The Zambian Copperbelt lies in the heart of the African continent, many hundreds of miles from both the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Here Africans discovered copper deposits, traded widely, and worked for centuries before the coming of Europeans. Sometime after copper began to be mined industrially just across the border in the Belgian Congo and once a small local population was displaced, Northern Rhodesian copper became a major target of European investment. Here were a string of mining towns dominated either by the Anglo-American Corporation, actually South African, or by American Metal Climax, at the height of the colonial era. At first Northern Rhodesia was a source of migrant laborers who traveled long distances from several directions, but once the territory recovered from the throes of the Depression and copper mining took off, labor was attracted without a major South African-style recruitment system.
In the long post-war era of great copper prices, the Copperbelt defied the conventions of British colonial thinking on Africa. There were no chiefs to administer the people, the terrain became urbanized, and company towns, which housed many whites as well as more Africans, contained corporate housing, medical and school facilities with basic urban infrastructure such as electricity and sewage systems. Malaria was wiped out. More and more women and children were to be found here and the population was considered stable.
Did this mean that workers would come together and organize against their employers? Were they “modern” people no longer shaped by custom? The case for modernization was made by an influential set of anthropologists turned sociologists, notably A. L. Epstein and Clyde Mitchell, who put the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute on the map. These keen observers tried to propagate the view that here Africans were entering the modern age and that the colonial system of rule would not fit them for very long. Miners surely could not be governed as African tribesmen. Were the miners becoming a class, with the political and social implications that “working class” had come to imply in Western social-science (and political) thought? In Labor and Capital on the African Copperbelt, Jane Parpart’s deceptively straightforward language clearly communicates complex thought in this area and allows us to understand what modernity meant in Africa.
Parpart wrote her thesis, on which Labor and Capital on the African Copperbelt was based, for Boston University and the book was originally published in 1983. I got to know her in Boston in the early 1980s. My first book, on workers and capital in the tin mines of Nigeria, a (less) important capitalist enterprise that also took off in the inter-war years, came out in 1981 and the initial edition of my The Making of Contemporary Africa in 1984. We were able to learn from each other but also from a very creative network of scholars focussed on modern Africa, including Sara Berry, Sharon Stichter, James Pritchett, Pauline Peters, Jeanne Henn, Jean Hay, Iris Berger, Jane Guyer, Bill Hansen, and Fred Cooper (not by chance, the majority of which were women), who were beginning to rethink how to write twentieth-century African history and tie it to global social and economic trends.
Parpart’s challenge was to produce a history of labor on the Copperbelt that reverberated with African experiences but posed for Africans challenges much like those faced simultaneously by industrial workers in big operations everywhere. She painstakingly shows the steps black workers took in overcoming ideas about tribal organization and structured recruitment typical of colonial Africa. Workers came to mount substantial strikes “spontaneously,” learning from the stance and organizational activities of the many skilled and supervisory white miners in their midst, and they coupled a sense of class derived directly from work experience with a growing enthusiasm for the utopian vision of freedom, national independence. Once organized, “. . . within a few years, the union had developed a large, committed membership, organized a successful Copperbelt-wide strike and voted the tribal representatives out of power in the mine compounds.”1
Capital understood fairly early that promoting Africans to responsible positions and training them substantially was possible, and indeed necessary. White workers were actually equivocal here; to some extent they accepted the idea of African advancement so long as it was into the conditions and salaries to which they had become accustomed. These were generous, a means of luring them out to the middle of Africa. At first skilled Africans did enter the white union but the post-war Labour government brought in a British union organizer, William Comrie, who helped create a separate organization for Africans. Although unable to equal the conditions whites enjoyed and at times subject to tension between a minority of the skilled and supervisory workers and the rest of the members, this became in the 1950s a powerful force on the Copperbelt. Much of Comrie’s account of British trade union activity and potency rang true to his African audience. Parpart captured this aspect of African working class politics beautifully and, in her later work, included the mining town communities more generally and the important role of resident women once the need to balance family life and long-term employment became commonplace.
Labor and Capital on the African Copperbelt discusses the situation leading up to Zambian independence in 1964. Thereafter, it was with African nationalist politics rather than a potential labor or socialist party organization that organized mineworkers had to reckon, and Parpart’s work shows the progression from shared enthusiasm to tense and at times difficult relations. Her core view—that the distinctive politics of the African working class struggled for support within the conditions that existed in central Africa—is almost taken for granted in what we might call the sequel, Miles Larmer’s excellent Mineworkers in Zambia.2 Some writers described the African workers of the Copperbelt as spoiled and dysfunctionally privileged from a developmental perspective compared with both the majority of the population in the region and the wider African population. Larmer instead follows what he calls a “general mineworkers’ consciousness” with transformative implications, while also stressing differences among miners.
Larmer’s story, especially once it moves past the first decade, is no longer an upbeat one.3 Even at the start it’s marked by tensions between a domineering national party and a fairly coherent working-class movement. What undid workers was the collapse, after decades of growth, of the price of copper that began in the mid 1970s. The state by then was also the boss and dependent on copper sales; it had taken a majority share in the copper mines. For a generation, the sense of decaying company towns with a coherent relationship, however tense, between workers, management, and the state, remained. Inevitably living conditions, as with wages, degenerated and political conflict intensified. The mining towns become the source of opposition to President Kenneth Kaunda’s Zambian politics and eventually multi-party contests were restored and the ruling party unseated.
The new regime, built on the support of miners but arguably the most indebted in Africa at the low point of the structural adjustment era, bought into privatization with little capacity for regulation. The workforce shrank, environmentally questionable artisanal mining, particularly involving women and children, expanded, and any sense of corporate logic collapsed. The Chinese got the worst press among the new mine owners, although in reality they’ve had more of a sense of the long haul than the rest. Miners were able to take possession of company houses to their benefit and whites largely disappeared. But social conditions deteriorated and problems such as malaria and AIDS spread. The standard of living white workers once enjoyed has become, for all but a few, a distant memory. In a polemical exchange in the Journal of Southern African Studies, Hugh Macmillan tried, using demographic statistics, to show how urbanized this region and indeed Zambia, remained.4 In contrast, American anthropologist James Ferguson emphasized the ways in which workers needed or chose to return to rural areas.5 However, Ferguson and, in another earlier excellent anthropological study, Johan Pottier, showed that this was neither regenerative nor is it a return to an older African way of looking at the world.6 In the best years, copper was again discovered somewhat outside the old Copperbelt; here chiefs, for lack of a dynamic state, made a comeback and were able to earn rental income from these new operations.
The union split and much of the workforce became contract workers, hired and fired at will. There are signs of continued dogged efforts to make these towns work, to organize, and to take advantage of better phases as copper prices went through unpredictable boom and bust cycles; not all of Parpart’s worker consciousness was gone. Ironically it looks today as though the later colonial period was an ideal time for the molding of a social, organizational, and political outlet for that consciousness. To find comparable politics currently that take disunited workers forward is a big ask.
Ferguson, critic of development theory, produced a powerful and memorable attack on the modernism implied by the Rhodes-Livingstone school and its implications for this area of dismay and decay where boom and bust cut right through any Weberian logic.7 But Parpart was never a Weberian. Her book follows the classic lines of Marxist thinking about class formation and class organization, ideas that perhaps have held up better. Her central idea is class formed by workers through the course of organization and struggle with management. She is careful to separate this from specific cultural traits of Western working classes that might be assumed and she realizes that roots in a different sort of history and social background did not disappear entirely. She considers how development and social change looked to the miners during an eventful historic period. In his 1993 article, Macmillan bitterly complained that Ferguson caricatured the writing of the “modernists,” including Parpart.8 Ferguson retorted that there is much to retain in their observations and thinking, and that Parpart’s work in particular represented a “fine” piece of research.9 And as Larmer pointed out, enhanced turns to rural resources by no means meant an abandonment of the towns or indeed the dream of development.10
Labor and Capital on the African Copperbelt remains an admirable introduction to social formation and class struggle in a historic phase of central African history, and Parpart followed it up with a study of Zambian township women that showed class coming together with community, not merely workplace.11 It also has much to tell us about the late colonial state in Africa. Moreover, the crucial problems that unseat the process are not limited to central Africa. The consequences varied as the post-war decades came to a close and capitalism changed form worldwide. Today modernity no longer leads us on an ever-upward journey and the forward march of labor is difficult to discern.
BILL FREUND is Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.
1. Jane Parpart, Labor and Capital on the African Copperbelt (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983), 117.
2. Miles Larmer, Mineworkers in Zambia; Labour and Political Change in Post-colonial Africa (London and New York: Tauris Academic Studies, 2007).
3. Alastair Fraser and Miles Larmer, eds., Zambia, Mining and Neoliberalism; Boom and Bust on the Globalised Copperbelt (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
4. Hugh Macmillan, “The Historiography of Transition on the Zambian Copperbelt-Another View,” Journal of Southern African Studies XIX, no. 4 (1993): 681–713.
5. James Ferguson, Expectations of Modernity; Myths and Meanings of Modern Life on the Zambian Copperbelt (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999).
6. Johan Pottier, Migrants No More; Settlement and Survival in Mambwe Villages, Zambia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).
7. James Ferguson, “Mobile Workers, Modernist Narratives; A Critique of the Historiography of Transition on the Zambian Copperbelt,” Journal of Southern African Studies XVI, no. 3 (1990): 385–412 and XVI, no. 4 (1990): 603–21.
8. Macmillan, 1993.
9. James Ferguson, “Modernist Narratives, Conventional Wisdoms and Colonial Liberalism; Replies to a Straw Man,” Journal of Southern African Studies XX, no. 4 (1994): 633–40.
10. Larmer, 2007.
11. Jane L. Parpart, “The Household and the Mine Shaft: Gender and Class Struggles on the Zambian Copperbelt, 1926–64,” Journal of Southern African Studies XIII, no. 1 (1986): 36–56.