Zambians feel pinch as election row delays moves to revive economy

With their country in post-election disarray over allegations of vote rigging and the economy in a tailspin, Zambians like pensioner Memory Musonda are struggling to cope and fear that help will not come soon.

Depressed global commodity prices have slashed Zambia’s receipts for copper, its top export, and in turn have caused a 9 percent fall in the kwacha currency against the dollar since April, exposing the economy’s over-reliance on the metal.

All of this has compounded the daily woes of ordinary Zambians like Musonda, 69, a retired school teacher, already grappling with soaring food bills and power shortages caused by a searing drought.

The kwacha’s plunge means Musonda’s meagre income cannot keep up with soaring prices for staples including sugar, milk and cooking oil mostly imported from South Africa, whose companies dominate Zambia’s retail sector.

“Life is hard – prices have shot up and we are struggling to survive and it is obvious the government has no money,” said Musonda. She used the bulk of her pension to buy a house, gets a monthly payout of 420 kwacha ($43) from the remainder and supplements that by renting out a room.

Consumer inflation in the southern African country of 16 million people has nearly tripled to 20 percent year-on-year from 7 percent a year ago, and unemployment has jumped to 13.3 percent, driven by mine closures.

Downtown Lusaka bears testimony to increasing economic hardship. Makeshift stalls line most streets as residents try to eke out a living selling anything from traditional medicine to imported second-hand underwear.

About 54 percent of the population in Zambia were found to be living in poverty in 2015, according to Central Statistical Office data released in April.

Zambians see no clear or easy way out of their plight.

Any aid from global lenders such as the International Monetary Fund is likely to have painful austerity terms attached.

China has invested heavily in modernising Zambia’s infrastructure, especially roads and water supply systems. But many Zambians accuse China of poor work-site safety standards, paying poor wages and muscling out local firms from infrastructure projects – complaints echoed in other African states where Beijing has a major economic footprint.

Chinese companies in Zambia have said that they operate within the country’s labour laws.