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David Livingstone, the most famous of all Victorian explorers, reached the Upper Zambezi in 1851. He was the first European to see the Victoria Falls, naming them after his Queen. The local Kololo people had named it long ago: Mosi oa Tunya - The Smoke that Thunders but the people who lived right beside it and held it sacred called it Shongwe (rainbow).
After many more explorations of Central Africa, Livingstone died in a village near the southern shore of Zambia’s Bangweulu Swamps in 1873. He was followed by agents of Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company (BSAC) who signed treaties with several African leaders and proceeded to administer the region as Northern Rhodesia. Its capital was the town of Livingstone but in 1935 the seat of government was moved to Lusaka.
Rhodes was an ambitious man and one of his aims was to make Africa British from Cape to Cairo. (Hence the name of Lusaka’s main street, Cairo Rd.) To fund such a project, the BSAC imposed a Hut Tax which ended up financing the Livingstone-Ndola (DRC) railway - those who objected or didn’t pay met with harsh penalties; their huts were torched and their land was handed over to white settlers.
The discovery of copper in the 1920s and 1930s soon made Zambia’s Copperbelt one of the worlds’ most lucrative mining areas. The BSAC, which owned the mineral rights, was to profit handsomely - £83 million by 1963. The mines required a large labour force and by the late 1930s about 4 000 European skilled workers and some 20 000 Zambians worked in the Copperbelt. So many African workers in one place created a unity that cut across tribal boundaries, a sentiment eventually expressed in the state motto, ‘One Zambia, One Nation’. In 1948 the African Mineworkers Union was formed, staging several strikes against unfair taxes, poor working conditions and white monopoly rule. A 58-day strike in 1955 ended with victory for the miners, and the mining companies were forced to move Africans into management.
In 1958 young nationalists formed the United National Independence Party led by Kenneth Kaunda and engaged in a continuous and largely peaceful campaign for independence. Indeed. in 1960 the British Prime Minister Harold McMillan in his famous ‘There is a wind of change blowing through Africa’ speech acknowledged that the days of colonial rule in Africa were coming to an end. Elections were held in Zambia in 1964, and Kuanda became president of a newly independent Zambia. Kaunda remained in office for 27 years, but independence was not a great success story. He controlled a one-party state and his attempts to ‘decolonise’ the economy by nationalising it produced inefficiency and corruption plus a broken Copperbelt. In 1990 there was a series of food riots and an attempted coup, and the demand for change became so urgent that Kaunda had to concede. Free elections were held in 1991. They were won by the newly formed Movement for Multi-party Democracy led by Frederick Chiluba who became Zambia’s second president.
Chiluba didn’t do much better, however. He inherited an empty treasury, a foreign debt of US$7 billion and a country of people who were poorer than they had been at independence in 1964. There was another coup attempt in 1997 and Chiluba declared a state of emergency, throwing numerous opposition leaders and military officers into jail. Then in 2001 Chiluba tried to change the constitution so it allowed him to stand for a third term. The public outcry was immense, and amid increasing allegations of corruption, he agreed to stand down. He named Levy Mwanawasa as his successor who won that year’s elections. In a surprising turn of events, Mwanawasa impressed the country in early 2003 by removing Chiluba’s presidential immunity and bringing him to trial on corruption charges. Mwanawasa died in office in 2008 and Rupiah Banda came to power.