What recent struggles in Gambia and Zambia teach us about neo-colonialism today


Nearly a century of lead mining and smelting in Kabwe, Zambia has made the town one of the most toxic in the world. PHOTO/ Larry C Price/The Guardian

On June 20th, a fatal mining accident in Black mountain, an infamous mining zone in Zambia, killed 10 miners, and injured 7 others. Mining is the lifeblood of the country’s economy, and accidents happen far too often. Mining accounts for eighty percent of Zambia’s export earnings and about 12% of its GDP. It is also the source for the largest number of industrial accidents since Zambia won its independence in 1964.

The recent mining tragedy and a longer history of exploitation raises the question: Did colonialism ever end in Zambia?

Shortly after independence, Zambia’s first President, Kenneth Kaunda spoke of an African path towards socialism. The West Indian intellectual C.L.R. James said that Kuanda realized African development would not come through “the attempt merely to ape European ways.” As Kuanda himself put it, “The traditional community was a mutual aid society,” and if Africa was to modernize and become independent it would do so through an idealized vision of Africa’s supposedly libertarian socialist past.

However, Kuanda ended up becoming a dictator, ruling for 27 year and forgetting his youthful political idealism. Instead, he paved the way for Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines Investment Holdings (ZCCM-IH), the very state mining company that would sell off most of the country’s mines to foreign capital. Today, 80% of Zambia’s mining industry is under the control of four foreign companies, all of which have names which were made to sound Zambian. Bamick Lumwana is owned by Bamick, a Canadian company which holds the title of the world’s largest gold mining company; FQM Kansanshi is owned by First Quantum Minerals, another Canadian mining company; Konkola Copper Mines is under the control of Vedenta Resources, an Indian company; and Mopani is owned by Glencore, a Swiss-based mining company.

In all of these companies, the state owned ZCCM-IH is a minority shareholder.

The additional smaller mines in Zambia are mainly divvied up between one Brazilian company, one South African company, and various Chinese companies.

This is colonialism. The economic exploitation of Africa which marked centuries of foreign rule has indeed continued past the time of many of the region’s independence struggles. Though foreign rule politically and officially ended with many nations’ independence, primarily in the decades following World War II, economic colonialism has continued throughout much of the continent – particularly where natural resources are concerned.

Now, the careful observer might note that the aforementioned corporations are transnational, not nation states. Some may say that these companies operate independently from the interests of the nation states of their birth. To the toiling African, however, it makes no difference. Their bodies are used to extract capital for some other entity’s gain, and they get only a tiny fraction of what they produce. They are used and abused for resource extraction, to be sent elsewhere, away from their villages, towns, even countries. And besides, these transnational corporations often do answer to nation states. Just look to China.

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