency is a result of Zambia’s stability and tolerance, Scott says.
Speaking to The Spectator in 2012 after he was named deputy to Sata, he explained: “I don’t think I would be nearly as welcome in South Africa, for example. Or West Africa… I get the suspicion they are pretty dubious, wondering what a white man is doing there. But for some reason, I’m very popular here.”
King Cobra Michael Sata led Zambia from 2011 until his death in a London hospital this week.(Image credit: Patriotic Front)
The white population is not his constituency; he represents a district of Lusaka. His position allows him to amuse himself at their expense. The sirens of his motorcade are rarely used, he has claimed, except when he visits his own constituency. “Then they are put on full blast, in defiance of all those who thought I couldn’t make it – mainly my fellow whites.”
Scott has been called “a scaly old dude” by George W Bush and “a sick old man” by members of the opposition. No one, however, can say that he is not Zambian. Born in Livingstone, the son of a Scottish father and English mother, Scott’s presidency will run for just 90 days. Constitutionally, only Zambians whose parents are Zambian born can be president. Not that he couldn’t win a presidential election – as agriculture minister the plain-spoken and boisterous Scott was credited with saving Zambia from a drought-caused famine in 1992/93.
When Sata made him vice-president in 2011, Scott was just a heartbeat away from the highest office in Zambia, but no one questioned the decision. He became, Scott says in his self-deprecating manner, a good luck charm for African politics. “I don’t think Michael thought it was a racial thing, he just thought it was a good idea. I’ve been involved in politics here for a long time. As a schoolboy I was involved in the liberation movement,” he told The Telegraph in 2012.
“Michael knows about political symbolism. It’s one in the eye for his critics who say he’s a tribalist. Obviously, he’s not.”
University of Zambia political scientist Lee Habasonda says that Scott’s elevation was smart politics on the part of Sata. Scott was a major funder of the Patriotic Front and helped it to gain power in 2011 for the first time, but he is also the link between Zambia and foreign powers. “Mr Scott was a farmer, and sufficiently endowed with financial resources. Mr Sata gave him the deputy presidency out of appreciation. It is not a powerful post,” Habasonda told the BBC.
Dr Alec Scott, the president’s father, moved to what was then Northern Rhodesia in 1927 to work on Cecil John Rhodes’ railway. He went on to study law, publish a newspaper (today’s Zambia Daily Mail) and became a politician allied to African nationalists.
Scott considers himself an African nationalist. His political education began when he was at school in Zimbabwe and having to contend with the racism of fellow pupils and their parents. “It was a whites-only school; they tried to introduce an Indian and he was hounded out at the instigation of the parents of the boys. It was like being in the Hitler Youth: the theories about black inferiority and this kind of stuff.”
By the time Scott returned from Cambridge – he also read cognitive science and robotics – he was able to say of Zambia: “I have long suspected Zambia is moving from a post-colonial to a cosmopolitan condition. People’s minds are changing: they are no longer sitting back and dwelling on what was wrong about colonialism.”
South Africa’s introduction to the impolitic opinions of Scott came in 2010 when, during an interview with The Guardian newspaper, he dismissed South Africans as “backward”. What he actually said in the interview was that he hated South Africans, before backtracking. “I dislike South Africa for the same reason that Latin Americans dislike the United States, I think. It’s just too big and too unsubtle.”
Generous with both praise and criticism, the charismatic Scott has said he is not interested in becoming president beyond this interim period. At his age he has his own health concerns. His right hand trembles and he may have cancer: “It’s possibly Parkinson’s, I haven’t had it diagnosed yet. In my age group, there are on average six things wrong with you at any one time.”
Scott is respected in Zambia, but not loved, especially not by opposition parties. The Patriotic Front has been accused of dragging Zambia towards authoritarianism. Scott’s sarcastic response: “Our opponents would complain to the Commonwealth, then the UN and, if still unsuccessful, the Klingon empire.”