In Zambia, race hatred simmers Flare-up: Riots punctuate the enduring tensions between poor blacks and middle-class Asians, who fell heir to opportunities left by departing Europeans.

Sun Journal

January 26, 1996|By Scott Straus | Scott Straus,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LIVINGSTONE, Zambia -- P. R. Patel, looking at his ransacked dressmaking shop, sees clothing scraps and paperwork lying scattered across the floor. Work tables that once held sewing machines are barren.

"They finished my life," whispers Mr. Patel, who emigrated to southern Africa from India more than four decades ago. "From 1953 until now -- to build this country, this factory." A riot centered on race unraveled his investment and his hopes.

The rioters were black Zambians, and by targeting the businesses and homes of Asians they bespoke the long-lived tensions between Asians and blacks. Each side's loathing for the other was exposed to bright, unflattering light.

Indeed, racism here is far less subtle than in the United States.

Asians have have no compunction about telling a foreigner that blacks are stupid and untrustworthy. Blacks do not hesitate to say that Asians are heartless money-grubbers.

On a continent where people often divide themselves by clan, the dislike for people of a different color is even stronger than the dislike of people of a different tribe.

The same ugly remarks are heard in Kenya and Uganda. Blacks complain that Asians are out only for themselves instead of the country, they pay poorly, they treat blacks with disdain. Asians say those charges are wholly untrue, that Asians have provided business and organizational skills that have benefited everyone.

These resentments are not new. They have their roots in the racial policies of Africa's colonial rulers, particularly the British. They accorded privilege based on the lightness of one's skin, and by that standard Asians usually fared better than blacks. Both groups were barred from white schools, but schools for Asians were typically better than those earmarked for blacks.

As these countries obtained their independence, and as Europeans fled, Asians had the capital to buy the land and businesses that whites left behind. Asians have retained that one advantage -- capital -- whoever leads the government.

Livingstone is striking for its extremes. It is a town of textiles, and almost every factory and downtown shop is owned by one or another of 80 local Asian families. Most of them have cars and houses that, by the standard of southern Africa, are spacious and comfortable.

Then there are the poorer blacks. Their two-room shacks typically house eight to 10 people, and many say they can afford only one meal a day. About 3 percent of the population is employed, a desperately bad situation without prospects for improvement.

For three days last fall, blacks turned the tables. Rioters picked clean shops and factories, smashed every Mercedes in sight, ransacked the most tempting homes and pillaged the one Hindu temple. Asked to identify who did the damage, townspeople shrug and say, "Everybody."

A rumor served as the spark. People had been gossiping for days about the disappearance of black children in the countryside. The rumor was that the abductions were the doings of Asians -- the people of a different color and religion, the outsiders. People gossiped that Asians in Livingstone or somewhere else were buying the hearts and genitals of children who had disappeared.

In a region where witchcraft is still a living force, the story does not sound far-fetched. An Asian merchant in another town had already been accused of buying body parts. Police investigated but brought no charges. His store was looted. And in that town the controversy then faded away.

In Livingstone the rumors were still fresh, and armed police arrived at an Indian's furniture store. A crowd gathered. The merchant emerged from the store in handcuffs, and at that moment another Asian businessman made a racist remark against blacks. And then stones were thrown at every Asian-owned store.

The quality of the evidence was not on the rioters' minds.

"I went into an Indian shop and I wanted to get cash," says Robert Totito, one of the people in the crowd. "Indians are the ones getting the chances. They've got millions and millions. Me, I've got only thousands."

Gilbert Chona, a town council member, is no less harsh: "These people are interested in counting money at the end of the day. These people are very greedy. We gave them all they need and now they're after our hearts. I have no apologies for what happened."

Some business people say that Mr. Chona urged the rioters to burn as well as loot, a charge he denies.

Livingstone's mayor instructed police to protect government buildings but not the Asians' shops. At the border with Zimbabwe, immigration officials barred the entry of Asians, regardless of their nationality.

At the height of the violence, Zambian President Frederick Chiluba did little to discourage the rioters. He announced that "any foreigners" responsible for murdering children would be deported. Later, he said the comment did not refer to Zambians of Asian descent; still later, he called for a commission of inquiry.

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