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China in Africa: Who is Michael Sata?

Zambian opposition leader Michael Sata has emerged as a central character in the story of China’s engagement with Africa.  He has become a staple of the mainstream media’s coverage of the issue, portrayed as a vocal critic of the Chinese, particularly in Zambia. By any measure he plays the role well.  Where most African politicians dare not air their concerns or frustrations about the Chinese, Sata is seemingly fearless in his criticisms, giving journalists one provocative quote after another. Among his more prominent appearances as “the go-to critic,” Atlantic Monthly writer  Howard French featured Sata in the magazine’s May 2010 edition:

Our [Chinese] friends are too numerous, and we know their resources cannot sustain them,” Sata told me  in his Lusaka office, taking phone calls from constituents and filling out a lottery card as he reeled off a catalog of reproaches. “Zambians do not need labor being dumped here. The Chinese are scattering all over the world, but there is no such thing as Chinese investment, as such. What we’re seeing is Chinese parastatals and government interests, and they are corrupting our leaders.

Similar comments can be heard in a 2008 interview with the U.S. radio network NPR, or in the UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph where he is characterized as “the anti-Chinese candidate for president” and as far back as 2006 in the Washington Post.

Ironically, the Chinese may recognize many of their own traits in Sata rather than regard him as the thorny figure he is portrayed to be in the Western media.

From all this coverage, it would be easy to conclude that Michael Sata is a one-dimensional caricature as the lone, prominent “panda basher” in Africa.  While governments from Algeria to Angola sign one multi-billion dollar deal after another, Sata, as the story goes, stands as a solitary voice of opposition.  The problem with this narrative, according Sino-Zambian relations scholar Solange Chatelard, is that it is not entirely accurate.

Chatelard is a researcher at the Max Plank Institute in Halle, Germany and a Phd. candidate at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (Science Po) in Paris.  Through her academic work and her role as a field producer on the recent BBC4 television documentary “When China Met Africa,” Chatelard has spent considerable time in Zambia and, as such, has had the opportunity to study Sata for several years now.  Her impressions of the Zambian opposition leader are far more nuanced than how he is portrayed in the media.  While he is very much the provocateur that French and other journalists describe,  Chatelard explained, it is equally important to understand the political context Sata operates within.  ”I think Michael Sata is a very interesting and intriguing character that people, especially observers on the outside, don’t grasp very well,” she said.  As one of the continent’s last remaining colonial freedom fighters still active in politics, much of Sata’s legitimacy is derived from his decades-long role as the strong-man who led the fight against European imperialism.  ”He claims he knows what Zambians were fighting for back in the early sixties when they were struggling for independence,” according to Chatelard, and that defines so much of who he is today with respect to his comments about the Chinese.  However, Chatelard and other observers note that Sata is also a very savvy politician who recognizes that the Chinese are not the British and 2010 is not 1960.  Subsequently, they add, he interacts with the Chinese to ensure Zambia gets the best possible deal rather than to simply create a hostile climate for international investors.

Chatelard described Sata as a politician who strives to protect his country from foreign exploitation, ensure that international investments also build domestic capacity and force investors, such as the Chinese, to deal with Zambians on equal terms.  Sound familiar?  It should, as Sata’s agenda mirrors that of China’s own leadership priorities of the past 30 years.  Ironically, the Chinese may recognize many of their own traits in Sata rather than regard him as the thorny figure he is portrayed to be in the Western media.

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