White mineworkers at Zambian Independence

Why did white mineworkers on the Zambian Copperbelt not seriously resist decolonization?

Fragment of a Zambian print from Independence. Image credit Tommy Miles via Flickr CC.

Whites in twentieth-century Southern Africa are regarded as being among the most resolute defenders of colonial and white minority rule. Across the region, colonial governments fought vicious, protracted and unsuccessful conflicts against African nationalist movements, and the intransigent attitude of governments towards these movements was largely supported by whites. This support is often contrasted with the actions of the small number of whites who joined liberation movements.

Yet there was another unexpected and puzzling white reaction to African nationalism: indifference. Why did white mineworkers on the Zambian Copperbelt not seriously resist decolonization?

The center of Zambia’s economy was—and is—the copper industry. Until the mid-1970s, several thousand white workers were employed on the mines and in 1963, the year before independence, these mines employed some 7,800 whites, 17 percent of the total workforce. Some of these were managers or mining professionals like engineers—anyone in a position of authority was white. But most were employed doing the kind of jobs common to mining anywhere in the world: driving winding engines hauling men and material up the shafts, operating pumps, repairing machinery and driving locomotives.

These whites were among the highest paid workers in the world and, what’s more, avoided most of the hard manual work normally associated with mining, like drilling and blasting. Instead, this work was done by African mineworkers and almost all whites also supervised African workers as part of their job.

Such a privileged position, however, did not mean that they intended to stay on the Copperbelt. In some ways, these whites were the opposite of settlers. They were a highly mobile workforce accustomed to moving frequently between mining and industrial sites across and beyond the British Empire, in search of work or better pay. In 1963, almost half the white workforce had been on the mines less than three years.

End of empire in Zambia

In many ways, the Copperbelt contained all the ingredients for a bloody struggle against decolonization: an armed, racist white minority in a highly privileged position which suddenly, and unexpectedly, found itself at the northern edge of white-ruled Southern Africa, with the British Empire disintegrating around them. It might reasonably be expected that these mineworkers would have fought tooth and nail against an African nationalist movement about to upend white minority rule and take power.

It is difficult to exaggerate the speed of political developments in colonial Zambia in the late 1950s. The colony was then grouped with Malawi and Zimbabwe in the Central African Federation, a formation designed to bolster white settler control over the region. In 1959, settler politicians were pushing for Dominion status—which would have effectively made the Federation an independent state under white rule—while the main nationalist party, the United National Independence Party (UNIP), was illegal and its leader Kenneth Kaunda was in prison. No-one could have plausibly expected that, within five years, Zambia would be an independent nation, with UNIP as the governing party and Kaunda as president.

While there was much bluff and bluster, whites in Zambia seemed to come to terms with these changes remarkably quickly. When I started my research, I assumed that, with some diligent archival work, I would uncover details of plots by white settlers to thwart independence at the last minute, some kind of precursor to UDI. When I didn’t discover anything like this, I turned to the question of what the absence of concerted resistance to decolonization actually told us about white society on the Copperbelt.

Labor and strife at Mufulira Mine

The lack of resistance to decolonization was not because whites on the Copperbelt were generally a laid-back or easy-going bunch. Their affluence and privileged position rested on collective action, a willingness to engage in often bruising encounters with their white employers. Strikes in the 1940s and 1950s had won huge wage increases and a de facto color bar for well-paid skilled work, as the white mineworkers’ union imposed a closed shop on the mines: you had to be in the union to get a job, and the union only accepted white members. Shortly before Zambian independence there were a series of wildcat strikes, including one of the longest dispute’s in the region’s history at Mufulira Mine, then the world’s largest underground copper mine. Yet these disputes had little to do with the rapidly changing political situation.

Managers at Mufulira wanted to introduce scientific management techniques to get a better idea of how much work was being done and to adjust wage rates accordingly. In early 1963, a new form was issued to white underground workers requiring them to detail how long they spent on each job during their shift. Most refused point-blank to do this—many having experienced scientific management elsewhere in the world—and triggered a dispute that shut the mine for three months.

Filling in a form might seem like an absurdly trivial issue, especially given the magnitude of unfolding political events, but it was taken seriously as it threatened the root of the racialized privileges of white mineworkers: the workplace. Here lay the root of white mineworkers’ indifference. White mineworkers’ continued receipt of these benefits was dependent on their position in the workplace and not on the colonial state. High wages, comfortable housing, subsidized healthcare and leisure activities were all provided by the mining companies.

White mineworkers could, quite literally, afford to be unconcerned about the emergence of African nationalism, confident that looming political changes would not greatly change their lives, which it did not. Moreover, few of them intended to stay on the Copperbelt anyway, regardless of the political situation. If they didn’t like it, they could simply up and leave.

Indifferent attitudes to African nationalism were rooted in mobility and the workplace as the source of racialized privilege. It did not reflect a progressive stance, or because these white workers were not racist. Racism operated in a different way in this context. Many whites were indifferent towards Africans, and indifference can be callous or cruel. White mineworkers were not particularly interested in Africans, their lives, experiences or interests. They simply did not care, and generally thought that the wages and working conditions of the men who worked beside them every day were none of their business.

Further Reading