The historiography of transition on the Zambian copperbelt—another view

Type Journal Article - Journal of Southern African Studies
Title The historiography of transition on the Zambian copperbelt—another view
Volume 19
Issue 4
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 1993
Page numbers 681-712
Zambia has long been recognised as one of the most urbanised countries in Africa. The major theme in the social scientific study of the country since the development of the Copperbelt in the late 1920s has been the relationship between the towns and the rural areas. This has been the subject of academic and political debate for over 60 years and has stimulated a number of important works by economists, social anthropologists, political scientists and historians. James Ferguson, a social anthropologist, recently attempted in a lengthy two part article in this journal to survey the literature on this topic. The present article takes issue with his contention that the labour history of the Copperbelt has been dominated by a ‘modernist narrative’ in which ‘progressive’ scholars have sought to ‘disengage the study of urban life on the Copperbelt from its rural attachments’, and have seen the transition to urban permanence and proletarianisation as both inevitable and desirable. It argues that since Austin Robinson's contribution to Merle Davis's Modern Industry and the African Published in 1933 at the low point of the depression, the cyclical rather than the progressive view of history has dominated interpretations of Copperbelt history. None of the major writers from Godfrey Wilson to Robert Bates subscribed to the ‘modernist narrative’. None of them seriously denied the maintenance of rural-urban links. It was only in the early 1970s, following the rapid growth of ‘squatter’ settlements, and in the context of alarm about a widening rural-urban income gap, and of hostility towards the towns and townspeople, that ‘progressive’ scholars, such as Jaap van Velsen and Jack Simons, made specific pleas for a more sympathetic approach to urbanisation. The real continuity in the historiography of transition on the Zambian Copperbelt lies not in the denial of rural-urban links, but in a continuing pre-occupation with the rural-urban terms of trade, and with the danger of ‘over-urbanisation’. This article also takes issue with Ferguson's plea for an ‘Afro-centric’ approach, and stresses the advantages of universal comparisons.

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