Let’s Take A Look Behind : No Road South

Written By: The Lowdown - Jan• 31•13

January 9, 1973, the Rhodesian Government led by Ian Smith announced the abrupt and unexpected closure of the border posts between Zambia and Rhodesia at Victoria Falls, Kariba and Chirundu. Ten hours later, it was further announced that Zambia’s life giving copper was to be excluded from this closure. Three weeks later, on 1 February 1973, when Smith reopened the border, Zambia’s then President, Kenneth Kaunda, refused to accept a reopened border. And thus, the border between the two countries remained closed until 1980 when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.

What were the events leading up to the closure of the border? Guerrillas attacked a farm in one of the Rhodesian border areas on 21 December 1972. This marked the beginning of a bush war that continued with varying intensity until 1980. On 8 January, a vehicle hit a landmine killing a number of people. As tension mounted throughout the northern areas of the country, the government in Salisbury decided to close the border with Zambia until such time as the Zambian authorities gave the assurance that no anti-Rhodesian terrorists would be harboured in their country. This border closure was meant to generate publicity for the Rhodesian account of the incident.

When, on 1 February 1973, after the necessary assurances regarding the harbouring of guerrillas in Zambia were received, Smith was able to announce the reopening of the border, reversing the embarrassing political blunder of closing the border in the first place. KK refused to accept a re-opened border, saying that Smith was ‘too hostile a neighbour’ and could not be trusted, although Zambia’s copper had for the previous eight years been travelling through Rhodesia, without incident.

No-one knows exactly why KK refused to reopen the border. No preparations had been made for alternative outlets to the sea for both our exports and imports. The Tazara Railway was still being built and would not be completed until 1975. Our copper was thus diverted northwards and then west, on the Benguela railway through Angola. But this route could not cope with 27,000 tonnes of copper, in addition to its normal traffic. By the end of 1974, it was revealed that Zambia had secretly been using Rhodesian Railways and was still moving copper through Rhodesia to the Mozambique ports.

The cost to the Zambian economy in terms of missed delivery dates, dislocation and the lowering of our national income as a result of the diversion of our copper to other routes was enormous, in the hundreds of millions of Dollars; a cost borne by the Zambian people. This was further exacerbated by the closure of the Benguela Railway as a result of the Angolan war and the closure of the border between Mozambique and Rhodesia following Mozambique’s Independence from Portugal. Although by 1976, Tazara was operating, it was far from ideal. Acute interruptions to the export of copper and the importation of essential goods forced Zambia to reopen the Rhodesian route in October 1978 to bring in supplies of fertiliser. The border closure was coupled with the world energy crisis of 1973 and the slump in world copper prices. Zambia’s oil imports increased from K 17.7 million in 1973 to K 122.9 million in 1980. Copper and cobalt, which in 1974 had provided 54 percent of government revenue, provided nothing between 1977 and 1979. In 1974, copper generated 33 percent of GDP; by 1977, this was down to 11 percent. The Zambian mines were running at a loss and borrowing heavily. This was compounded by a severe drought in 1978.

Total collapse of the economy was only averted through the intervention of the International Monetary Fund and the Government had to face the growing discontent of the Zambian population. In 1978, when the late Simon Kapepwe announced his intention to challenge KK for the presidency, he stated that one of his priorities would be to reopen the border with Rhodesia.

Without a doubt, the continued closure of our border with Rhodesia was highly detrimental to the Zambian economy and thus, to the Zambian people; an incident from which Zambia has only recently started to recover.

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