Somewhere Under the Rainbow: Doing Research on the Zambian Copperbelt – Duncan Money

Photo taken by the author while approaching the Zambian border, located under the rainbow.

Duncan Money is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the International Studies Group, University of the Free State. He is primarily interested in connections between the Zambian Copperbelt and other mining regions around the world and the relationship between developments in the global mining industry and on the Copperbelt. He was recently awarded his DPhil from the University of Oxford for a history of white migrants on the Zambian Copperbelt.

Much of my professional life has been spent trying to persuade people, occasionally successfully, what a great place Zambia is to do research. Here I want to continue that by singing the praises of the Zambian Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) archive in Ndola, a place where I have spent many happy and productive days, and to discuss a research project on ‘Zambianization’ arising out of my most recent visit there.

ZCCM was formed in 1981 as a state holding company for the mining industry, which was partially nationalised in 1970 then entirely in 1974. While the size and importance of Zambia’s mining industry alone ensures this is an invaluable resource, the scope of the collection goes well beyond the industry. This is because the nationalisation of the mining industry involved not only the takeover of mines, smelters and refineries but also the wide array of other functions of the mining companies, which had a strong paternalist streak.

ZCCM came to own housing, schools, hospitals, social clubs, bars, welfare facilities, newspapers and sports teams, among other things. The archive therefore contains documents and photographs relating to virtually all aspects of Copperbelt life in the 1970s and 1980s. Given the almost complete lack of material in the National Archives of Zambia from this period, this makes the ZCCM collection particularly important.

The inheritance of ZCCM also included the records of the two private mining companies who had run the mining industry since the mid-1920s: Rhodesian Anglo American and the Rhodesian Selection Trust. There is simply no comparable collection of documents elsewhere on and by Anglo American, one of the world’s largest mining companies. Requests to view material at Anglo American’s archive in central Johannesburg are met with polite but very firm refusal. Papers relating to the Selection Trust are located at the London School of Economics and the University of Wyoming, places not easily accessible to African researchers. The value of having important records relating to the region’s past actually located on the Copperbelt should not be underestimated.

Informal restrictions on access to documents at ZCCM do exist. Some cataloguing has been done haphazardly and the documents located in the repository sometimes have only a loose relationship to the description in the catalogue. Conversely, this occasionally turns up unexpected gems. The only other real restriction is that requesting too many documents can try the patience of the staff, who are few in number. Other than that, this vast collection is efficiently run by staff who are helpful, knowledgeable and friendly. The last attribute of the staff is especially welcome during lengthy research trips, and contrasts markedly with some other archives I’ve used. The National Archives in London, for example, are efficiently run but I have found the staff there are at best disinterested in your existence.

I last had the pleasure of visiting the ZCCM archive in March 2017 while in Zambia working on another project. I went with no particular aim in mind but confident that useful material could be unearthed. So, it was while looking through files from the 1960s on union negotiations, one of my longstanding research focuses, I came across a reference to ‘alien Africans’ and the need to reduce their numbers. What was especially interesting is that this move was being discussed as part of ‘Zambianization’ on the mines.

An industrial colour bar was in place on the Copperbelt mines from 1941 until the 1960s. The efforts to remove the colour bar and the post-independence policy of Zambianization are among the best studied aspects of the Zambian Copperbelt. Both are usually regarded as the same thing: the replacement of white mineworkers by African mineworkers. Zambianization did involve extensive restructuring of the labour force and the consequent removal of thousands of white mineworkers but a multitude of documents from the early 1960s to the late 1980s point to another overlooked objective: the removal of the thousands of non-Zambian Africans working on the mines.

From the 1930s onwards, the mining industry recruited and attracted many thousands of African men from neighbouring colonies and further afield. At Zambian independence, there were around 9,000 non-Zambian Africans working on the Copperbelt mines, many of whom had been in the territory for many years. Yet, by the late 1980s their numbers had been reduced to a few dozen. Replacing non-Zambian Africans was regarded as a key priority, even when it impeded the objective of reducing the number of whites in the mining industry. Mineworkers from Malawi disproportionately held more skilled jobs so were best placed to take over the skilled jobs performed by whites, until their promotion was banned.

This is only the beginning of this research but I think it has several wider implications. The most obvious is the relationship with the creation of national identities and notions of citizenship. Encouraging the employment of Zambians in the 1960s presupposes that state authorities, trade unions and employers can reliably distinguish between a Zambian and a Malawian mineworker, although these categories had only recently come into existence.

Demands that economic opportunities within a nation should be restricted to those regarded as legitimate members of that nation are still commonplace, and not only in Africa. In South Africa, intermittent outbursts of xenophobic violence primarily directed at Africans from outside South Africa are motivated in part by a perception that these people are taking a disproportionate share of the slim economic opportunities available.

There are also strong comparative elements with the Congolese Copperbelt. Negotiations and struggles over the colour bar during the colonial period in Zambia were heavily influenced by developments in Katanga. Broadly, the mining companies saw the labour policies of Union Minière du Haut-Katanga as something to emulate, while white mineworkers saw it as a fate to avoid. In a more direct parallel, during the 1960s in Katanga, there was agitation and violence against workers from Kasai by Katangese groups who regarded their position in the mining industry as illegitimate.

I hope to understand how non-Zambians were replaced and why this was regarded as important using the statistics, minutes of meetings, corporate and government correspondence, records of union demands and newspaper clippings I discovered at the ZCCM archive.

These documents, and indeed all the material I have ever looked at there during a cumulative total of months of research, represent a small sliver of the material available at the archive. Mainly for this reason, I encourage any researcher interested in the history of the region to visit ZCCM to see what is available. Plus, the collection continues to grow. During my last visit, dozens of boxes of documents from 2016 were stacked in the library awaiting cataloguing and shelving. Something to look at on the next trip.