The everyday politics of labour exploitation is deeply local and situated (Prentice 2012). Unions have therefore long struggled to represent the interests and aspirations of members, when these workers hold substantively disparate identities outside the workplace, including racial and, in several African nations, tribal inequities (Werbner 2018). Labour organisation has often been tied to specific ethnic identities. Brodkin Sacks (1988) describes how the black, female leadership of a hospital workers’ union was contested by management, who favoured white workers to destroy solidarity (for a current parallel, see Durrenberger and Erem 2005:87–100). On the Panama Costa Rica Border, Bourgois (1989) recounted how racially categorised aspirations, patterns of migration and relationships to capital prevented pan-ethnic unionisation. Prentice (2012) observes how the racial ordering of Trinidadian workplaces dampens unionisation and how this is tied to a national order where the advancement of differing ethnic groups is perceived to be mutually exclusive. In contrast, Chari (2004) explores how Gounder management discourages the unionisation of its workforce through narratives linking ethnic solidarity between workers and employers to idealised masculinities and personal social advancement.
Responding to long patterns of racial segregation and tribal classification, several ethnographies of southern Africa explore how and whether trade unions can create a detribalising, nationalist working class (Hickel 2015 & Parpart 1987). Werbner (2018) argues that unions have been able to affect real change in Africa only when they look beyond tribal interests and deploy a national political language. In a critique of this approach, Hickel (2015) argues that unions associated with the African National Conference failed to appeal to Zulu migrants, because of the migrants’ aspirations for post-apartheid South Africa to incorporate values and hierarchies incompatible with urban unionists’ presumptions of an anti-traditional ‘modern’ state. Union activists conceptualised themselves creating a new society, where individuals would be unfettered not only by apartheid but also by tribal and traditional hierarchies, while many Zulu workers desired to use collective action to restore the dignity of Zulu traditional life. Further problematizing cross-ethnic solidarity, Tanikella (2003) describes how attempts to celebrate ethnic differences can obfuscate the power differentials and structural inequalities that disillusion non-ethnic majority members of social movements. Unions (and to some extent, labour academics) that presume a powerful working-class identity, tied to a homogenous class-defined structural position, have therefore struggled with the complexity of identities based upon diversifying workplace experiences (Lazar and Sanchez 2019).
Understanding how intersecting identities shape labour regimes has been key to recent texts that explore political economies through sociality (Bear et al. 2015). Lazar (2018) argues for understanding unions as a kinship structure, where the intimacies of the workplace embody practices of kinning and support a ‘mutuality of being’ (Sahlins 2011). Lazar (2018) claims that unionism is motivated by commensality and sociability, rather than purely rational economic interests. Collective action (strikes, protests and the like) therefore represents a flow from kinship into politics, rather than vice versa, with political action inspired by personal relationships and obligations. Lazar’s (2018) analysis fits nicely with Larmer’s (2007) depiction of Copperbelt mineworkers’ political consciousness, where miners consistently mobilised around perceptions of social justice embedded in their experiences and the demands of their kin, rather than the nationalist project of government or union leaders.
We find much inspiration in the insights of Lazar (2018) and Larmer (2007), while observing that almost all Zambians interact with non-union kinship obligations and aspirations, which they conceptualise through (emic) concepts of tribe. We explore how unionism has long been embedded within and evolved in conjunction with Bemba and Easterner ‘mutualities of being’, communal demands and visions of social justice—which are slightly different from those often held by the Kaonde, Lunda and Luvale. We also explore how union members’ visions of social justice are convolved with political patronage, enabling ethnic entrepreneurship (Kapesa et al. 2015). Conceptualising unionism as a kin-based identity, and as one that interacts with other kinship structures, spurs insights into the varying relationships between unions and the communities they work within. Studies advocating community unionism and social movement unionism bemoan workers’ failure to see beyond the workplace, and there is a tendency to perceive alliances with CSO as the premier evidence that a union is engaged in the politics of its encompassing community (Von Holdt 2002 & Collins 2012). In response, we show how MUZ is embedded in the Copperbelt through economic structures, informal social networks and concepts of personhood and note that this is not the case in the North Western Province. In exploring how trade unions shape and respond to kinships embedded in hierarchies, we argue against seeing formal relationships between unions and CSOs the most significant evidence of union-community engagement. We demonstrate that demands for union-CSO alliances can, on occasion, represent a failure of the union to engage with the intra-community solidarities that generate kin-driven political action.
Zambian tribes are imprecise categories, shaped through colonialism, the independence struggle and the modern political economy, yet almost every Zambian experiences themselves as having at least one tribal identity (Van Binsbergen 1985 & Simpson 2009). Marten and Kula (2008) argue that Zambia’s seventy-two official tribes reflect a codification of pre-colonial linguistic categories and migration patterns. This codification enabled chiefly indirect rule and encouraged temporary migration, through taxation and prohibitions on permanent urban settlement (Pesa 2019). Tribe pushed the cost of the social reproduction of copper extraction onto rural Zambians, while empowering those who guided the concept and resource claims made through it—the precursors of modern ethnic entrepreneurship (van Binsbergen 1994). Missionaries, journalists and anthropologists produced ethnohistories that legitimised tribe as a governance structure and as a component of Zambian identity (Macola 2003). As we show below, struggles against colonialism and then for democracy cemented tribe as an aspect of political and social personhood.
While literature and our own findings stress that tribal norms are constantly shifting, they influence the identity bricolage through which a Zambian shapes their expectations of kin and their concepts of the good life. Tribe has historically manifested through ritual or taboo. Richards (1956), Colson (1958) and Spring (1976) describe differences in the level of emphasis placed on sex, seclusion and domesticity in initiation ceremonies of Tonga, Bemba and Luvale girls. Colson’s (2004) study of Tonga concepts of the Christian God finds a slight variation on Hinfelaar (1994) study of the Bemba understanding of the same. More significantly for this article, differing tribes explicate differing ideals surrounding relationships inside the household and between households and the community, as well as acceptable levels of inequality and sources of hierarchy. For instance, the Tonga are reported to be comparatively egalitarian and the Lozi deeply hierarchical (Taylor 2006). Tribal attributes and identities are never fully encompassing—a Zambian not only belongs to their tribe but also to their school, church, workplace and nation—and Zambians can belong to multiple tribes and move between them (Kapesa et al. 2015).
Our informants similarly described tribe through ritual and differences in demands from their kin and visions of the good life. While many reported fluidity or plurality in their tribal identities, this identity was almost always deeply held. Zambians continuously participated in the creation and negotiation of tribes, often through jest. A Facebook photo of an ugly man, beautiful woman or elaborate ritual would be captioned ‘Which Tribe [is this]?’ and miners would tag their friends of different tribes. When reading the online serial ‘Love vs Tribe’, union members described which tribes they would not want their family members marrying into. More significantly, a Tumbuka (Eastern province) unionist explained that Tumbuka masculinities were like those of the Bemba, but ‘with more worries’. He claimed he faced additional burdens ensuring large bride prices for his paternal kin and that despite being happily married in Kitwe, he hoped to obtain a second wife in is fathers’ village, to signify his success. Demonstrating this identity’s importance, after bemoaning his responsibilities, this urban, educated unionist declared that he would ‘rather cut of my own dick!’ than fail in his tribal role. Other respondents explained that they had multiple tribal identities and responsibilities. A miner at Barrick Lumwana told us ‘Mum is Kaonde, dad is Lunda, so I have two tribes…two villages’. A leader of Kansanshi’s NUMAW branch explained:
My mother is from Angola and my father is from Eastern province, but I live here …I have a farm… culturally I am Kaonde
To be ‘culturally Kaonde’ referred to the kinship obligations and aspirations he experienced in his village just outside Solwezi township, which were different from those he would have felt had he stayed in Anglo or Eastern Zambia. This identity and kinship were intimately tied to political economic structures, including the mines and the unions.
Being Kaonde, Bemba and a unionist
Respect for village headmen, intra-family dependence and strong sanctions against individual wealth accumulation have frequently characterised studies of Kaonde and Lunda tribal identities (see Crehan 1983 & Pesa 2019). Texts often attribute these traits to North West Zambia’s isolation and population scarcity. The North Western province has consistently had a population density between one-half and one-quarter that of the rest of the nation, and tsetse fly discouraged any ongoing settler presence (Chileshe 2005 & Crehan 1997). This created a situation where, until very recently, chiefs and headmen were powerful in their ability to interact with the state, but not to impose upon the lives of their constituents (Negi 2010). Headmen and more senior chiefs were codified through Rhodesia’s colonisation, turning Kaonde-speaking clans into the Kaonde tribe (Chabatama 1999). However, the North Western Province’s isolation allowed these headmen to impede forced Copperbelt migration and to facilitate paid labour for their constituents (Negi 2013). In contrast, inside their jurisdictions, chiefs had little power and were incentivised to be generous. Conflict and ambition regularly combined with land abundance to encourage the fissuring of villages. Smaller communities would emerge, creating new, non-hereditary headmen (Pesa 2019). Becoming a headman is a common Kaonde aspiration to this day (Jaeger 2015).
Geopolitical traits of the North West impeded the accumulation of individual wealth. While many Kaonde migrated to the Copperbelt in the Colonial era, Mitchell (1952) observed them being vastly less likely to aspire to stay there than Bemba or Easterners. (They were also more likely to hold low status mining jobs and therefore less prone to unionisation—see Bates 1972.) When miners, or other wage migrants, returned to the North West, most recommenced farming, rather than creating a merchant class. Monetization was uneven and partial until as late as the 1980s and land abundance discouraged the paid farm work required to maintain commercial farms (Crehan 1983). Today, government subsidized fertiliser for small holders similarly discourages farm consolidation (Jaeger 2015). Female ownership of fields, which is no longer common in North and East Zambia, has assisted Kaonde women in leaving unhappy marriages and Kaonde households have long been units of consumption and resource sharing (Crehan 1997). In describing modern life in the Lunda settlement of Mwinilunga, Pesa (2019:332) states:
Long standing beliefs concerning the authority of chieftainship, prestige and the value of village life have remained significant, even as incorporate new elements and meanings.
When describing the moral authority of chiefs, sanctions against those considered to be greedy and the lack of emphasis on personal commodities, her work echoes Crehan’s (1983 & 1997) earlier texts.
Pesa’s (2019) account also echoes the experiences of our North Western informants. Kaonde and Lunda received their jobs through their chiefs and village elders. While the North Western province is changing rapidly, many employees had only worked sporadically as labourers before mine employment and those who worked at Lumwana and Kalumbila mine frequently still lived in villages near the mine site. One former shop steward informed us that he had left the union after deciding that constantly attempting (and failing) to defend members was incompatible with his desire to become a headman. In contrast, a branch vice chairman who was married to the daughter of a more senior chief saw the combination of these roles as a rapid route to success. Often the idealised narrative of non-hereditary headmanship and equitable village life was in contrast with (an equally imagined) Bemba identity. We were told that wage negotiators focused on incremental pay-rises for all members, rather than increasing the lowest salaries (inevitably held by unskilled locals) because the Bemba were greedy and that branches in the North West had unstable leadership because ‘the Bemba refuse to be ruled by anyone but themselves’ and would therefore undermine locally born branch executives.
Bemba and Easterner kinship has historically been presented as evolving through proximity to and engagement with the Copperbelt, land scarcity and individuated patriarchal households. CiBemba-speaking Northern Zambians were forcefully relocated to the Copperbelt in the 1920s, creating ties between the regions that persist to this day (Money 2019). Richards’ (1939) early work describes a matrilineal Bemba, with hereditary chiefs enforcing land laws and women controlling much of their household’s resources. However, villagers consistently migrated to the Copperbelt for employment and to attend fee-charging private schools. This, combined with the shift from slash-and-burn to compost dependent agriculture, increased the importance of cash and of (primarily male) waged labour (Stromgaard 1985). By the 1940s, 60% of the Northern province’s taxable population had migrated for waged labour, primarily to the Copperbelt, a portion that had likely increased by the 1980s (see Chileshe 2005). Moore and Vaughn (1994) describe land scarcity and labour migration as shifting the balance of power in Bemba areas from women to men and from chieftaincies to family patriarchs. In Luapula province, Poewe (1978) claimed that husbands and wives kept separate finances, including remittances from their consanguineous Copperbelt kin. Poewe (1979:80) also observed increasingly individualistic production, personal accumulation for reinvestment and respondents stating that their region was increasingly ‘Not rural… It is the Copperbelt here now’. Many Zambians believe that even rural Bemba have lost touch with tradition (Taylor 2006). However, our informants described Bemba kinship as incorporating a scepticism of chieftaincy, an expectation of consanguineous remittances and an aspiration for personal wealth within patriarchal household units. The ability to assist with these aspirations has been key to being wakolapa and a unionist, with the unions therefore shaping the personhoods, both possible and logical, in the North and Eastern provinces, while demands from these provinces shaped unionism.
Copperbelt residents frequently describe themselves as wakopala, an identity that combines what its users see as ‘modern’ and ‘African’ traits, with a pan-Zambian narrative that nominally downplays the importance of tribe. Miners have consistently used militancy to enable the mutuality of being and fulfilment of personal ambitions of wakopala kinship and their unions have evolved through attempts to reconcile this imperative with nationalist political concerns (Larmer 2007). The prominence of ciBemba speakers on the Copperbelt has ensured that ciBemba is the lingua franca of the wakopala and the unions. Further, miners’ early resistance to colonial exploitation was coordinated through the Bemba Mbeni Dance Society (Henderson 1970). Colonialists’ response to this, and other labour disruptions, was to depict unionism as incompatible with ‘traditional’ life, creating tribal councils to oversee workers’ complaints (Epstien 1958). Over time, the unions wrestled administrative and dispute resolution functions from these councils (Rotberg 1965). Workers voted to dissolve them and the union president was referred to as ‘the Paramount Chief of the Bemba Trade Union’ (Epstien 1958). While Rotberg (2002) claims that non-Bemba miners saw the union as ‘Bemba serving’ and dominated by Northern Province elites, many scholars perceived an anti-tribal class consciousness and an attempt at creating a national Zambian identity (Money 2019 & Parpart 1987). Bates (1972:291) argued that on the Copperbelt:
[Tribal] considerations govern many social patterns; hospitality, joking relationships and domestic and kinship affairs, but the structuring power of ethnicity is not allowed to carry over into the field of labour relations.
Even if the union’s politics have rarely been overtly tribal, tribe continued to guide the kinship and domestic affairs that motivated day-to-day unionism and political action. For example, the wakopala are increasingly born on the Copperbelt (78% in 2000). They speak Bemba and practice initiation rites and bride payments drawn from Bemba norms (Potts 2005 & Mususa 2014). Union leaders are commonly the guests of honour at life-stage ceremonies, entwining the union, wakopala and Bemba norms. More importantly, Larmer’s (2007) study of the Mineworkers Union of Zambia describes the circulation and inter-dependence of urban and rural populations, with union wage demands reflecting these kin obligations. However, kin entitlements differ slightly between tribes and (as we will show) union recruitment and negotiating discourses invoked (and shaped) the responsibilities of Bemba kinship. A key wakopala aspiration is ensuring oneself and one’s dependent kin are ‘moving’; obtaining commodities that signify a successful household (Haynes 2017); placing children in fee-paying private school; and financially supporting rural relatives. This concept of moving is vastly more coherent with Moore and Vaugh’s (1994) account of individuated wealth among the Bemba, than Pesa’s (2019) depiction of Lunda ideals (or earlier Crehan’s (1997) study of the Kaonde).
Our respondents certainly saw a coherence between being Bemba, wakopala and a unionist. ‘They [non-Bemba] just use ours [Bemba]’ we were consistently and dismissively told in response to questions about non-Bemba rituals, initiations and bride-prices on the Copperbelt. When berating his shop stewards for not wearing full suits to a union meeting in a local scout hall, the chairman of MUZ’s Chingolo branch (who was Tumbuka by name and ancestry) appealed to their pride, exclaiming;
Gentlemen, we are Bembas, we are Africans!
In the same meeting, while debating what wage increase to ask of management, one worker claimed:
We miners, we are supposed to be the middle class, it is us who must send money to the villages, and place children in the universities.
Wakopala unionists often compared this classed (and covertly tribed and gendered) identity to the overt tribalism that they believe characterised North Western life. A branch secretary at Kalumbila explained:
These people feel their employment is a gift, they cannot speak to a white man about wages, because it is biting the finger that feeds them. They were hired by their chiefs, who just said, ‘you come here, you have this job’ so they feel any money is a gift. But a man who is skilled, who has trained and worked before, who knows the value of his labour and knows that this value must be fought for, that is the kind of worker that has been brought here from the Copperbelt.
This urban unionist/chiefly subject dichotomy commonly appears in popular understandings of Zambian politics and academic texts on chieftaincy and tribe (see Kapesa et al. 2015 & Negi 2010). We now show how tribal and unionist kinship obligations influence Zambia’s political system. However, this is not the regressive tribalism that wakopala often claim, but rather is a combination of obligations, entitlements and solidarities, interacting with geographic and economic political claims and opportunities for entrepreneurship.