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

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - ComparingCopperbelt (Comparing the Copperbelt: Political Culture and Knowledge Production in Central Africa)

Reporting period: 2021-01-01 to 2021-09-30

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 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', published by CUP in Aug 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, published by James Currey in Jun 21. Both are available Open Access.

Five peer-reviewed journal articles (Open Access) by the PI and RAs have been published to date:
Miles Larmer, 'Permanent Precarity: Capital and Labour in the Central African Copperbelt', Labor History, Mar 17
Miles Larmer, 'Nation-making at the border: Zambian diplomacy in the Democratic Republic of Congo', Comparative Studies in Society and History, Jan 19
Iva Peša, 'Crops and Copper: Agriculture and Urbanism on the Central African Copperbelt, 1950–2000', Journal of Southern African Studies, Apr 20
Iva Peša, 'Mining, Waste and Environmental Thought on the Central African Copperbelt, 1950–2000', Environment and History, May 20
Iva Peša, 'Between waste and profit: Environmental values on the Central African Copperbelt', Extractive Industries and Society, Aug 20

Two articles are due to be published in late 2021:
Enid Guene, ‘Artistic Movements: Visual Arts and Cross-border Exchange on the Central African Copperbelt’, Journal of Southern African Studies
Stephanie Lämmert, ‘“Let’s hope there are some good girls”. Sugar relationships and feminine respectability in post-independence Zambia’, L’homme

A further three articles are under review or have been accepted for publication:
Benoit Henriet, ‘Making the Post-Colonial University: Authenticité, decoloniality and knowledge production in Lubumbashi, 1971-1981’, Journal of Eastern African Studies
Rachel Taylor, ‘Female Breadwinners? Company Paternalism and Women Workers in Congo / Zaire c.1950-2010’, Women’s History Review
Benoit Henriet, “‘Zaïrois, qui est ton père?’: Syndicalisme et parentés multiples dans la Copperbelt zaïroise, 1970-1980’, Revue d'Histoire Contemporaine de l'Afrique

The project has organised ten Seminars/Workshops/Conferences in which project researchers 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 (full details are available on

The project has convened four panels at major international conferences, including the European Conference on African Studies and the African Studies Association-US. Project researchers have given papers at 26 African history and subject-specific conferences/seminars in Europe and the USA. The PI has presented 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 31 blogposts by both our researchers and fellow researchers in cognate areas.
The research project significantly influenced the field of the history of Central Africa in the mid-to-late twentieth century. It successfully promoted understanding of the two neighbouring copper mining regions of Zambia and DR Congo within a single regional analytical framework, enabling a better understanding of comparable elements of the region’s shared and distinctive histories. It also demonstrated the utility of integrating the history of elite/official and popular knowledge production into the practice of social history more generally.

The project, in developing a more holistic understanding of the social history of the Central African Copperbelt that is reflective of the experience of the communities under study, has given academic and non-academic actors in copperbelt societies (including mine companies, labour unions, environmental groups and other activists) valued access to aspects of their own historical experience that have as yet gone largely undocumented. Our academic partners in the region and many of our interviewees have expressed enthusiasm about the project outputs and are particularly delighted to have Open Access to them.
An image of oral history interviews in Mufulira, Zambia