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State of labour at independence

KELVIN KACHINGWE, Lusaka
NO ONE perhaps describes the situation at independence better than Andrew Sardanis.
“We woke up the morning of 24 October 1964, masters of our own destiny in our new nation of Zambia. We had our own government, our own president, our own cabinet, our own flag, our own national anthem, our own coat of arms with the national motto ‘One Zambia, One Nation’.
“We had only one black engineer, three black doctors and three black lawyers and some 90 other black university graduates, working mainly as teachers and senior civil servants. We had 884 men and just 77 women qualified at school certificate level, some 4,000 at Form II level, mainly working in the civil service, and a few thousand junior teachers, junior clerks and policemen and semi-skilled workers with just elementary school education,” Sardanis writes in his latest book Zambia – The First 50 Years.
Paraphrasing Porgy’s songs from Porgy and Bess, an English-language opera composed in 1934 by George Gershwin, he says “we had plenty of nothing, but nothing was plenty for us”.
Zambia was indeed a new nation, and an enthusiastic one for the matter which probably thought that there was no problem it could not handle. But as things turned out, the problems were too many, and immediate as well.
For a start, the wealth and the economy was fully in foreign hands. And so were the skills.
As there was no experience in government, and no idea of how things functioned, many services started to fall apart.
Sardanis records that when the British civil servants started departing as their contracts with the Colonial Office expired, the new government discovered that it did not have enough operators for the manual telephone exchanges of the time. The operators had been mainly wives of British civil servants and they were going away with their husbands.
Although the job was simple enough and Zambians were trained in a few months, in the meantime, using the telephone became a nightmare.
“One needed to dial a dozen times for a connection. A similar problem arose with junior officers and secretaries in the government ministries, again jobs performed mainly by British wives. They were more difficult to replace. Zambian men easily filled the junior clerical jobs but we only had a total of 77 Zambian women with high school education, never mind trained secretaries,” he says.
The ‘sunshine girls’, as they named them, had to be recruited from England, Ireland and the Caribbean in a hurry on two-year contracts that were later extended, which gave time to train Zambians, locally and abroad.
Some had decided to stay on under new contracts with the Zambian government that provided them with housing and local salaries while Britain paid a supplement in sterling. This arrangement lasted for a couple of years only, but it gave the country breathing space.
The problems did not end there.
Immigration and Customs had been a Federal government responsibility, and did not employ many Zambians even at clerical levels. Youngsters had to be recruited in a hurry; they had little knowledge of the outside world but they were very conscientious and very serious about their duties.
Sardanis says passing through immigration and customs became a hit-or-miss exercise. He remembers receiving a message one Sunday morning that an Irish consultant that the government [Indeco, of which Sardanis was managing director] was expecting from London for Chilanga Cement had been detained on arrival by Immigration and was being sent back on the same plane, because ‘he did not have a visa’.
Sardanis had to rush to the airport – the City Airport which was serving as the Lusaka International Airport until a new one was built. The young officer who was handling the case was adamant that visitors from Ireland needed a visa. When he insisted that they check the list together, he realised that the country he was looking at was Iceland.
Another incident he recalls involves another customs officer who scolded him for not declaring some seashells he found in his briefcase even after explaining that he had picked them up in Dar es Salaam for his children and that they had no value. But he would have none of it until his supervisors confirmed it to him.
After independence, most broadcasters went to Southern Rhodesia when the new television station was transplanted from Kitwe to Lusaka. Therefore new ones had to be recruited. But Sardanis recalls that their English was not always the best.
“I remember one officer reading the evening news and repeatedly pronouncing the Philippines as Philippeins. Someone must have corrected him, because a couple of days later Palestine turned into Palestinn.
“The most amusing were the weather reports. They were read after the main news by officers of the meteorological department. I remember one young man reciting the day’s precipitation at the various towns in alphabetical order. When he came to Lusaka he hesitated. ‘Lusaka – nil’, he whispered. Then stopped, scratched his head and murmured: Argh! But it rained. After that he shrugged his shoulders and murmuring ‘maybe it did not rain near the gauges’ he proceeded to finish the bulletin,” Sardanis recalls.
Simply put, everybody was learning on the job.
But despite the many problems the new country encountered at independence, Sardanis says the first government was performing well.
“The governing party, the United National Independence Party (UNIP), was still a mass movement and functioned more like a coalition of major tribal groupings of Zambia, with Kenneth Kaunda in charge holding it together and trying to inject cohesion like he knew he had to with everything and everybody in the country when he coined the national motto: ‘One Zambia, One Nation’,” Sardanis says.That is how far labour has come since independence.

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