Professor Faber: An obituary
Trevor Grundy on the life of the economist and adviser to the Zambian govt whose negotiations on mineral rights saved that country a fortune in 1964
Born August 12, 1929
Died February 26, 2015 aged 85
Historians examining the de-colonisation process after World War II have shown little inclination to examine the political motives and individual psychologies of the Britons who attached themselves to African causes and leaders in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Africans were often suspicious, asking, privately why whites wanted to dismantle their own societies and replace them with someone else’s. They asked Lenin’s difficult question: “In whose interests?”
Most Europeans, outside the narrow circle of on-side socialists, shook their heads in disbelief. “What could they be up to?” was the question.
No-one was sure, had to be the answer.
Michael Faber, who died during the afternoon of February 26 at the Royal Sussex Hospital, and his friend and colleague, the late Robert Oakeshott (The Times obituary July 7, 2011), were two of the upper class, well-connected Britons who appeared as devils incarnate in the eyes of most indigenous Europeans during the run-up to Zambia’s Independence in 1964.
Whites – apart from a handful of liberals – were licking their wounds and wondering what to do next following the collapse of the ill-fated Central African Federation (CAF) which linked the two Rhodesias (Zambia/Zimbabwe) to Nyasaland (Malawi) in the turbulent years between 1953 and 1963.
“Most thought we were dangerous Reds,” Faber told me at his home in November 2011. “They may have been surprised when they found out that Robert went to Tonbridge School in Kent and I went to Eton. Richard and I were young economists advising Kenneth Kaunda and his chief economic adviser, Arthur Wina. We’d completed a considerable amount of research and found that the claims made by the once monolithic British South Africa Company – which had put in a claim to the incoming Kenneth Kaunda Government for £35 million for lost mineral rights – had neither legal nor moral authority. A White Paper was released and it was written in a style which contrived to be both elegant and fierce. The document indicted both the BSA Company and Britain through a close examination of events from 1890 onwards – from the time when the Pioneers of Cecil Rhodes marched into what was once called southern Rhodesia and then took over the mineral rights in the north, Zambia.”
During negotiations that led to Zambia’s independence, Kaunda was prepared to pay the BSA Company £50 million, spread over until 1986 in equal yearly payments of £2,250,000 tax-free a year in London. Some in his United National Independence Party (UNIP) believed that the entire sum should be raised immediately and paid to BSA Company to settle the question of mineral rights once and for all.
At that point a long and detailed study of the BSA Company was made available to journalists and the then editor of The Times of Zambia, Richard Hall, wrote in ‘The High Price of Principles (Penguin Books, 1969): “It was circulated around the (Zambian) Cabinet and the revelations about the frail foundations upon which the general rights had been based produced a dramatic change in attitudes. The idea of paying £50 million, or anything like it, jettisoned.”
The BSA Company was furious. It denounced the White Paper as “propaganda” and so raising the status of both Faber and Oakeshott in the eyes of Kaunda.
Minutes before the Union Flag fell to the floor on the night of October 23, 1964 and as 1,200 tribal dancers performed at a hastily-built stadium in Lusaka, Hall tells how a bearded economist (Faber) drew from his pocket a piece of crumpled blue paper. On it, hand-written, were the terms of a statement prepared by a group of officials. An agreement had been reached. Zambia offered £2 million to the BSA Company and Britain would pay a further £2 million.
Says Hall: “Soon afterwards, Zambia was born. A flame was lit and £5,000 worth of fireworks was set-off. In the centre of the fireworks was a vast set piece reading ‘Kaunda’.”
Masterminds of a financial scoop
The two men who had masterminded the financial scoop for the Zambians looked on. But soon Oakeshott and Faber became key economic advisers to the new president in Lusaka and Zambia’s Economic Affairs Minister, Arthur Wina.
So two former English public schoolboys from the heart of the British establishment found themselves at the decision-making centre of a country destined to become a leading member of the Commonwealth, a prominent participant in the Organisation of African Union (OAU) and a key member of the African Frontline States in their struggle against all-white rule in Rhodesia, then led by Ian Smith.
Mike Faber was a shining example of the best of the British at work in Africa.
He was educated at Eton (1942-1947), Magdalen College, Oxford University, and later at the University of Michigan. He completed National Service (1948-1949) in Germany and was commissioned as second lieutenant in the 11th Hussars. He worked as a merchant seaman in 1953/1954 and then as a claims adjuster for a company of American underwriters in Japan and Korea. Between 1954-1960 he worked as a foreign correspondent for the Economist, The Observer and The Times in the Far East, the Middle East and then in Central and Southern Africa. He told Grundy he was on “friendly terms” with M16.
In 1956 he set up home in southern Rhodesia where he worked as a lecturer in applied economics at the University College of Southern Rhodesia, before moving to Sicily for a year as a community development officer with Danilo Dolci, a social activist, educator and poet, often referred to as Sicily’s Gandh. This was followed by a two-year appointment at the University of the West Indies as lecturer in economics. In 1964 he returned to Lusaka as senior economist and Under Secretary in the Ministry of Finance and Office of Development Planning for the government of Zambia.
In Salisbury (Harare) he edited various political and domestic magazines and befriended another upper class maverick, Peter Mackay, a strong supporter of Black Nationalism against white rule. Mackay had been head boy at Stowe.
For light relief, Faber ran a cricket club called The College Bounders and played croquet with British diplomats and two literary giants – Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer.
He told me that Doris Lessing suggested they go to bed together while drunk at a Lusaka party. Asked what happened, he smiled and said, “Nothing at all. I was a married man.” His aristocratic wife Didona (daughter of Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal) was a renowned beauty who he had met at Oxford during his student days. She was attending a local finishing school that was also patronised by Antonia Fraser, a friend of Mike Faber.
In the 1970s, Mike Faber became known as a specialist negotiator on debt and resource agreements.
After a spell at Cambridge in 1968 in the department of Applied Economics, he joined the Overseas Development Group at the University of East Anglia.
In 1972 he was the leader of the UNDP/IBRD Mission to Papau New Guinea and was appointed as head of the Technical Assistance.
That year he was appointed as head of the Technical Assistance Group at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London where he served as director between 1972-1975 and again in 1978-1982.
A Jewel in the Commonwealth’s Crown
The former Commonwealth Secretary General Sonny Ramphal described Faber as “a Jewel in the Commonwealth Crown”
After leaving the Secretariat, Faber became the founding Director of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex (1982-1987). He published widely on economic and debt issues, emphasizing to students and readers the practical aspects of economics and political economies.
Another former IDS Director, Sir Richard Jolly said Mike Faber was “a radical without being wild” and the Zimbabwean author Lawrence Vambe, who knew Faber and Oakeshott and the expatriate literati during those heady days in Lusaka, described him as a man without a racist bone in his body “a man who did so much to put Zambia on its feet in 1964.”