Zambia's president, Michael Sata, 77, died on Tuesday night in London. Vice-President Guy Scott, 70, will now serve as acting president until a vote can be held in three months. This makes him the first white man to head an African state since the end of apartheid, when F.W. De Clerk lost an election to Nelson Mandela in 1994.
Sata died shortly after 11pm at King Edward VII hospital. It is believed he had been ill for a while and concerns for his health grew in September 2013 when he missed a scheduled speech at the UN General Assembly in New York.
Roland Msiska, secretary to the Zambian cabinet, announced Sata's death in a statement, adding that his wife, Christine Kaseba-Sata, and his son, Mulenga Sata, had been present at his bedside. Msiska then urged Zambians to "remain calm, united and peaceful during this very difficult period."
Tributes to the former president — nicknamed "King Cobra" because of his sharp tongue — included one from Rupiah Banda, his predecessor, who said: "Sata was more than a public servant. He was a passionate competitor, a man of conviction and determination. Above all, Michael Sata was a Zambian, in body, soul, and spirit."
Sata's life had included stints working as a policeman, a car factory worker, and as a platform sweeper at London's Victoria station.
The Zambian constitution requires presidential elections to be held within 90 days of a former president's death. Until then Scott will serve as interim president, though he himself cannot seek permanent office because of a "parentage clause" in the Zambian constitution, which states that a candidate's parents must be born in the country.
Scott was born in Livingstone, Zambia. His father was from Glasgow, and mother was born in Watford, England. He studied maths and economics at Cambridge University and holds a Phd in cognitive scene from Sussex University.
Scott has been outspoken about race in the past. In 2013 he told the Guardian that his Zimbabwean boarding school was "like being in the Hitler Youth: the theories about black inferiority and this kind of stuff." He also said that Sata would say things to him like: "'What would you be if you weren't white?' I said, 'The president?' That shut him up."
Scott told the Telegraph today that he is Africa's first white democratic leader "since the Venetians" and that his new position was "a bit of a shock to the system," adding that he is "very proud to be entrusted with it."
He went on: "Everyone is getting used to calling me 'Your Excellency,' and I'm getting used to it. There are truckloads of guys following me on motorbikes. It's very strange."
Martin Makweti, a representative for Zambian political party Alliance for Democracy and Development, told VICE News that President Sata was generally considered a "strong character, and very imposing… You either liked him or you hated him."
Makweti said that Sata polarized the country, and that many citizens thought that while he invested a lot of resources into his home province, Muchinga, other rural areas were often neglected. "He came into power with a lot of promises. Whoever takes over has quite a lot of work that Mr Sata left unresolved."
He described Scott as "a gentleman," and said that his race would only be significant if seized upon as "something that might be exploited" by political opponents. He added: "Most Zambians were born after independence so they don't have that animosity."
Makweti said that over the next 90 days "people will be jostling" to garner support for presidential runs, and that in his opinion "you could not ask for a better, more mature person to head this transition."
Chaloka Beyani is an associate professor of international law at the London School of Economics, and a Zambian. He told VICE News that Zambia is facing a uncertain time constitutionally, given that Sata is the second president in six years to die in office.
In Beyani's opinion, holding by-elections has a negative impact on the country, because it means that Zambia can end up with a president who does not control the parliament. He added that: "There's a serious power struggle in the president's own party."
Scott and Beyani were acquainted before Scott became involved in Zambian politics. Beyani said that "there would be those who want to change the 'parentage clause' [because they wanted Scott as president], but I don't think they'd have the majority." He added that even without the parentage clause, he's not sure that Scott would want to run for president. "He himself is quite old." Among other ministers, he said, "there is no obvious contender."
Zambia has independent from the UK since 1964 and its citizens celebrated the country's 50th anniversary on October 24.
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