Why the Copperbelt remains Zambia’s factory of political change – Sishuwa Sishuwa

Michael Sata, leader of the then opposition Patriotic Front, which was founded in the Copperbelt mining town of Chingola, campaigning at a public rally in September 2011.

Sishuwa Sishuwa is a Lecturer in African History at the University of Zambia and a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Cape Town.

Since its emergence in the 1920s as the site of Africa’s most rapid and large-scale industrialisation and urbanisation outside of South Africa, the Copperbelt has occupied a central place in Zambia’s political imagination. Its importance stemmed from the revenue generated by copper mining, an industry that nationalists like founding president Kenneth Kaunda and his United National Independence Party (UNIP) sought to take control of after independence in 1964. It was also the hub of organised labour and developed a significant formal economy owing to the great number of unionised workers. Despite declines in revenue (less profit/lower tax rates/tax avoidance measures etc.) and the number of mining jobs in recent decades, the Copperbelt remains the focus of intense competition among successive major political parties. Why is this the case? Two key factors help to explain this.

The first is that despite fluctuations and slumps in the region’s economy, the Copperbelt remains central to Zambia’s economy. The rapid urbanisation and industrialisation that occurred on the Copperbelt was not repeated elsewhere in Zambia. The growth of Lusaka means that the capital is now the largest urban centre, but collectively the Copperbelt towns have a higher population and it makes sense to consider them as one unit rather than discrete towns. The Copperbelt therefore has no obvious competitor in terms of economic and demographic clout. Even in a diminished form, the continued failure of economic diversification means that there is no other sector capable of challenging mining.

As a result, the health of Zambia’s economy remains closely tied to that of the Copperbelt, and the wellbeing of both still rests on the fortunes of copper on the international market. When metal prices fell in the early 1970s for instance, they dragged down Zambia’s economy for the next 30 years. It was not until 2005 that the price of copper recovered and the country found new mine owners following privatisation in the late 1990s. What happens on the Copperbelt therefore has wider consequences. Its centrality to political life in Zambia should be understood as a consequence of successive governments’ failure to divest the country of its dependence on a single commodity.

The second factor that explains the Copperbelt’s importance to Zambian politics over such a long period is its history of strong associational culture. The relatively dense patterns of urban settlements and industrial organisation of the Copperbelt workforce during the colonial period gave rise to an enduring associational culture that is absent elsewhere. The Copperbelt was the birthplace of Zambia’s labour movement and most of its significant political parties. The country’s two most powerful and best-organised labour movements, the Mineworkers Union of Zambia (MUZ) and the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), were founded (in their original form) on the Copperbelt in 1949 and 1951, respectively. Most political parties that have gone on to either achieve a transfer of power or play a leading role in opposition politics were also founded there.

Spatial policing that characterised public life during the colonial period loosened after the achievement of independence, allowing for more open and wider interaction, which, in turn, facilitated the expression of collective political sentiment. Associational networks, both formal (as in the case of trade unions) and informal (e.g. trade associations for marketeers and the small-scale miners popularly known as jerabos)make it easier to disseminate political messages and organise activities. Successive political leaders have relied on such networks and sites of informal interaction to campaign and capture the political imagination of Copperbelt residents. Political sentiment across the Copperbelt’s various associational networks provides a coherent way for the region’s residents to interact across class and ethnicity identities  – a reflection of the Copperbelt’s cosmopolitan heritage.

The dominant political views on the Copperbelt have also been influenced by its political and economic history. As a result, most residents believe that politicians should deliver some level of economic redistribution, and that Zambia should have a strong public sector that delivers social and physical services. The most successful national politicians are those who perceive of this, and are able to tap into these sentiments. The same associational culture is yet to take root in other urban areas. Lusaka’s civil society organisations are sustained more by donor money than by their members’ social connections. This explains why most new political formations and political transitions in Zambia have emerged from the Copperbelt. Three separate examples reinforce this point.

The first was the formation, in August 1971, of the United Progressive Party (UPP) led by former Vice-President of Zambia Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe. The UPP, mobilising in Bemba-speaking rural communities and articulating populist concerns in urban centres such as the Copperbelt, rose to become the first serious opposition to UNIP’s assertion of national authority. So threatened was President Kaunda that he quickly banned it over alleged violence in February 1972 and arrested several of its leaders, including Kapwepwe who remained in prison until December that year, when Zambia was declared a one-party state.

The second key moment was the emergence of a pro-democracy movement, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), in the early 1990s that successfully challenged UNIP and ended one-party party rule. With a legal road to political change blocked by single-party rule, opposition to Kaunda and UNIP’s formal hegemony found expression in institutions such as the Copperbelt-based MUZ and ZCTU. These two organisations served as the backbone of the transition to multiparty democracy that orchestrated Kaunda’s removal, the country’s first leadership turnover since independence. As well as providing the MMD leader Frederick Chiluba, these institutions put their structures at the disposal of the opposition party ahead of the landmark 1991 elections.

The third key moment was the rise of Michael Sata’s Patriotic Front (PF), whose successful mobilisation in the early 2000s ended the MMD’s 20-year-old hold on power in 2011. Following the example of Chiluba, Sata mobilised the associational networks of Copperbelt inhabitants to establish a new party and capture the ruling party’s support base. This sequence has not been replicated elsewhere in Zambia: other regions follow the lead of the Copperbelt, which continues to be a weathervane for the future political direction of the country.

Chishimba Kambwili, leader of the recently formed Copperbelt-based opposition National Democratic Congress, flanked by former Vice-President of Zambia Guy Scott, the party’s self-proclaimed ‘political Godfather’, at a party public meeting in November 2017.

As Zambia heads towards a general election in 2021, it will be interesting to see if the National Democratic Congress (NDC), a breakaway opposition party formed in 2017 by former PF strongman Chishimba Kambwili, will be able to replicate this established pattern of achieving national power by first establishing a strong political base on the Copperbelt. A skilled grassroots mobiliser and an effective populist with a gift for oratory and the common touch, Kambwili previously worked on the Copperbelt mines and in its union structures. He therefore has access to the associational networks and links that previous successful politicians drew upon to launch their careers. Amidst Zambia’s mounting economic challenges, the Copperbelt’s urban constituencies are likely to be receptive to a new populist party.

The NDC has already demonstrated its capacity to hurt the PF electorally. In April 2019, the NDC – drawing on workers’ growing frustrations against the ills of foreign, mainly Chinese, investment – defeated the PF in a parliamentary by-election in the Copperbelt mining town of Luanshya. To put the result in context: this was the PF’s first loss to another political party in a competitive election, at parliamentary level, in the urban Copperbelt since the 2001 election. In an action that bears a striking resemblance to Kaunda’s banning of Kapwepwe’s UPP, the PF government responded to the defeat by deregistering the NDC for alleged undemocratic tendencies and having an ‘inoperative constitution’ – a move that Kambwili’s party has since formally challenged.

As long as industrial mining remains the mainstay of the economy, the Copperbelt will remain the political factory that produces most of Zambia’s leaders and parties and even political culture. Of the six individuals who have led Zambia during the first 55 years of its existence, four received their political training and education on the Copperbelt, three of whom were born there. These Copperbelt ‘graduates’ include Chiluba, Zambia’s president from 1991 to 2001; Levy Mwanawasa, who succeeded Chiluba in 2002 and remained in office until his untimely death in 2008; Sata, who led the country from 2011 to 2014 before dying in office; and incumbent Edgar Lungu, in power since 2015. Their formative experiences in the country’s wealthiest province helped them later to launch successful careers in Zambia’s political life.

The fact that many of today’s influential Lusaka-based politicians, trade unionists, civic actors, musicians and others with the capacity to shape public opinion trace their roots to the province shows that the Copperbelt has effectively exported itself to Lusaka. As a result, the region will remain central to Zambian politics for the foreseeable future.