‘We are not just a union, we are a family’ – Robby Kapesa and Thomas McNamara

Mineworkers Union of Zambia (MUZ) main chamber at the mine’s headquarters, Katilungu House, Kitwe, Copperbelt. Photo, Robby Kapesa (2020)
Mineworkers Union of Zambia (MUZ) main chamber at the mine’s headquarters, Katilungu House, Kitwe, Copperbelt. Photo, Robby Kapesa (2020).

Thomas McNamara is a Lecturer in International Development at La Trobe University in Australia. Robby Kapesa is a research fellow at the Copperbelt University under the Dag Hammarskjöld Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.

While researching ethnic tensions and industrial relations in Zambia’s North Western Province’s mining areas, we were surprised by how frequently unionists accused and counter-accused each other of tribalism. Being a ‘tribalist’ is a common tag in Zambian politics, and discussions about what tribalism means in this context have been major themes in Robby Kapesa’s research. The Mineworkers’ Union of Zambia has long been seen as a detribalising agent by academics, and is depicted by its own officials and members as a cosmopolitan ‘family’ that defends the rights of its members whatever their ethnicity. In attempting to shed light on how class, kinship and tribe interact in Zambia’s mining unions, we drew upon Lazar’s conceptualisation of unionism as a form of kinship. We then problematized the categorical distinction between the emic categories of ‘tribe’ and ‘union’ that many previous scholars have taken for granted.

We conceptualised both tribe and union through concepts of kinship, where union actions are motivated by mutual inter-dependence, within self-defining hierarchies and identity structures. Our key finding of our recently published research was that Zambian discourses of unionism evolved (and have continued to adapt) through similar economic and socio-political processes to those that shaped discourses of tribe. Bemba, other northern, and eastern Zambians have been disproportionately influential in creating a ‘wakopala’ identity—a person of the Copperbelt. This identity guides Zambia’s mining unions, ensuring that these unions are equipped to assist with the aspirations, hierarchies and concepts of the good life that connect the Copperbelt to northern, north-eastern and eastern Zambia. The norms, values and kinship structures of being a unionist are therefore more compatible with those ethno-regional identities than of the dominant ethnic identities of North-Western Province: Kaonde, Lunda and Luvale. We argue that it is this, rather than tribalism per se, that limits Kaonde, Lunda and Luvale participation in Zambia’s mining unions as they seek to represent mineworkers in the ‘new Copperbelt’ of north-western Zambia. In presenting the union as a family, national mine officials aimed to bury the social ills and ethnic rivalry and stereotypes associated with the ‘old Copperbelt’, which characterised the latecomers to the economic scene (mining) such as the Northwesterners (Kaonde’ Lunda and Luvale) as ‘backward’ and Bemba and Easterners as ‘advanced’ ethno-linguistic groups, and which may be an in hindrance to the success of the mine unions in North Western Zambia.

The Bemba and the Kaonde in particular have, since the colonial era, drawn from slightly different narratives of family, kin and aspirations for their conceptualisation of a good life. Considering the disproportionate representation of Bemba and Easterner migration to settle and work on the old Copperbelt in the mid-to-late twentieth century, it is not surprising that to be a Bemba speaker, a wakopala and a unionist became intertwined.  In fact, many academics have drawn upon this relationship to argue that Copperbelt urbanisation and labour relations were incompatible with dominant tribal identities. Consider Bates’ claim, for example:

[Tribal] considerations govern many social patterns; hospitality, joking relationships and domestic and kinship affairs, but the structuring power of ethnicity is not allowed to carry over into the field of labour relations. (Bates, 1972: 291)

Yet the ability to fulfil one’s own vision of domestic and kinship affairs is a key reason people engaged in labour politics and is more generally core to concepts of the good life. We explored for example how during recent wage negotiations, union officials from the Copperbelt demanded a ‘school fees’ allowance and other allowances to enable them meet their moral responsibility of ‘sending money to their relatives in the village’. Mine union officials draw upon a particular understanding of kinship and domestic affairs – one built through the circulation and interdependence of Zambia’s urban and rural populations, but also heavily influenced by the ‘old’ Copperbelt’s historical relations with north-eastern and eastern Zambia.

Highlighting the role of kinship in union activity allowed us to examine the unions’ role in the ethnic entrepreneurship that occurs in the new mines of North-Western Province. We have shown that the mineworkers’ decision in the ‘new Copperbelt’ to engage in strike action was rooted in their kinship obligations, both as unionist and customary (chiefly) subjects, explanations which the local media rarely capture. For example, workers of local origin at Kalumbila mine narrated how the company’s failure to provide meaningful Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects, such as schools and health facilities, in the communities where they live, motivated them to instigate a strike in 2011, while migrant mineworkers attributed their participation in the same strike to their desire for improved conditions of service and wages, in particular. Likewise, at Lumwana mine in 2016, local mineworkers claimed that the failure of the mining company to provide adequate social services such as safe drinking water and electricity to the surrounding communities, in which most workers lived, forced them to instigate an illegal strike. This suggests that, as in many other mining areas, several factors motivated mineworkers’ participation in mine strikes in the ‘new Copperbelt’. And some of these factors had no direct effect on the workers’ wages. We have also shown that, while the national union officials on the ‘old Copperbelt’, most of whom were Bemba speakers, presented the unions as a family in which workers of divergent ethnic backgrounds had their socio-economic interests adequately represented, local mineworkers and customary authorities in the ‘new Copperbelt’ viewed those same unions negatively, as a way to perpetuate Bemba hegemony in the mining sector in general and for it to gain access to the ‘new’ Copperbelt’s mineral wealth.

In conclusion, we argue that the hostile stance taken by mineworkers of local origin and customary authorities against Zambia’s well-established mine unions sought to protect ‘local resources’ from ‘external invasion’ and to ensure that those resources benefit the local people they believe are their rightful ‘owners’. Likewise, the flexible position adopted by national union officials and migrant union members seeks to reconcile conflict between local and migrant mineworkers in the union and to ensure that the mineral wealth in the ‘new Copperbelt’ benefits every mineworker, regardless of his or her regional or ethnic background.


Robert H. Bates, ‘Trade union membership in the Coppermines of Zambia: A test of some hypotheses’, Economic Development and Cultural Change 20, 2 (1972), pp. 280-298.

Robby Kapesa and Tomas McNamara, ‘We are not just a union, we are a family’ class, kinship and tribe in Zambia’s mining unions’, Dialectical Anthropology 44, 2 (2020).

Robby Kapesa, ‘Dashed expectations, collective grievances, and ethnic mobilization in the emerging mining areas of North-Western Zambia’ (Forthcoming).

Sian Lazar, ‘A ‘kinship anthropology of politics’? Interest, the collective self and kinship in Argentine unions’, Journal of the Royal Anthropology Institute 24 (2018), pp. 256-274.