The re-privatisation of Zambia's copper sector in 1997 marked the end of a paternalistic era in the mine towns of the Copperbelt. From the beginnings of industrial mining under corporate colonialism in the late 1920s to the state-owned company Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) in the 1980s and 1990s, the mines as a place of work and life had resembled a total social institution.
Social control over mineworkers and their families was exercised from the depth of the mine shaft to every corner of the mine house. At the same time, the infrastructures extending from the mines and the economic privileges granted to mineworkers first cemented racial segregation in Northern Rhodesia and later the distance between mineworkers and other parts of the Zambian labour force.
The unbundling 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 burdens" 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 so to say, and places inscribed with nostalgia, relicts of a longed for past.
This process 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 were re-appropriated by the townships' residents.
In this project, I deal with the various ways that people appropriate and use former social welfare buildings in Mpatamatu, a township located on the edges of Muliashi open cast mine. The place carries several marks of neoliberal reform: unemployment, undercapitalisation, vandalism, alcoholism, mineworkers turned into farmers and urban dwellers falling back on rural practices. The bush is about to reconquer what was once taken from it by colonial-corporate industrialisation.
It is in this setting that township residents face ruination and 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 Mpatamatu'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 development 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 re-privatisation.
The fieldwork has produced the following insights about Mpatamatu. First, while the mine operator was omnipresent in the township before re-privatisation, the mining company is almost completely absent from it today. CLM is only discernible through a dilapidated mine clinic and vandalised playground equipment. Also, corporate identity measures which formerly involved the social welfare buildings as platforms are non-existent. 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. Third, remnants of the paternalist tradition cannot only be found in residents' nostalgia but also their religious beliefs. 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, conceiving of the former social buildings as products of an ongoing ruination falls short of acknowledging the possibilities these buildings, despite their run-down character and unclear legal status, offer to the community. Residents have made them useful, e.g. by turning them into houses of prayer, private schools or multi-purpose buildings. Fifth, the buildings under scrutiny exemplify the process of re-appropriating a formerly mineworkers' space by other groups of the labour force, particularly teachers. While they had to fight for access to the township's infrastructure in the past, the abandonment of former social welfare 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 their living environment. Looking at this process through the former social welfare buildings and how people interact with them helps unravel the complex economic and social history of this former mine township.