Participation in the copper industry of Northern Rhodesia during the colonial period forged new attitudes and behavior among the black copper miners based on shared experiences in the production process. But participation in wage labor was not the sole determinant of worker consciousness or action.
Perrings suggests that objective class interests largely determine the degree to which workers develop class consciousness and a commitment to collective labor action in pursuit of class goals; workers more dependent on wage labor are therefore more conscious of their class interests and more committed to action protecting those interests.1 The Copperbelt is a good place to test this assumption, because a combination of market forces, industrial needs, and corporate strategy resulted in the early stabilization of a section of the work force. These miners developed forms of consciousness and action which can be partially understood by class position. They exhibited a growing identity among themselves, and an understanding of their differences with management. Their growing dependence on wage labor intensified the need to improve the returns for their labor. Increasingly, they organized strikes, worker committees, and eventually unionization. By the 1950s and early 1960s, the more stabilized miners were committed trade unionists. They recognized their common interests with other miners and the need to organize collective action against management. Many of them also recognized the fundamental identity of interests among black and white workers in the copper industry, and condemned those blacks allied to management. Thus, throughout this period the more proletarianized black miners acted upon economic rather than racially or ethnically defined categories within industry.
These miners also perceived both the emerging class structure in Zambia and the need to organize politically. Their struggles to protect the union during the mid-1950s further exposed the alliance between management and the state, and encouraged them to organize against the state as well. Between 1954 and 1957, Congress and the union joined forces against federation. A number of leading trade unionists held high posts in Congress and the TUC, and actively supported plans to organize collective labor action for political purposes. This commitment to the nationalist cause continued after the state of emergency in 1957, despite less political action. Contrary to the assumptions of Bates and others,2 later conflicts between the union and UNIP reflected not a lack of political awareness, but rather the high degree of political class consciousness among the largely stabilized African mine work force.
On the surface, the data appear to support Perring’s hypothesis. There are, however, a number of problems with it. The less proletarianized workers on the copper mines readily joined labor action during the colonial period. They participated in the 1935 and 1940 strikes. Within a few years of its establishment, most of them supported the union, and later its fight against MASA, the Federation, and UNIP. The evidence suggests that working and living conditions on the mines intensified the impact of wage labor on all the black miners. Daily interaction among the miners, corporate efforts to minimize ethnic and occupational differences, and the common subjugation to corporate authority facilitated identification among both stabilized and less stabilized miners before 1953. At the same time, the visible gap between European and African material rewards, the example of the European union, and the experience of collective labor protest heightened awareness of opposition between management and the black miners. Thus, the combination of living and working on the copper mines, and the struggle to improve working conditions, transformed worker consciousness among the black miners in a manner which a narrow structural approach cannot explain.
The behavior of the more proletarianized workers varied as well. In the early years, the more skilled miners moved between mines rather than organize collective action to improve their work conditions. After leading two major strikes, these miners abandoned broadly-based labor action in the 1940s and concentrated on improving their own conditions through boss boys’ committees and clerks associations. Although these same workers later led the drive for unionization, in 1953 a section of the most proletarianized miners broke from the union and formed the staff association. Many of these men supported either ANC or multi-racial parties, while the union supported UNIP. Then in the early 1960s, MASA collaborated with UNIP to establish the UMU, while UNIP-union relations deteriorated dramatically. Yet, staff and daily-paid miners organized a massive strike in 1966, accusing UNIP and the companies of collaborating against them.
Some authors have tried to explain this behavior by recourse to the labor aristocracy thesis, which assumes that the privileged position of the more skilled sections of the black work force led to a narrow trade union consciousness, and little political consciousness.3 We have seen, however, that the black copper miners exhibited contradictory behavior—while at some points they pulled away from politics, at others they rejected the class basis of the new Zambian government, and supported worker action for political ends. This vacillation has continued, with relative quiescence during the mid-1970s contrasting with more recent strikes against UNIP.
Clearly, class membership alone has limited predictive value for understanding the behavior of the black miners on the Copperbelt. Rather than behave as labor aristocrats in a consistent fashion, these miners changed tactics to facilitate their struggle with capital. While experiences in the production process, both in the mines and the compounds, encouraged the development of class consciousness and commitment to class action among more proletarianized miners in the Copperbelt case, the form of action taken by these miners depended on the real, or perceived, options available to them.
Such options were strongly influenced by a number of factors. Labor protest needed effective leadership and widespread support, but labor had to have some leverage over management as well. The labor supply and skill structure of the labor force affected labor’s bargaining power. A shortage strengthened labor’s position, while a surplus weakened it. This did not always apply equally to labor as experienced workers were generally harder to replace and therefore sometimes enjoyed the upper hand, which could push occupational groups within a work force towards different forms of labor action.
Corporate labor policies also affected the form worker struggles took. Such policies were shaped by the technical needs of copper production, the labor supply, established labor policies and the position of the industry in the world market. As we have seen, the need for reliable semi-skilled black labor during a labor shortage very early pushed the mines to stabilize a section of the black labor force. The still uncertain future of the mines, and a miscalculation of the stabilized miners’ consciousness and organizational abilities, led management to treat all African workers alike, with important consequences for the development of class consciousness and action. Not until the value of sterling dropped and profits soared in the 1950s could the companies afford to challenge the white miners, increase the percentage of black skilled labor, and separate that labor from the rest of the black work force, thereby reducing the effectiveness of the union.
Of course, corporate policies were most effective when backed by the colonial state. Capital wanted to maximize profits, while both black and white labor wanted to maximize wages. The obvious solution for capital—outright coercion of the work force by the state—was impossible, for the state had to maintain some semblance of concern for the citizenry, particularly the white miners. As a result, the Northern Rhodesian government rejected mining capital’s desire for African advancement in order to protect white labor. The state also established a labor department and eventually encouraged African trade unions. While created to control African labor, and therefore to guarantee the transfer of surplus to the metropole, the labor department did legitimize organized labor action and taught workers, however unintentionally, skills which were used in both industrial and political action. But when the Federation reduced the political influence of the white miners, its future became tied ever more closely to the prosperity of the mining companies, and the settler state now faced a common problem: how to permit African advancement without endangering the class structure. To accomplish this, they used both the carrot and the stick—rewards to those Africans who cooperated and punishment to those who rebelled. As we have seen, union and staff miners soon recognized their vulnerability to these pressures, and adjusted their behavior accordingly.
Although the impact of state and corporate policies varied with specific circumstances, they seem to have affected class action more readily than class consciousness. Corporate and state policies designed to cripple worker unity were less successful than those aimed at modifying the form of class action taken by the mine work force. For example, while corporate policies during the Federal period split the work force along occupational lines and forced both supervisory and daily-paid miners into more economistic behavior, these modifications were a “reasonable” response to the power of the companies, the collaboration of the state, and the political economy of Northern Rhodesia at the time. They did not reflect a decreased awareness of class divisions and class opposition, but rather a modification of the perceptions of how best to protect class interests. The withdrawal of the union from politics at this time, moreover, reflected the vulnerability of the union to corporate pressures after the state of emergency, rather than less commitment to political action. This case suggests the greater malleability of class action by historical factors, with class consciousness being more fundamentally tied to the production process and the industrial environment. Thus, the Copperbelt data not only illustrate the value of class analysis in the African colonial context, but also reveals the differential impact of historical factors on class consciousness and class action.
This conclusion has broader implications for African labor history. First, it demonstrates the limitations of a purely structural approach to the study of migrant labor. While the structural class position of migrant labor is clearly an essential component for any analysis, it cannot by itself explain worker consciousness or behavior. It leaves little room for other influences, particularly the impact of living and working on the mines, corporate and state labor strategy, the tradition of class struggle, and human ingenuity—all important ingredients in the development of class consciousness and class action. The Copperbelt data reinforce the need for a more historic approach that recognizes the importance of structure without lapsing into structural determinism.4
Similar implications emerge for the analysis of fully industrialized workers in Africa. As we have seen, scholars have explained economistic tendencies among both black and white workers exclusively in terms of differences in their income and access to power. Such workers have been labelled labor aristocrats, and even, in the case of South African white labor, petty bourgeoisie.5 This paradigm assumes that the material advantages accruing to more-skilled workers in the African context separates them from less-skilled workers. In the case of South Africa, the structural position of white labor supposedly places them outside the working class. The Copperbelt data cast some doubt on the utility of this approach. During the colonial period, elite black miners acted in a variety of ways. White labor collaborated with black labor at various points, despite the widely resented differential in their material rewards. Class position alone cannot explain this.
The Copperbelt case also argues for analyzing worker consciousness and behavior separately as well as together. This is particularly important in the highly repressive societies of colonial and independent Africa. As some scholars have begun to observe, behavior in such societies often fails to fully reflect consciousness. For example, van Onselen discovered that Southern Rhodesian miners expressed their discontent through absenteeism and desertions, rather than strikes. In contrast, Jim Silver found that violent strikes among Ghanaian gold miners did not reflect revolutionary class consciousness. Attitudinal surveys by Lubeck, Sandbrook, and Arn have produced similar insights.6 Further systematic efforts in this direction are needed, both to allow a more accurate assessment of industrial labor, and to discourage the facile dismissal of worker economism so common in African labor studies.
More specifically, the Copperbelt case raises some important comparative issues in South African labor history. As we have seen, the labor strategies adopted by the Anglo-American mines in Northern Rhodesia differed dramatically from those in South Africa. Economic factors alone cannot explain the differences. The answer lies more in the overall political-economy of the societies in question. For various reasons, white miners in Northern Rhodesia never developed the political clout of their South African counterparts, and found themselves unable to legislate a protected position in the economy in the manner achieved by South African white labor. These differences emphasize the unique nature of the South African experience, and should caution against uncritically extending the South African model of racially structured capitalism7 to other parts of Southern Africa.
Finally, this study also establishes the need to reevaluate scholarship on the copper miners, particularly the relationship between miners and national politics. The explanation of political apathy is no longer acceptable. Earlier literature emphasizing the key role played by the miners in the nationalist movement now seems more credible.8 But this must be placed in the context of rising class consciousness among the miners, as well as the situational constraints on miner behavior. Such an approach would further clarify the development of political consciousness among the miners, and lead to a more accurate assessment of the miners’ role in Zambian politics, both in the past and the future.