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THE PUBLIC ORDER ACT’S UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH

By MUBANGA LUCHEMBE

IN Zambia, you may think you are done with history but history is certainly not done with you. That’s the simple lesson from the African Union observer mission to Zambia delegation leader Ernest Bai Koroma when he recently paid a courtesy call on President Hakainde Hichilema at State House.

President Hichilema explained that his government would make amendments to the Public Order Act (POA) to enhance the country’s democracy. Adding that, it was important that the POA addressed issues that made it easy for the PF to abuse it whilst in power. 

Our President further wondered how the same POA that was used by previous regimes was interpreted differently by the PF. Responding to this Dr. Koroma explained that the AU observer mission would work with Zambia to ensure that the country continued being a shining example of democracy. He however added that there was need for the Zambian government to address many issues among them the POA and the low participation of women and youths in the electoral process.

Quite astonishingly, little did these two leaders realise that the POA they were discussing was actually enacted by the then-British government to sanction rustications and detentions over six decades ago, during its colonial campaign against the Copperbelt-based African mineworkers’ union leaders and freedom fighters – albeit the survivors of these atrocities haven’t asked for due compensation. 

Let us not ignore the AU observer mission’s subtle reminder that the UK has successfully been keeping aloof from successive post-independence Zambian governments with as much interest in keeping the POA’s childbirth history buried and that of its British midwives. After all, the state of emergency and martial law declared on September 10, 1956 used the POA platform on which colonial officials arrested thirty-two union leaders, and sent Northern Rhodesian police contingents into African-occupied townships. Within a few more days, they arrested fifty-five miners, forty-five of whom were union officials, who were “rusticated” with their families to rural areas, and banned from the Copperbelt. The mining companies and the then-British government hoped this would bring the mineworkers’ union under control. 

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What’s clear is that while the relationship might have moved on between the then-British government and Zambia’s post-independence first government, it didn’t move on for the Zambian people where the British colonialism’s legacies are still felt today. That’s what the pre-independence mineworkers’ union leaders and freedom fighters want to remind the British government that this history is still living in their hitherto incarcerated and rusticated bodies, in their memories of colonial torture aggravated by the daily indignities of living in poverty. And worse, their children, grandchildren and grandchildren’s children have nothing to inherit but the poverty and the pain of unacknowledged sacrifices.

British colonialism didn’t just traumatize the immediate victim, it affected the soul of an entire community as members suffering from post-trauma disorders and impenetrable silences returned to try and reclaim their lives. Those returning came back to traumatized populations forcefully rusticated from their urban homes. They returned to families divided – some had joined the freedom struggle while others had collaborated with the then-British colonial officials. Furthermore, the work-stoppage events of 1955 and 1956 had destroyed any illusion African miners might have had about gaining government help against mining companies. 

Without the facts and the truths of colonialism, the victims’ wounds can only fester. Zambians need to know what happened – they need access to the British colonial records. Many Zambians also need to know the whereabouts of Lawrence Katilungu’s grave – the erstwhile African mineworkers’ union leader who died in a car crash in 1961. More importantly, revealing his grave is significant, so that Zambians can start the process of honouring him and celebrate his life. 

At the time of his death, Katilungu had already joined politics with the African National Congress and immediately began to organise the party on the Copperbelt and in Northern Province. When Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula was imprisoned, he took over as party president. But more than that, Zambians deserve to hear the British government acknowledge and say: “Yes, this is what we did – and we are ready to atone.” 

This is precisely what the British government does not want to do. It wants the POA to be expeditiously repealed or amended by the newly-elected Zambian government. Acknowledging and coming to terms with its own colonial past is not just good for Zambians, but also for the British. Their police and colonial officials also experienced the trauma of torture and incarcerations for what actually amounted to no more than serving the British interests.

The point is that torture traumatizes both the victim and the perpetrator. The perpetrator can choose to carry on in denial, but that comes at a cost because it will find expression in violence directed inwards or at those closest to him. The British people can either carry on being weighed down by the history of atrocities committed in their name, or they can take the harder road and insist that their government goes even further than what the AU observer mission is asking Zambians to address. This would mean setting up an inquiry into the colonial use of torture, detentions and rustications. This is not just for the sake of the victims, but for their own sake as well.

But in a country that has not yet acknowledged its deep history of violent colonization and repression, could it be possible that this history has finally sounded a clarion call to action? Is it so unlikely that if a people don’t come to terms with a history that justifies the exploitation, detention and rustication of others then the humanity of those around them will be out of focus?

Dare we say that beneath the issues of the POA lies the silent legacy of colonial dehumanization, exploitation and violence?  It’s worth at least asking these questions before this piece of legislation is repealed or amended by the newly-elected Zambian government.

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