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Comparing the Copperbelt: Political Culture and Knowledge Production in Central Africa

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - ComparingCopperbelt (Comparing the Copperbelt: Political Culture and Knowledge Production in Central Africa)

Reporting period: 2019-07-01 to 2020-12-31

This project provides the first comparative historical analysis – local, national and transnational – of the Central African copperbelt. This globally strategic mineral region is central to the history of two nation-states (Zambia and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as well as wider debates about the role of mineral wealth in development.

First, it examines the copperbelt as a single region divided by a (post-)colonial border, across which flowed minerals, peoples, and ideas about the relationship between them. Political economy created the circumstances in which distinct political cultures of mining communities developed, but this also involved a process of imagination, drawing on ‘modern’ notions such as national development, but also morally framed ideas about the societies and land from which minerals are extracted. The project explains the relationship between minerals and African polities, economies, societies and ideas.

Second, it analyses how ‘top-down’ knowledge production processes of Anglo-American and Belgian academies shaped understanding of these societies. Explaining how social scientists imagined and constructed copperbelt society enables a new understanding of the relationship between mining societies and academic knowledge production.

Third, it explores the interaction between these intellectual constructions and the copperbelt’s political culture, exploring the interchange between academic and popular perceptions. The project hypothesises and seeks to demonstrate that understanding of this region is the result of a long unequal interaction of definition and determination between western observers and African participants that has only a partial relationship to the reality of mineral extraction, filtered as it has been through successive sedimentations of imagining and representation laid down over nearly a century of urban life in central Africa.
Research activities:

Research activities have been carried out in the UK, Belgium, Zambia and the DRC, continuing the utilisation of archives known to the PI and leading to the identification of valuable new sources for our research, particularly in our two research countries. The project team has carried out extensive fieldwork surveys and oral history interviews in Zambia and the DRC.


The project’s two major outputs are: a monograph by the PI, 'Living for the City: Social Change and Knowledge Production in the Central African Copperbelt', to be published by CUP in late 21; and edited book, 'Across the Copperbelt: Urban & Social Change in Central Africa’s Borderland Communities', edited by Miles Larmer, Enid Guene, Benoît Henriet, Iva Peša and Rachel Taylor, to be published by James Currey in Jun 21. Both will be available Open Access.

Five peer-reviewed journal articles (Open Access) by the PI and RAs have been published:

Miles Larmer:
• 'Nation-making at the border: Zambian diplomacy in the Democratic Republic of Congo', Comparative Studies in Society and History, Jan 19
• 'Permanent Precarity: Capital and Labour in the Central African Copperbelt', Labor History, Mar 17

Iva Peša:
• 'Between waste and profit: Environmental values on the Central African Copperbelt', Extractive Industries and Society, Aug 20
• 'Mining, Waste and Environmental Thought on the Central African Copperbelt, 1950–2000', Environment and History, May 20
• 'Crops and Copper: Agriculture and Urbanism on the Central African Copperbelt, 1950–2000', Journal of Southern African Studies, Apr 20

Articles by Enid Guene and Benoit Henriet are currently under review with leading history and African studies journals, with further articles due to be submitted in early 2021.

Dissemination activities:

The project has organised nine Seminar/Workshops in which RAs have discussed their research findings alongside world-leading experts in their fields to informed academic audiences. The project, which is being carried out in close cooperation with universities and academics in Zambia and the DRC, has also created opportunities for Zambian and Congolese researchers to share their research with fellow researchers.

'Comparing Africa's Copperbelt' (Uppsala, Sweden, Dec 16) – with ERC-funded WorkInMining project and Nordic Africa Institute.
'Urban Spirituality in Central and Southern Africa' (Oxford, Jun 17)
‘Mining and Environmental Change in African History’ (Oxford, Nov 17)
'Knowledge Production in (Post) Colonial Congo' seminar/panel at the Congo Research Network 2018 Conference (Oxford, Apr 18)
‘Knowledge production in colonial and post-colonial history' (Oxford, Nov 18)
‘Cultural Production in Africa's Extractive Communities' (Oxford, May 19)
‘Comparing the Copperbelt: Political culture and knowledge production in Central Africa’ Workshop (Kitwe, Zambia, Jul 18) - with University of Zambia, Copperbelt University (Zambia) and University of Lubumbashi.
'Extractive Industries and the Environment: Production, Pollution and Protest from a Global and Historical Perspective' Workshop (Oxford, Dec 19)
'Comparaison de la ‘copperbelt’: société, écologie et culture dans les communautés minières d’Afrique centrale' Workshop (Lubumbashi, DRC, Jul 19) - with University of Lubumbashi.

The project has convened four panels at major international conferences: ECAS 2017 (Basel, Jun 17) - ‘Political Cultures in the Central African Copperbelt’, ESSHC (Belfast, Apr 18) - 'Urbanism in Central Africa', ECAS 2019 Conference (Edinburgh, Jun 19) – ‘What remains of labour: the changing and unchanging working realms of African societies’, and ASA-US (Boston, Nov 19) - 'Being and Belonging on the Central African Copperbelt'.

Researchers have given papers at 25 African history and subject specific conferences/seminars in Europe and the USA including ASA-UK 2016 (Cambridge, Sep 16), ASA-UK 2018 (Birmingham, Sep 18), TRAMIN 2018 (Chambery, France, Oct 18), ASA-US (Atlanta, USA, Nov 18), ASEH (Columbus, USA, Apr 19), ECAS 2019 (Edinburgh, Jun 2019), SAHS 27th Biennial Conference (Grahamstown, SA, Jun 19), ELHN Conference (Amsterdam, Netherlands, Sep 19), as well as at African History seminar series in Birmingham, Cambridge and Edinburgh. The PI has presented papers at the University of Lubumbashi (Jan and Feb 18), the Southern African Institute of Research and Policy (SAIPAR) in Lusaka, Zambia (Jul 17), and at Copperbelt University (CBU), Zambia (Jul 17 and Jul 19).

The project website and Copperbelt Research Network has enabled the dissemination of research findings through a series of blogposts by both our researchers and fellow researchers in cognate areas. 42 posts have been uploaded since the start of the project.
During the remaining part of the project, the PI and RAs will finish writing up their research and submitting articles.

A final conference is planned in Oxford in Jun 21 involving speakers from Zambia and the DRC amongst others. Project members will continue to give papers at subject-specific conferences during the final period e.g. ESEH (Bristol, Jul 21), some of which may (in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic) be moved online or cancelled.

It has regrettably not been possible to carry out additional dissemination or research activities in the project region due to the Covid-19 pandemic and travel restrictions. This is not however expected to significantly affect the project results, as all substantive research was completed by the start of 20.
An image of oral history interviews in Mufulira, Zambia