Module Twenty, Activity Three

Culture, Society, and Production in Southern Africa

As a region, the peoples, cultures and societies of southern Africa share some communalities. However, just as there is geographical and environmental diversity within southern Africa, so too is there social and cultural diversity within the region. Indeed, the social and cultural diversity can be explained, in part, by the geographic diversity of the region. For example, in the semi-arid and desert areas of southern Africa, the social organization and cultural practices of the people who live in these areas are quite different from the organization and practices of people who have lived in the well-watered coastal plains on the east coast of the region. Can you think of some geographical and environmental reasons for these social and cultural differences?

History is also important to understanding social and cultural diversity within southern Africa. For the past ten to twenty thousand years the southern region of Africa has been home to nomadic hunter and gatherer societies that you learned about in Module Nine: African Economics. Because they were nomadic, these societies never developed a centralized system of government [Module Ten: African Government and Politics]. However, the Khoi-San peoples were very skilled hunters and had a very sophisticated understanding of the plant and animal life of the region.

Approximately two thousand years ago, new peoples began to move into southern Africa from areas in the north. As you learned in Module Seven A: African History Until 1500 C.E., these migrations originated in the area known today as central Africa. The migrations are known as either the Niger-Congo or Bantu migrations because of fact that these migratory groups spoke languages associated with the Niger-Congo language family (see below). These migrants brought with them two very important skills that impacted social organization and cultural practices in the region. First, the Niger-Congo migrants were agriculturalists—they domesticated and herded animals (sheep, goats, cattle) and grew crops (millet, sorghum, cassava). Secondly, the new-comers had the skill to mine, smelt and make tools out of iron and other locally found minerals.

Map Thirteen: Kongo-Niger Migrations
Kongo-Niger Migrations

Unlike the Khoi-San peoples, who lived in small migratory groups, the Niger-Congo peoples lived a more settled existence made necessary by agricultural activities, such as growing crops. Using tools and weapons manufactured from iron and other metals found in the region, the Niger-Congo peoples established themselves in settled communities, some of which over years developed into centralized and powerful kingdoms. Map Fourteen: Pre-colonial Kingdoms of Southern Africa identifies some of these kingdoms, which you will study in more detail in later modules.

Look carefully at this map. Are the kingdoms evenly distributed throughout the region? Are there areas in the region in which there are no centralized kingdoms? Based on what you have already learned in this module, can you suggest why no large centralized kingdoms developed in these areas?

Beginning in 1652, there was a new migration of people into the region, and this migration, just like the migration of the Niger-Congo peoples, had a tremendous impact on the history of the region. This year witnessed the arrival of the first Europeans in southern Africa and the beginning of an era of nearly 350 years of European control and domination in South Africa. The first European settlers in the region were the Dutch, they were followed by the British, Portuguese (Angola and Mozambique) and the Germans (Namibia). In addition to bringing much suffering and exploitation, the European presence in region resulted in increased cultural and social diversity.

Map Fourteen: Pre-colonial Kingdoms of Southern Africa

Pre-colonial Kingdoms of Southern Africa

Language diversity in Southern Africa

There is significant language diversity in southern Africa. For example in Zambia, a country of 10 million people, there are 70 distinct languages of which six are official languages. South Africa, the largest country in the region, has 11 official languages.

While there are many different languages spoken in the region, all of these languages belong to one of three language families. Languages that share many of the same words and have a similar structure and grammar are said to belong to the same language family. For example, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese belong to the Romance language family.

As indicated on Map Fifteen: Major Languages of Southern Africa, the three language families represented in southern Africa are Khoisan, Niger-Congo, and Indo-European. Of these three families, Khoisan is the smallest in that it spoken by less than one million people. The Niger-Congo family is the largest family group in southern Africa. Indeed, it is one of the largest language families in all of Africa. The Niger-Congo languages are popularly known as Bantu languages because Bantu is the common word in all the Niger-Congo language for “person” or “human being.” (The plural form is Muntu.)

In South Africa, however, Bantu is no longer widely used because of the way that European settlers used the word. During the colonial era, many settlers refused to recognize Africans as being individuals in their own right and often addressed adult men and women simply as “Bantu.” For example, if a settler wanted to address an African man or woman they would simple say “Bantu come here.” You can imagine how insulting and humiliating it was to be addressed in this manner. Until several decades ago, a similar situation existed in the U.S. Adult African-American men were often addressed as “boy,” and African American women as “girl.”

The third language family present in southern Africa is the Indo-European family. Interestingly, this large language group includes both European colonial languages spoken in southern Africa English (Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe) Portuguese ( Mozambique), German (Namibia) and south Asian languages such as Urdu, Hindi, and Gujarati. These last three languages are spoken by immigrants from India who were brought to South Africa more than 100 years ago as indentured servants to work on sugar-cane plantations. We will learn more about the Asians in South Africa in the next section.

One of the most interesting languages in southern Africa is an Indo-European language which is not spoken in either Europe or Asia, but only in Africa! Afrikaans is a language that was developed over the past 300 years by both the Dutch settlers and by the descendants of slaves that they brought to South Africa from Malaysia and Indonesia in the 17th and 18th centuries. Afrikaans is similar to the Dutch language, but it borrowed heavily from Malay (original language of imported slaves) and from the Niger-Congo languages of the indigenous African people.

Map Fifteen: Major Languages of Southern Africa

Major Languages of Southern Africa

Religious diversity in Southern Africa

Like most other regions in Africa, there is great religious diversity in southern Africa. Module Fourteen: Religion in Africa detailed the rich religious traditions of Africa. Take a careful look at Map Sixteen Religions of Southern Africa. You will note that indigenous religions and Christianity are the largest religions in the region. However, Islam is present in region, particularly in Mozambique and South Africa. Hinduism and Judaism are also present in the region, primarily in South Africa.

There is also great diversity within religions as practiced in southern Africa. This is particularly true of Christianity. In addition to Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and many Protestant denominations, southern Africa is home to many independent Christian groups that you learned about in Module Fourteen. Beginning more than 200 years ago, Christianity was brought to southern Africa by European and North American missionaries. While many southern Africans converted to Christianity, missionaries were not always generous in the way they treated African converts. Instead, reflecting the racist beliefs of the settler population, many missionaries did not treat Africans as equals and held quite negative opinions of African cultural beliefs and practices. As a consequence, some southern African Christians decided to break away from mission churches and formed their own independent churches where they would be in control and in which they could incorporate indigenous cultural practices. Over the past 50 years, independent Christian churches have been the fastest growing religions in the southern African region.

Map Sixteen: Religions of Southern Africa

Religions of Southern Africa

Mosque, Durban South Africa

Mosque, Durban South Africa Largest mosque in the world south of the Equator

Leaders of Independent Christian Church, Zimbabwe

Leaders of “Independent” Christian Church, Zimbabwe

One of the most enduring (long-lasting) stereotypes about Africa is that vast majority of Africans live in rural villages or homesteads. While this representation is correct for some African countries and regions, urban growth—urbanization—is increasing throughout Africa. This is particularly true for the southern region of Africa. Like elsewhere in the world, cities in the region developed to support economic production or as centers of governments.Rural-urban diversity in Southern Africa

Take a careful look at Map Seventeen: Major Cities in Southern Africa.Where are the major urban areas in the region? Note that the major coastal cities in the region—Luanda, Lobito (Angola) Maputo (Mozambique), Durban and Cape Town (South Africa), are also the major ports in the region. These ports facilitate the imports and exports for the entire region. The largest cities in the interior were developed either as government administrative centers: Lusaka (Zambia), Harare (Zimbabwe), Blantyre (Malawi), Gaborone (Botswana) Pretoria (South Africa); or they developed as mining or agricultural centers, Ndola and Kitwe (Zambia), Johannesburg (South Africa) and Bulawayo (Zimbabwe).

However in spite of urbanization, more than half of the people in the southern African region continue to live in rural areas. There are, of course, as in the United States, considerable differences between rural and urban life. One of the biggest differences is in the way people make a living. The vast majority of rural dwellers are engaged in agricultural production, as small-scale subsistence farmers, commercial farmers, or as farm laborers. In urban areas, on the other hand, people are engaged in a wide variety of economic activities, working in commerce, manufacturing, or in many different types of services. In the rural areas of southern Africa, most people live in villages or on isolated homesteads. Whereas in the urban areas, people live in much more densely populated conditions in either very crowded urban settlements or in suburban areas, which are similar to those we find in U.S. or European suburbs.

Given what you already have learned about southern Africa, you will not be surprised to learn that there is a great disparity in rural and urban living conditions between areas that were reserved for European settlers and the areas set aside for the indigenous African populations. Early in the 20th century, the South African and Zimbabwe settler governments took away the vast majority of the good farmland and reserved it exclusively for European ownership. The various African ethnic groups were removed to “tribal trust lands” or “reservations” where the land was less fertile and rainfall less reliable than in the areas reserved for European farmers. By the middle of the century, most of the “tribal trust lands” were very over-crowded and experienced severe soil erosion as the inhabitants attempted to eke out a living.

The situation for Africans in urban areas was not better. European settlers, as much as possible, wanted to keep urban areas for Europeans, but they desperately needed Africans to work in the growing urban industries. All over southern Africa, colonialists dealt with this dilemma by setting aside residential areas for Africans that were normally quite a distance from European residential areas. These African residential areas are known as “townships.” Do you think that the amenities (that is housing, transportation, schools, health-care, utilities) provided in the African townships were equal to the amenities provided in the European urban areas? Absolutely not! Housing was very inadequate, educational and health services were minimal, and very few families had access to running water and electricity.

Have you heard of Soweto? Soweto, really an acronym for South West Township, with a population of over one million people, is the largest of the many “townships” in southern Africa. It is located to the south west of Johannesburg, South Africa.

Every country in the region experienced a rapid increase in urbanization immediately after achieving political independence. This was particularly true in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Can you think why rural dwellers were anxious to move to the urban areas after independence? You’re right, it has to do with the conditions in which they lived in the rural areas. By the end of the 20th century, the rural “tribal trust lands” were very over-crowded and the vast majority of their occupants could not make a living. Consequently, with the coming of independence when they were no longer forced to remain in the rural areas, millions of rural dwellers moved into urban areas to seek a better life for themselves and their families.

However, the cities in southern Africa do not have the infrastructure to deal with the great influx of rural migrants. As a result, many of the migrants have no place to live, and they are forced to build shelters wherever they can find open space. In almost all cities in the region, there are a number of these informal settlements comprised of a multitude of self-constructed shelters made of any materials that the migrants can obtain for themselves.

Click on each photograph to view a larger image.

Harare, Zimbabwe
Harare, Zimbabwe
Africa Focus

Johannesburg, South Africa
Johannesburg, South Africa
Africa Focus

Durban, South Africa
Durban, South Africa
John Metzler

Soweto, South Africa
Soweto, South Africa
Africa Focus

Informal Settlement, Durban
Informal settlement, Durban, South Africa

Dave Wiley

Informal Settlement, Durban 2
Informal settlement, Durban, South Africa

Dave Wiley

Improved Informal Settlement, Durban
“Improved” informal settlement
Durban, South Africa
Dave Wiley


Private Home, Cape Town
Private home in formerly European area of Cape Town

Apartment Complex, Cape Town
Apartment complex, Cape Town

Rural Village, Botswana
Rural village, Botswana
Africa Focus

Rural Scene, Botswana
Rural scene, Botswana
Africa Focus

Rural Village, Zambia
Rural village, Zambia
Africa Focus

Map Seventeen: Major Cities of Southern Africa

Major Cities of Southern Africa

Table Two: Urbanization in Southern Africa

Urbanization in Southern Africa Table

One of the most common stereotypes that North Americans and Europeans have of Africa is that the vast majority of Africans live in small villages in rural areas. While it is true that between 60 and 70 percent of Africans live in rural areas, Africa has a rich tradition of urban living. This is particularly true in southern Africa.Case-study: Zambia’s Copperbelt

If you were lucky enough to visit the Copperbelt in the country of Zambia, you could visit cities that look like cities in parts of North America. Parts of these cities have bright and shiny new buildings, while other parts have older and sometime dilapidated buildings. These cities include (in order of size) Kitwe, Ndola, Luanshya, Mufulira, and Chingola. Just as in other areas of the world, including North America, the people who live in these cities of the Copperbelt include new-comers, individuals and families who have recently moved to the Copperbelt, along with people and families who have lived in the Copperbelt for three or four generations.

According to the information provided in Table Two, forty percent of Zambians live in cities. Of these forty percent, approximately half live in the cities of the Copperbelt. Twenty years ago, an even higher percent of Zambia’s population lived in urban areas—nearly 60% of the population. That is, in 1980 one in three Zambians lived in the urban centers on the Copperbelt. What caused the rise and then decline of urban population in Zambia? To answer this question, we have to explore the history and social dynamics of the Copperbelt.

Why is this region of Zambia referred to as the Copperbelt? That is correct, this area of Zambia was for most of the 20th century one of the leading copper producing regions in the entire world. Although the Lamba people, who were the indigenous inhabitants of this region, had mined copper in small amounts for hundreds of years, it was not until the 1920s that copper was mined by large commercial companies. Between the 1920s and 1964, when Zambia won its political independence, the copper industry in Zambia was controlled by two large foreign owned companies—the Anglo-American Corporation and the Roan Select Trust. You may remember from Module Nine: African Economies how these companies were able to gain control of the copper industry in Zambia.

This story begins in the 1880s and 1890s before colonialism was established in Northern Rhodesia (as Zambia was known before independence). Based on reports of mineral riches in this area of southern Africa, several European powers were interested in gaining control of the area inhabited by the Lamba peoples. Belgium and Britain showed particular interest. However, these European powers were not the only outsiders with interest in this area. In the 19th century, this area had been nearly devastated by slave raiders from the east coast of Africa. In fact, many years of slave raiding resulted in great suffering and significantly weakened the Lamba chieftainships.

Representatives of Belgian and British colonial interest took advantage of the social disintegration and political weakness caused by the slave raiding. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, they approached Lamba chiefs asking them to sign treaties that would give the Europeans control over the mineral resources in the region. In return, the Lamba chiefs were promised assistance in ending the devastating slave raids. Based on what we currently know about the activities of the treaty-makers, it is clear that the Lamba chiefs did not understand the intentions of the European treaty makers. While these chiefs clearly wanted peace and stability, there is no way they could have understood the true intent of the would-be colonialists. Based on these dubious treaties, the copper-rich Lamba area was divided between the British in the south in what became Northern Rhodesia, and the Belgians in the north in what became known as the Congo Free State.

Interestingly, in the case of both Northern Rhodesia and the Congo Free State, the colonial treaty-makers did not represent the governments of Belgium or of Britain, but private companies that were given permission to represent their respective countries. As you will remember, Northern Rhodesia (along with Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland) was colonized by the British South African Company which was controlled by Cecil Rhodes. In the case of the so-called Congo Free State, between 1885 and 1908, it was directly ruled by agents of King Leopold II and not by the government of Belgium. During this 23 year period, the entire colony of the Congo, a territory as large of the U.S. east of the Mississippi River, was considered to be “owned” by one man—King Leopold II.

Based on their treaty claims, the British South African Company claimed the rights to all minerals found in Northern Rhodesia, including the huge copper deposits found on the Copperbelt. It was not until the 1920s that large-scale copper production began in Northern Rhodesia. By this time, the Company had handed control of the colony over to the British government, but it had retained its claim to mineral rights, which it in turn sold to the Anglo-American Corporation and Roan Select Trust.

City of Kitwe, circa 1970
City of Kitwe, circa 1970
City of Ndola, circa 1990
City of Ndola, circa 1990
CopperMine, Zambia
Copper Mine, Zambia
Copyright Africa Focus, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Production of Copper:

In the 1920s, there were a number of large multinational companies interested in taking advantage of the copper deposits found in Northern Rhodesia and the Congo. At this time ,there was a huge demand for copper in North America and in Europe stimulated primarily by the expansion of electricity supplied for the first time to many homes as well as to factories.

What do you think the multinational companies interested in copper needed in order to take advantage of the rich copper deposits in this area?

Ownership of minerals: Before a company can mine minerals, the company has to have the right to mine the minerals. This raises the interesting question of who owns subterranean minerals—that is minerals that are found deep below the earth’s surface in bands of rocks that stretch over many square kilometers? In many countries, including the U.S. , these minerals belong to all citizens who are represented by their government. The government then sells the rights to the minerals to the company that submits the highest bid. In addition to paying for mineral rights, the mining companies are required to pay royalties (a special tax) to the government on profits made through the sale of the minerals.

In the case of the copper in Northern Rhodesia, the British South African Company claimed the right to ownership of all subterranean minerals found on the Copperbelt based on the treaties signed with Lamba chiefs in the late 1880s. These treaties were questionable in that it is clear that the chiefs who signed the treaties did not realize that by signing the treaties they were giving up all rights to minerals found in their area. Moreover, the Company did not pay any money to the Lamba people for their claim to mineral rights. Consequently, the British South Africa Company claimed both the right to sell mineral rights to all copper mined in Northern Rhodesia and the right to receive royalties on mined copper! Tragically, the British colonial government accepted this argument. Consequently, indigenous peoples of Zambia did not receive any compensation for the millions of tons of copper produced in Northern Rhodesia between the 1920s and 1964 when Zambia became independent. Economic historians who study Zambia indicate that the Roan Select Trust and Anglo American Corporation made billions of dollars of profit from the sale of copper during these years. Only a small portion of this profit remained in Northern Rhodesia, nearly 100 percent of the profits flowed to Europe, North America and South Africa. Moreover, since royalties were paid to the British South Africa Company, there was very little tax money from copper that stayed in Northern Rhodesia to assist the indigenous people or to develop the countries social and economic infrastructure.

Electric Power: Like most minerals, copper ore is embedded in other rocks. To get to the copper the surrounding rocks have to be mined. Miners are pleased when ten percent of the rock that they mine contains copper ore. This means that many, many tons of rock has to be mined in order to extract meaningful amounts of copper. The volume of mined material in a copper mine is so large that it makes it impossible to export the mineral ore to far away places.

What does mean? Where is Zambia located in Africa? That’s correct, Zambia is a land-locked country in southern Africa. Note how far Zambia is from an ocean. The copperbelt is located an almost equal distance from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which are more than 1,000 kilometers away. This means that mineral ore has to be transported by road or rail over very long distances and across national borders. Consequently, to transportation of thousands of tons of ore, of which only ten percent was copper was just too expensive. However, there was an alternative. Copper could be produced in Northern Rhodesia. The ore could be smelted and processed into copper wire and copper bars that, while heavy, would be much less expensive to export.

However, the production of copper takes a tremendous amount of electricity. Fortunately, for the copper industry, while the southern African region does not have petroleum, the region is blessed with significant amounts of coal and hydro-electric potential. Remember our discussion of the building of the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River? The primary purpose of this dam was to provide electricity for the copper mines of Northern Rhodesia. Even earlier, rich coal deposits were discovered and mined at Hwange in Southern Rhodesia only 700 kilometers from the Copperbelt.

With the development of hydro-electricity and coal mines in the region, the copper industry was provided with the electricity it needed to produce copper in northern Rhodesia.

Transportation: Copper was produced in Zambia and the Congo, not to be used in local industry, but to export to Europe and North America. As you know, Zambia is a land–locked country. Moreover in 1900, there were no all-weather roads, nor were there any railroads that linked the copperbelt to an ocean port where minerals could be exported. Since railroads are much more efficient for the movement of heavy goods and easier to maintain than roads, the decision was made to link the copperbelt to the ocean via railroads.

Cecil Rhodes and his British South African Company were the first to build a railroad that linked the Copperbelt with a seaport. In 1909, the Rhodesian Railroad, as it was known reached the Copperbelt. Look carefully at Map Eighteen: Railways in Southern Africa. Note the great distance between the Copperbelt and Capetown, the nearest access to the sea via the Rhodesian Railways, which connected to the South African Railways in South Africa. It was not until 1931 with the completion of the Benguela railroad that linked the Copperbelt with the Atlantic Ocean at Lobito Bay in Angola that there was a alternative route for the export of copper. This route was less than half the distance to Cape Town! However, since this railroad also carried copper from the Congolese copperbelt, much of the Zambian copper continued to be exported through South Africa. In 1977, a third rail alternative was opened with the completion of the Tanzam Railway that linked Zambia with the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

Map Eighteen: Railways of Southern Africa

Railways of Southern Africa

Labor: Perhaps more than any other factor, other than the availability of copper itself, the new industry was dependent on labor. Without workers for the mines and the foundries where the copper was processed, there would have been no copper industry in Northern Rhodesia.

The copper industry was dependent on two types of workers: skilled workers including engineers, geologists, business managers, and machinists, and unskilled workers—the multitude of laborers who did the dirty, heavy, and dangerous work associated with mining.

At the beginning of the mining era in the 1920s and 1930s, the copper companies had to recruit most of the engineers and other skilled workers from Europe and South Africa, since very few Zambians had these skills. To attract Europeans to come to the Copperbelt, the mining companies had to offer salaries that were considerably higher than they could earn in Europe or South Africa. Moreover, the mining companies had to offer attractive fringe benefits such as good housing, health care, and schools for the children of the skilled miners. Just as importantly, the European skilled miners demanded job security. This meant that they wanted a guarantee that African workers would not be offered the opportunities to gain the skills that they had. The skilled European miners did not want to face competition from indigenous workers. Unfortunately, the mining companies with the support of the colonial government instituted policies and laws that kept African workers from gaining skilled positions within the industry for many years.

Throughout the first three decades of the mining industry, the vast majority of the workers were unskilled workers who were recruited within Northern Rhodesia or in the neighboring country of Nyasaland (Malawi). The mining companies, whose primary concern was making profits, did not want to have to attract unskilled workers with high salaries and good benefits such as descent housing, health care and education such as they had to provide for their skilled European workers. Under conditions that were not attractive to potential unskilled workers, how did the mining companies recruit unskilled workers to work in the nines?

You may remember the answer to this question from Module Nine: African Economies. The copper companies were dependent on the colonial government of Northern Rhodesia to help them “recruit” unskilled workers. Early in the colonial era, the colonial government instituted a series of taxes on the African population. The most common of these taxes were the poll tax and the hut tax. The poll tax was a set tax that was levied on every adult male in a given region. The hut tax, was a set tax levied on each house in a given region. For the poll tax, every male was required to pay the set tax. For the hut tax, families were required to pay a set tax on each house in their compound. In both cases, individuals were required to pay their assessed tax in the British pound sterling. These taxes were levied without any consultation with the indigenous populations of Northern Rhodesia; this was clearly a situation of taxation without representation! Remember that taxation without representation was one of the reasons for the American Revolution.

To be able to pay the assessed taxes, the local populations of Northern Rhodesia had limited choices. A few individuals were able to raise their tax money through the sale of goods that they produced. However, since most Africans in Northern Rhodesia at this time were subsistence farmers, this was not a viable option for most Africans, particularly for those who lived far from the urban areas making it difficult for them to sell any agricultural surplus that they produced. The only realistic option for most was to sell their labor. This, of course, is exactly what the colonial governments and their mining company allies wanted. The taxes were designed to force men to leave their homes to work in the newly opened mines of the copperbelt.

Between the late 1920s and World War II (1939-1945), tens of thousands of men left their rural homes to work in the mines. During this period, the average length of time that a miner spent away from home was between six months and two years. These relatively short stays caused great harm in the rural areas as women and children were forced to take over the economic roles and responsibilities of the absent men in addition to continuing to do the work that they traditionally were responsible for.

At first, the mining companies were pleased with the relatively short periods of time that the recruits spent working at the mines. Workers who did not move permanently to the mining areas could leave their families in their home areas and mining companies would not be responsible for the great expense of providing housing for families, schools for children of the miners and adequate health care for the entire family. Moreover, the companies tried to justify the very poor wages they paid unskilled African workers, arguing that they did not have pay higher wages since the rural families produced all that they needed on their village farms.

However as time passed, African men recruited to the mines began to stay for longer periods of time. This was in part in response to the great distance that they had to travel between their homes and the Copperbelt, and the fact that more men began to bring their wives and families with them, even though this was, until World War II, illegal.

Map Nineteen: Labor Migration in Colonial Zambia (Northern Rhodesia)

Labor Migrations in Colonial Zambia

World War II brought a huge change to the copper industry in the Copperbelt. The war dramatically increased the demand copper, which was essential to the war effort. In order to meet the increased demand for copper, the mining companies were forced to modernize their mines. This meant that new technology was installed to help increase productivity in the mines. The new technology necessitated a dramatic change in labor needs. Unskilled work was nearly eliminated. The new technologies required a semi-skilled workforce. The mining companies were forced to change their labor policy in meet the need for a semi-skilled workforce. Such a workforce had to be trained and educated with the requisite skills. The companies were only willing to invest in training if the workforce was more permanent. They could not afford to train workers who would only work for the mines for a couple of years.

However, a more permanent workforce required an equally dramatic change in the amenities offered to workers by the companies. In place of dormitory style housing for single men, housing had to be provided for the families who accompanied their more permanently employed husbands and fathers. Schools had to be provided for the children of miners, clinics and hospitals were built for the growing African urban population. By 1950, the Copperbelt cities of Kitwe and Ndola, which were mere towns twenty years before, were among the largest and most modern cities in the region.

Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt

Today’s urban dwellers on the Copperbelt are likely to be third or fourth generation urbanites. This means that their grandparents as well as their parents are likely to have spent most of their lives living in urban areas. For these urban dwellers, life in rural Zambia is just as strange as life in rural Nebraska would be for a person from Chicago.

However, 70 years ago urban life was brand new for most Zambians who lived in the new urban areas of the Copperbelt. The miners recruited from rural areas of Northern Rhodesia and neighboring Nyasaland (Malawi) were initially forced to live in very crowded sub-standard housing with other miners, many of whom were not from their home villages and may not have spoken their same language. Life in the urban areas was very much different from life in the rural areas from where the miner originated. Here are some important characteristics of urban life on the Copperbelt.

  • Language: Miners were recruited from all over Northern Rhodesia and from neighboring countries—mostly from neighboring Nyasaland (Malawi) to the east of Zambia. (See Map Nineteen) These miners spoke as many as 20 different languages. As you can image, this multilingualism could cause problems of communication between miners.How was this problem solved? A solution came gradually, but naturally. Over the decades, one of the languages, chiBemba, spoken by the miners became the lingua franca (do you know what this means?) of the whole Copperbelt. While miners maintained their own language that they used when communicating with their own family, they used Bemba as the language of communication between groups. ChiBemba, or Bemba for short, and not ChiLamba, the language of the people indigenous to the Copperbelt region, became the lingua franca because a large percentage of the miners came from the northern province of Zambia, a region where Bemba is the predominant language. Indeed by 1960, the immigrants from northern Zambia greatly out numbered the indigenous population. Today, Bemba is spoken by nearly everyone on the Copperbelt.
  • Gender: You will remember that prior to World War II when the copper industry needed a more stable workforce, African workers, unlike European mine employees, were discouraged from bringing their wives and families to the Copperbelt. Indeed, up until the late 1930s it was illegal for women without special permission to be in the urban areas of the Copperbelt. Consequently, life was very different for urban workers from what they were used to in the rural areas. Being absent from wives and children for long periods caused great hardships for both the new urban males and for their wives and families in the rural areas. A specific consequence of the policy not to allow women and families in the urban areas was the growth of prostitution in cities and mining compounds.Even after women were encouraged to join their husbands on the Copperbelt in the post-World War II era, life was not easy for women. In rural areas, women had always been centrally involved in the production of food for their families. However in the urban areas, wage employment in the mines and commerce was reserved for men. Even in the area of domestic work, Europeans preferred to hire men to work as cooks, cleaners, and gardeners. The only employment opportunities for women were in education and health care. However, since very few African women were given the opportunity to go to school, almost no women prior to 1960 qualified to study to be nurses or teachers. Some women, through their own initiative, were able to develop their own small businesses. Three of the most popular mini-business endeavors undertaken by women were small scale gardeners—growing and selling vegetables; charcoal producer—charcoal was the main cooking fuel in urban areas; beer brewing—brewing and selling traditional beer.
  • Recreation: In order to recruit European workers to the Copperbelt, the copper companies promised recruits good housing, state of the art health care, top notch schools for their children, and excellent recreational facilities. To meet this last commitment, the mining companies spent a great deal of money on developing sports clubs and facilities that equaled those available in South Africa and Europe. These wonderful facilities however, were available only to European employees and their families.Prior to World War II, the mining companies spent almost nothing on providing recreational facilities for African miners. In fact in the early years of the Copperbelt, the only sponsored recreation for African miners were city owned “beer-gardens,” outdoor facilities which sold beer to the miners. These beer gardens were owned by the city-councils who used the money earned from selling beer to provide very limited social services to Africans. Whereas Europeans had extensive social services provided to them free of charge, African miners paid for the little they received through the purchase of beer! In spite of these severe limitations, African miners did not simply sit around and drink beer when they were not working. While their European peers were playing golf on company provided golf courses, many miners developed their own sources of recreation and entertainment. One of the most popular forms of entertainment was provided by dance troupes comprised of miners. Beginning in the 1930s, a rich tradition of urban dance developed. These dances had some similarities to more traditional rural dance forms, but they were also dramatically different. The Kalela dance, one of the most popular new dance forms, directly reflected the urban experience. The dancers dressed in costumes representing many types of urban dweller, including the European mine bosses!After World War II, the mines gradually began to support more recreational opportunities for African workers and their families. In the 1950s, each mine sponsored at least one football (soccer) league. Football became wildly popular in urban Zambia. Saturday afternoon league matches were attended by thousands of boisterous fans. By the 1960s, these Copperbelt football leagues had produced some the very best football teams and players in all of Africa.
  • Religion: By the 1930s when urban migration to the Copperbelt was growing, Christian missionaries were just beginning to move into rural Zambia. As a consequence, most rural Zambians at this time followed their indigenous religious beliefs and practices (See Module Fourteen: Religion in Africa). The urban setting of the Copperbelt provided Christian missionaries with an ideal situation for introducing Christianity. By the time of independence in 1964, the vast majority of Copperbelt residents belonged to one of many different Christian denominations present, including African Independent Churches (See Module Fourteen: Religion in Africa). Indeed, while many Zambian Christians continued to hold to some of their indigenous religious beliefs and practices, the Copperbelt had the highest percentage of Christians of any region in Africa.

The Copperbelt Today: The Copperbelt reached it highest population in the decades immediately after independence in 1964. Copper prices were high and the newly post-independence government of Zambia was committed to using the revenues generated by the export of copper to improve the lives of Zambians and to stimulate economic development. To insure that the profits from the copper exports would remain in Zambia, in 1968 the Zambian government nationalized the copper mines. This meant that they took over controlling ownership (51%) of the mines. This guaranteed that a large share of profits would be used in Zambia instead of being sent out of the country to the headquarters of the multinational corporation.

While revenues from copper were used to develop social (education, health care, housing) and economic (roads, communication, financial) infrastructure throughout the country, the Copperbelt area also benefited from the post-colonial attention of the Zambian government. New primary (elementary)and secondary schools were built on the Copperbelt, as were clinics and hospitals. Money was spent on developing housing projects for working Zambians—housing that included electricity and running water. The presence of these amenities and a growing economy attracted many rural immigrants to the Copperbelt in the 1960s and 1970s.

However, in the late 1980s, the Copperbelt began to experience an economic down-turn that continues into the present. The primary cause for the decline in the fortune of the Copperbelt has been the severe fall in the price of copper on the world market. The end of the war in Vietnam initiated a decline in demand for copper, which in turn led to a decline in the price for copper. The oil crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s delivered a second blow to the Zambian economy. Increased oil prices caused a dramatic increase in the production and transportation costs of exporting copper at the same time that the world recession brought about by the oil crisis reduced the demand for Zambian copper.

Zambia’s economic crisis was further impacted by the restructuring of the world economy away from heavy industries that use copper to new information and computer technology that use little copper. These external factors that conspired against the Zambian economy were assisted by internal political problems in that the Zambian government was unwilling to make necessary hard policy decisions that would be unpopular with many Zambian citizens.

As a consequence of nearly three decades of economic decline the urban areas of the Zambian Copperbelt are much changed from what they were in the early post-independence era. Unemployment is high and the government cannot afford the up-keep of the social and physical infrastructure. As a result the once vibrant and attractive Copperbelt cities are no longer attracting new immigrants and the urban population of Zambia is actually declining.

In spite of these problems, the Zambian Copperbelt challenges the commonly held misconception that Africa is overwhelmingly rural. Most of the more than one million residents of the Copperbelt are third or fourth generation urbanites. Moreover, many of the problems that confront the Copperbelt today are not too different from the issues that confront declining urban areas in the U.S. and other regions of the world.

Map Twenty: Coppertbelt-Zambia

Copperbelt Zambia

Your Turn: Case study of rural society

You have just read a case study of the Zambian Copperbelt. The history and development of this region was greatly influenced by copper. Not all countries in the southern Africa region have a similar history. For example, the countries of Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, and Swaziland, are predominately rural, agricultural based societies and economies.

Economic investigator: You are private investigator, but your job is not investigating the private lives of some seedy characters. Rather, your job is to investigate the economic potential of foreign countries for your clients—large international agricultural companies. Using information available on the web, your current job is to sleuth out the social and economic structure of one of the rural based southern African societies listed above.

Based on the information that you provide, your client will decide if they will make a major investment in the country that you have investigated.

Some of the data that your clients will need to make their decision includes information on:

  • The climate
  • Precipitation, reliability of the rainfall, availability of water for irrigation
  • Soil fertility
  • Major agricultural products of the country
  • Existing transportation network (road and railways) within country and to nearest seaport.
  • Availability of electric power
  • Size of potential workforce
  • Education level of potential workforce
  • Potential health issues facing workforce
  • Political stability

The first thing you need to do is to select the country you want to investigate (Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, and Swaziland). Once you have selected your country, you can begin your web search by going to the Country Overview in Exploring Africa. You should find sufficient information by following the links provided on your country’s page in the Country Overview. However, you can expand you search for information by doing a Google search for information on your country.

Have fun!

Continue this module with Activity Four or select one of the other activities