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In Zambia, a Tomato Pushes Joblessness Center Stage

George Mtonga, a US-based Zambian investment banker "selling tomatoes" in support of jobless graduates in Zambia. Photo used with permission from Zambian Watchdog.

George Mtonga, a US-based Zambian investment banker “selling tomatoes” in support of jobless graduates in Zambia. Photo used with permission from Zambian Watchdog.

The tomato, unlike corn which has kicked off food riots in the past, is used sparingly in Zambian cuisine, and is an unimportant fruit in the landlocked African country.

But this week the country's former president's daughter managed to throw the humble red fruit at the center of a national political and economic discourse about joblessness. Following a protest by six unemployed University of Zambia (UNZA) graduates, over lack of jobs in the country of 14.5 million people, she said they should at least try to sell tomatoes. 

Part of the six University of Zambia graduates during a protest against joblessness. Picture used with permission of UPND-UK Team

Part of the six University of Zambia graduates during a protest against joblessness. Picture used with permission of UPND-UK Team

Zambia's unemployment rate is ranked 9th highest in Africa. Most college graduates aspire is join the country's small formal sector, which is believed to employ less than a million people. The bulk of Zambia's citizens work in the informal sector for survival.

The six graduates were arrested for their protest but it was the reaction from Stella Sata, daughter of the Zambia’s fifth president, the late Michael Sata that got the most attention. She wrote on her Facebook wall that the unemployed graduates should start their own tomato business:

If you cannot get a job, attempt to create a job for yourself. Don't get utuma [small] cardboard and write Graduate in Acute Poverty on them. Abanenu balaya ba shitisha ko tomato [your friends go and sell tomato]. It is a shame that graduates want to sit and beg for jobs while their uneducated counterparts run the informal sector and get things done. Umusebanya weka weka [this is shameful].

Even in the good book [bible] bali lemba ati [it is written] Learn to Work with your own hands so that you may win the respect of outsiders!

Young people should refuse to become the tools of propaganda. Much has to be done!

The backlash from the comments by Sata even spawned two hashtags on Twitter, #StellaTomato and #StellaSata.

When pressure mounted on Sata, she further posted:

So tempers are still high and I am probably the most disliked person on social media at the moment.It's not about what I said it is more about how it was said and WHO SAID it. For quite a number of things, I can apologise. For quite a number of things- I will not apologise.

To begin with, I am not my father, my father's successes and my father's failures are not my own. If my father had an opinion on a matter, that does not automatically make it my opinion. So I will not apologise for what my father did or did not do. That is not my battle to fight.

Also, I will not apologise for what privileges or hardships came with being the daughter of Mr. Michael Chilufya Sata.

Sata would only apologise for the following:

Here in lies what I will apologise for. I will apologise for pissing off thousands of unemployed people or their families or anyone who has ever been a frustrated job seeker. I will also apologise for I myself, publicly shaming the #Jobless6 just because I do not agree with their methods of dealing with unemployment. This resulted in those people who agreed with my view publicly shaming them too.

Supporting Sata, Brian Mulenga wrote:

“Selling” tomatoes in solidarity with the #UNZA6. Picure used with the permission of Jabulile Chileya.

Around the world students and recent graduates do grunt work to make their way through school or to tide them over while job hunting. It is like a rite of passage. Students and recent graduates wash cars, wait tables, pack supermarket shelves, dig ditches, work construction and so on. It is normal it is expected. This is not in Zambia but in the US, UK, Australia name it all over the developed world.
In Zambia it seems working hard and working up a sweat is beneath a University Graduate. Recently a young graduate went on social media and poured scorn on the idea of a graduate expecting a job from government as a right. The young graduate, the daughter of a famous father, was actually brought up by a single mother.

In a comment on one wall, human rights and political commentator, Laura Miti wrote:

When I heard of what the Unza 6 had done, I was damn proud of them. They did what all Zambians need to learn to do – say to government what's your plan for this crisis. Long have we allowed politicians to fight hard to get into office, give it their all with the sense that this is a temporary pain. We will be rewarded with rest and the good life when we are in power. Very well illustrated by HEEL starting office with a mindlessly expensive holiday – carrying so many people to Mfuwe for days with others flying in and out to pay homage. This country has been on auto pilot for so long. And then you arrest young men who use their right to protest against the systemic maladministration that is represented in the jobless numbers in this country. I don't know about every one else but I'm standing with those 6 in every way I can.

A Zambian living in the US joined in the protest by setting up a mock stand selling tomatoes and was quoted by Zambian Watchdog saying:

My name is George N. Mtonga II, Im an investment banker with Assurant Group. I held a protest on March 28th 2015 in which I set up a stand selling tomatoes in solidarity with my brothers and sisters in Zambia who cant find jobs. While this stunt was inspired by Stella’s comment on the UNZA graduates who protested the lack of Jobs in the country; the larger statement is simply that Zambia doesnt afford much opportunities for young Zambian men and women. We need to change our culture and steer it towards a culture that promotes both academic and entrepreneurial success. This is the government’s job. While the government is not always the answer for everything; the government is responsible for the conditions in which their citizens live in.

Seven days after Sata first made her comment, the tomato debate and Zambia's unemployment problem continues.

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