THE announcement by the Chinese Ambassador to Zambia Yang Youming that the three governments of China, Tanzania and Zambia have reached an agreement on the revival of Tazara is great news.
Tazara should never be allowed to collapse. It is an important institution directly linked to how the country has developed since independence and the friendships it has been able to cultivate with the outside world.
The railway line was built out of necessity.
A year and few days after Zambia’s independence, Ian Smith unilaterally declared independence for Southern Rhodesia, which he renamed as Rhodesia. It was a coup against the British Crown.
The declaration of independence for Rhodesia was a big blow to the new Zambian nation. Since the start of the twentieth century, its trading system was tied to southern Africa. Its external trade depended on the Rhodesia Railways and was routed through the ports of Durban, Port Elizabeth and Beira and imports were mainly sourced in South Africa. This was the case until the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was established, when the Southern Rhodesian industry developed and became the main supplier on the Zambian market. But products not available in South Africa and Rhodesia still continued to transit through the ports of South Africa and Rhodesia.
Yet, six weeks after UDI, Zambia’s access to these routes was cut off.
The British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and American President Lyndon Johnson declared economic sanctions against Rhodesia. This greatly hurt Zambia’s economy. In fact, the sanctions hurt Zambia more than they did Rhodesia.
Britain and the United States thought the Smith’s regime would only last a few weeks. But it survived for 15 more years.
Zambia had to find alternative routes.
The Benguela Railway Line from Lubumbashi [Elizabethville] to Benguela [Lobito Bay], which is on the Atlantic coast, only had limited capacity and it passed through west Africa. It was not reliable as an alternative route because of Portugal’s relations with South Africa and its declared neutrality towards Rhodesia.
Zambia spent the next five years diverting its imports and exports from the southern African ports to mainly Dar es Salaam.
It was heartbreaking but there was no alternative.
The Great North Road was atrocious hence the name ‘the Hell Run’. Lusaka to Dar es Salaam, a distance of 1,900 took 10 days or longer to be covered.
As time went by, other routes were identified but none of them were satisfactory.
A cheaper route was needed. A railway line to Dar es Salaam as well as a fuel pipeline.
Kenneth Kaunda, then President, wrote to the British Prime Minister for help. The reply was negative. The pipeline would be expensive and would take three years to build. As for the railway line, the survey alone would take three years.
They thought that by that time, Smith would have left the scene. They were wrong.
Then came the Chinese, our all-weather friends.
They built a first class railway line within three years.
And most importantly, they financed the entire cost including the Chinese labour with a 30-year loan with interest of one percent per annum.
That is what real friends do when a friend is in need.
Like the Chinese ambassador said, Tazara is a monument of friendship, a great railway of friendship.
As he rightly said, the revival of Tazara will usher in an era for the railways, which will bring a new push to industrialisation and agricultural modernisation of the country.