NEW BOSS

Democratic Africa Gets Its First White Leader

The vice president of Zambia made history when he ascended to president, becoming the first white head of state on the continent in 20 years and the first ever of a democratic state.

10.29.14 10:40 PM ET

LONDON — Guy Scott is used to the funny looks. When the former farmer met George W. Bush a few years ago, the ex-president thought he was in the middle of an elaborate practical joke. “When they introduced me as vice president [of Zambia], he thought they were kidding,” Scott said.

The son of a Scottish adventurer, who has been vice president of Zambia since 2011, was unexpectedly promoted to acting president on Wednesday when his predecessor died in a London hospital. Scott’s elevation makes him the first white head of state in an African democracy.

Hours after taking his place in history, Scott was continuing to joke about the unlikely sight of a white man leading a post-colonial African nation. “There are truckloads of guys following me on motorbikes. It’s very strange,” he told the Daily Telegraph. “Everyone is getting used to calling me ‘Your Excellency’, and I’m getting used to it.”

Scott will only hold the post for 90 days until there is an election to replace Michael Sata, who died at the age of 77 on Tuesday night. Sata, who was known as King Cobra because of his sharp tongue, was thought to have been seriously ill for some time. During a rare public appearance in September, he spoke at the opening of parliament and reassured colleagues that the rumors were misplaced. “I haven’t died yet,” he told them.

On Wednesday, the new acting president was forced to give a short televised address. “The period of national mourning will start today. We will miss our beloved president and comrade,” he said.

Scott says he last spoke to his predecessor a few days ago, although he never explicitly gave his blessing. “He would never be so polite as to do that,” he admitted. “But he said he was happy that I was there, to take over if needed.”

Under Zambian electoral law Scott, 70, is barred from standing for the presidency himself. He was born in the country, which was a British colony called Northern Rhodesia at the time, but his parents were not. When he was unexpectedly tapped by Sata to be vice president, there were objections on those grounds, but the constitution says nothing about the blood line of the rest of the government.

He has admitted in the past that the color of his skin probably helped land the vice presidential job. “Michael knows about political symbolism. It’s one in the eye for his critics who say he’s a tribalist. Obviously, he’s not,” he told the Spectator. There are more than 80 tribes in Zambia and among a population of 13 million, there are just 40,000 white people.

As the sole white face in Zambia’s horse-shoe parliament building, Scott obviously stands out. At continental summits, he also attracts a lot of interest from the other African delegations but he has a benevolent interpretation: “I think they regard me as a sort of mascot, a good luck charm for African politics.”

No white African leader has been regarded that warmly for half a century or more. It’s 20 years since F.W. de Klerk, the last white head of state in Africa, was defeated by Nelson Mandela in the country’s first free democratic election. Neighboring Zimbabwe also had a white leader until 1979, when freedom fighters led by Robert Mugabe finally liberated the country from white domination.

Mugabe, now 90, has remained in power ever since using increasingly tyrannical measures to maintain his regime. Among the primary targets of his brutal rule were white farmers who owned most of the country’s best land. Farmers like Scott, whose own agribusiness, was just north of the border in Zambia.

It may come as a surprise then that Scott and, particularly Sata, have refused to condemn Mugabe. “I’m sure any good African nationalist admires Mugabe,” he has said. “What has happened is very cruel and nasty and doesn’t reflect well on anybody. But it is worth trying to understand what is happening, rather than saying it’s the lunatic act of one man. It’s not.”

Scott has a deep understanding of what people like him did to abuse East Africa, stealing the best resources and keeping the profits for themselves, he even grew up in Zimbabwe.

"Racism in Zimbabwe is a serious issue. I was sent to school down there and it was like being in the Hitler Youth: the theories about black inferiority and this kind of stuff,” he said in an interview last year. “It was a whites-only school; they tried to introduce an Indian and he was hounded out at the instigation of the parents of the boys. I think Mugabe is a product of having to contend with that.”

If it sounds as though Scott is a consummate politician, skilled at avoiding controversy, think again. In the same interview with the Guardian, he started a diplomatic war with South Africa.

“The South Africans are very backward in terms of historical development. I hate South Africans,” he said, before comparing the current president, Jacob Zuma, to de Klerk, the last Apartheid leader. “I have a suspicion the blacks model themselves on the whites now that they’re in power.”

It would have seemed impossible a few years ago, but in Zambia just up the coast there’s a white guy back in power.