Post-Truth and Zambia’s King Cobra

By Marja Hinfelaar and Tinenenji Banda

While ‘post-truth” was dubbed Oxford Dictionary word of the year in 2016, for those who have lived under populist and authoritarian regimes, the concept felt simply like a déjà vu. Having been an integral part of our political DNA long before the term was popularized by recent happenings in the West, we were startled at how Western academia and the media misread the situation. Yet, many studies were at hand. Is it a sense of exceptionalism that blinded them to the potential benefits of comparative, but also historical knowledge? It appears that these commentators could not comprehend beyond the teleological lens of what is expected and defined as a modern and rational society.

This tunnel vision has not only affected the U.S., but also determined how the rest of the world has been perceived, most notably ‘developing’ countries. Zambia is a case in point. Its history has largely been cast through a developmental lens. Academics, donors, and media assume that development ultimately results in a Western type of modernity, namely a liberal democratic and industrialized nation. The emphasis is on ‘good governance,’ modeled on what they consider their own good practices. The political leader who openly challenged these fixed concepts was our late President Sata, who ruled from 2011 until his death in 2014. He awakened us to what is now known as the Trump phenomenon.  With a sharp tongue and coarse manner, he was known as “King Cobra” and “Man of Action”. Throughout his life, he used a technique that was based on unpredictability (leaving space for doubt, but also hope), creating divisions (to engender loyalty), provoking confusion (leaving everybody guessing), and inciting factions (creating a cadre of loyal followers). Politically incorrect in the eyes of the proponents of a liberal democracy, he derided female opponents sexually and challenged union leaders as being part of the parasitic ruling elite. He called President George W. Bush a former colonialist in his face (while visiting his charities in Zambia), but praised the missionaries who ran hospitals and schools during the colonial era.

The conditions that led to Sata’s rise resemble those in other areas of the world that have experienced a rise in populism. The commodity boom of the 2000s, which led to a marked increase in the price of copper (the commodity on which Zambia depends), had little effect on the lives of ordinary Zambians. False promises that the privatization of the industry would benefit the common man in a proposed ‘trickle down’ effect made people distrustful of political leaders. Riding on the wave of growing disillusionment with the failures of multi-party democracy (re-introduced in the 1990s), Michael Sata’s Patriotic Front became enormously popular and swept to power in 2011.  In the context of an uneven playing field during Zambia’s 2011 elections in which the dominant party had all the resources, the main rallying cry of the Patriotic Front was cast in true post-truth mode: ‘Donchi Kubeba’ (“don’t tell”, viz, lie about who you vote for). To his opponents, he became known as the President of Liars, particularly so when his numerous campaign promises went unfulfilled once voted into office. Understandably, we have long since abandoned taking political speeches literally.

While a handful of academics took Sata seriously as a contender, even considering him a leftist in the vein of Venezuela’s Chaves and Bolivia’s Morales, most of us buried our heads in the sand, being trained and educated in the liberal tradition. Largely derided by those “in the know”, those dismissive of his presidential designs misread the prevailing mood, and therefore failed to craft an intelligent response to those abandoned on the fringes of the “development” of the 2000s.  Blinded by the arrogance of power, the pulse of the nation was misconstrued, or ignored altogether. The disregard of the historical marginalization of large parts of the population led to the failure to explain and predict the rise of a new political force. A déjà vu indeed!


Marja Hinfelaar (PhD, Utrecht), Director of Research and Programs, Southern African Institute of Policy and Research, Lusaka, Zambia.

Tinenenji Banda (JSD, Cornell), Head of Legal Division, Southern African Institute of Policy and Research, Lusaka, Zambia.