the Bush Is Coming Back


The reprivatisation of Zambia's mining sector in 1997 marked the end of an paternalistic era that had given birth to the mine towns of the Copperbelt. From the beginnings of industrial mining under corporate colonialism in the late 1920s to the corporate cradle-to-grave practice under the state-owned company Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) in the 1980s and 1990s, each mine had resembled Goffman's total institution.

Social control over mineworkers and their families was exercised from the depth of the mine shaft to every corner of the mine house. The infrastructures extending from the mines and the economic privileges granted to mineworkers first cemented racial segregation and later the distance between mineworkers and other parts of the labour force.

The sale of ZCCM's Luanshya Division resulted in the separation of the mine's assets related to mineral extraction and the so-called non-core social assets. International corporations did not take over the social responsibilities from the former parastatal owner. While mine houses were mostly sold to mineworkers, social welfare buildings ended up in a limbo between their paternalist past and neoliberal future. They became both corporate debris, ruins of empire in Stoler's words, places inscribed with nostalgia, relicts of a longed for past. This condition continues under the current owner, the Chinese state-owned company China Nonferrous Metal Mining (Group) Corporation (CNMC). Abandoned by the mine operator and unsupported by the municipality and national government, the former social welfare buildings have been reappropriated by the townships' residents.

In this project, I deal with the various ways in which people appropriate and use former social welfare buildings in Mpatamatu, a township of Luanshya located on the edges of Muliashi open cast mine. It is a place that carries several marks of neoliberal reform and what Ferguson described as global disconnect: unemployment, undercapitalisation, vandalism and alcoholism. In what Mususa observed as trying, mineworkers turned into farmers and urban dwellers fell back on rural practices. From one perspective, it seems the bush is about to reconquer what was once taken from it by colonial-corporate industrialisation.

In this setting, township residents face the process of ruination as described by Stoler. However, despite material decay, they bring new use to former mine clinics, clubs, community centres, taverns and sports facilities. As such, these buildings do not only constitute debris but also soil for community action. During 15 months of fieldwork on the Copperbelt, of which I spent 6 months in Mpatamatu, I attended Pentecostal services at the township's former sports complex, observed school classes in the buildings where mineworkers used to receive their salaries, followed a home craft teacher to the previous community centres, documented the construction of coffins in a former youth club and chatted with NGO workers at their headquarters in an old mine clinic. Based on participant observation, township walks, photography, mapping, conversations, interviews and archival research, I tried to decipher the tension walled into the former social welfare buildings, a tension rising from Mpatamatu's colonial inception, people's nostalgia for a paternalist past, CLM's absence in a neoliberal present and the buildings' uncertain future in an epilogue to the mining sector's reprivatisation.

So far, my fieldwork data has produced the following insights about the former social welfare buildings, an abandoned mine township and the Copperbelt as a site of mineral extraction. First, while the mine operator was omnipresent in the township before reprivatisation, the mining company is almost completely absent from it today. CLM is only discernible through a dilapidated mine clinic and vandalised playground equipment. Corporate identity measures which formerly involved the social welfare buildings as platforms are non-existent. This happens under a Chinese state-owned company officially subscribing to socialism with Chinese characteristics. At the same time, the company appparently constructs corporate identity narrowly around its (Chinese) management staff. Second, residents frequently are nostalgic about the mine's paternalistic era under ZCCM and use it as a point of departure for assessing and criticising the current mine management. The past paternalism still marks residents' actions today when they envision former social welfare buildings to also serve the community in the future. Third, remnants of the paternalist tradition cannot only be found in residents' nostalgia but also their religious practice. The trust in God's care and guidance in face of anxiety, most prominently featured in Philippians 4:6, was a recurring theme during my fieldwork. Fourth, the fact that residents have rendered the former social welfare buildings useful, e.g. by turning them into houses of prayer, private schools or multi-purpose buildings, despite their run-down character and unclear legal status, illustrates the aspects of possibility and creativity within processes of ruination. Fifth, the reappropriation of the buildings sheds light on the changing character of the township. Formerly a mine township, it is now other groups of the labour force, particularly teachers, that use and maintain the former social welfare buildings. While teachers had to fight for access to the township's infrastructures in the past, the abandonment of the buildings by the mine operator and the decline in mine employment has led to a dissolution of the township as a mineworkers' space.

Mpatamatu offers valuable insights into how people manoeuvre between continuities and discontinuities in a post-fordist living environment. Looking at the trajectory of the former social welfare buildings illuminates the complex economic and social history of the Copperbelt.