Why the Copperbelt remains Zambia’s factory of political change

Dr Sishuwa Sishuwa
Dr Sishuwa Sishuwa
Dr Sishuwa Sishuwa
Dr Sishuwa Sishuwa

By Sishuwa Sishuwa

Since its emergence in the 1920s as the site of Africa’s most rapid and large-scale industrialisation and urbanisation outside of South Africa, the Copperbelt has occupied a central place in Zambia’s political imagination. Its importance stemmed from the revenue generated by copper mining, an industry that nationalists like founding president Kenneth Kaunda and his United National Independence Party (UNIP) sought to take control of after independence in 1964. It was also the hub of organised labour and developed a significant formal economy owing to the great number of unionised workers. Despite declines in revenue (less profit/lower tax rates/tax avoidance measures etc.) and the number of mining jobs in recent decades, the Copperbelt remains the focus of intense competition among successive major political parties. Why is this the case? Two key factors help to explain this.

The first is that despite fluctuations and slumps in the region’s economy, the Copperbelt remains central to Zambia’s economy. The rapid urbanisation and industrialisation that occurred on the Copperbelt was not repeated elsewhere in Zambia. The growth of Lusaka means that the capital is now the largest urban centre, but collectively the Copperbelt towns have a higher population and it makes sense to consider them as one unit rather than discrete towns. The Copperbelt therefore has no obvious competitor in terms of economic and demographic clout. Even in a diminished form, the continued failure of economic diversification means that there is no other sector capable of challenging mining.

As a result, the health of Zambia’s economy remains closely tied to that of the Copperbelt, and the wellbeing of both still rests on the fortunes of copper on the international market. When metal prices fell in the early 1970s for instance, they dragged down Zambia’s economy for the next 30 years. It was not until 2005 that the price of copper recovered and the country found new mine owners following privatisation in the late 1990s. What happens on the Copperbelt therefore has wider consequences. Its centrality to political life in Zambia should be understood as a consequence of successive governments’ failure to divest the country of its dependence on a single commodity.

The second factor that explains the Copperbelt’s importance to Zambian politics over such a long period is its history of strong associational culture. The relatively dense patterns of urban settlements and industrial organisation of the Copperbelt workforce during the colonial period gave rise to an enduring associational culture that is absent elsewhere. The Copperbelt was the birthplace of Zambia’s labour movement and most of its significant political parties. The country’s two most powerful and best-organised labour movements, the Mineworkers Union of Zambia (MUZ) and the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), were founded (in their original form) on the Copperbelt in 1949 and 1951, respectively. Most political parties that have gone on to either achieve a transfer of power or play a leading role in opposition politics were also founded there.

Spatial policing that characterised public life during the colonial period loosened after the achievement of independence, allowing for more open and wider interaction, which, in turn, facilitated the expression of collective political sentiment. Associational networks, both formal (as in the case of trade unions) and informal (e.g. trade associations for marketeers and the small-scale miners popularly known as jerabos)make it easier to disseminate political messages and organise activities. Successive political leaders have relied on such networks and sites of informal interaction to campaign and capture the political imagination of Copperbelt residents. Political sentiment across the Copperbelt’s various associational networks provides a coherent way for the region’s residents to interact across class and ethnicity identities – a reflection of the Copperbelt’s cosmopolitan heritage.

The dominant political views on the Copperbelt have also been influenced by its political and economic history. As a result, most residents believe that politicians should deliver some level of economic redistribution, and that Zambia should have a strong public sector that delivers social and physical services. The most successful national politicians are those who perceive of this, and are able to tap into these sentiments. The same associational culture is yet to take root in other urban areas. Lusaka’s civil society organisations are sustained more by donor money than by their members’ social connections. This explains why most new political formations and political transitions in Zambia have emerged from the Copperbelt. Three separate examples reinforce this point.

The first was the formation, in August 1971, of the United Progressive Party (UPP) led by former Vice-President of Zambia Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe. The UPP, mobilising in Bemba-speaking rural communities and articulating populist concerns in urban centres such as the Copperbelt, rose to become the first serious opposition to UNIP’s assertion of national authority. So threatened was President Kaunda that he quickly banned it over alleged violence in February 1972 and arrested several of its leaders, including Kapwepwe who remained in prison until December that year, when Zambia was declared a one-party state.

The second key moment was the emergence of a pro-democracy movement, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), in the early 1990s that successfully challenged UNIP and ended one-party party rule. With a legal road to political change blocked by single-party rule, opposition to Kaunda and UNIP’s formal hegemony found expression in institutions such as the Copperbelt-based MUZ and ZCTU. These two organisations served as the backbone of the transition to multiparty democracy that orchestrated Kaunda’s removal, the country’s first leadership turnover since independence. As well as providing the MMD leader Frederick Chiluba, these institutions put their structures at the disposal of the opposition party ahead of the landmark 1991 elections.

The third key moment was the rise of Michael Sata’s Patriotic Front (PF), whose successful mobilisation in the early 2000s ended the MMD’s 20-year-old hold on power in 2011. Following the example of Chiluba, Sata mobilised the associational networks of Copperbelt inhabitants to establish a new party and capture the ruling party’s support base. This sequence has not been replicated elsewhere in Zambia: other regions follow the lead of the Copperbelt, which continues to be a weathervane for the future political direction of the country.

As Zambia heads towards a general election in 2021, it will be interesting to see if the National Democratic Congress (NDC), a breakaway opposition party formed in 2017 by former PF strongman Chishimba Kambwili, will be able to replicate this established pattern of achieving national power by first establishing a strong political base on the Copperbelt. A skilled grassroots mobiliser and an effective populist with a gift for oratory and the common touch, Kambwili previously worked on the Copperbelt mines and in its union structures. He therefore has access to the associational networks and links that previous successful politicians drew upon to launch their careers. Amidst Zambia’s mounting economic challenges, the Copperbelt’s urban constituencies are likely to be receptive to a new populist party.

The NDC has already demonstrated its capacity to hurt the PF electorally. In April 2019, the NDC – drawing on workers’ growing frustrations against the ills of foreign, mainly Chinese, investment – defeated the PF in a parliamentary by-election in the Copperbelt mining town of Luanshya. To put the result in context: this was the PF’s first loss to another political party in a competitive election, at parliamentary level, in the urban Copperbelt since the 2001 election. In an action that bears a striking resemblance to Kaunda’s banning of Kapwepwe’s UPP, the PF government responded to the defeat by deregistering the NDC for alleged undemocratic tendencies and having an ‘inoperative constitution’ – a move that Kambwili’s party has since formally challenged.

As long as industrial mining remains the mainstay of the economy, the Copperbelt will remain the political factory that produces most of Zambia’s leaders and parties and even political culture. Of the six individuals who have led Zambia during the first 55 years of its existence, four received their political training and education on the Copperbelt, three of whom were born there. These Copperbelt ‘graduates’ include Chiluba, Zambia’s president from 1991 to 2001; Levy Mwanawasa, who succeeded Chiluba in 2002 and remained in office until his untimely death in 2008; Sata, who led the country from 2011 to 2014 before dying in office; and incumbent Edgar Lungu, in power since 2015. Their formative experiences in the country’s wealthiest province helped them later to launch successful careers in Zambia’s political life.

The fact that many of today’s influential Lusaka-based politicians, trade unionists, civic actors, musicians and others with the capacity to shape public opinion trace their roots to the province shows that the Copperbelt has effectively exported itself to Lusaka. As a result, the region will remain central to Zambian politics for the foreseeable future.



  1. Irrelevant article. Each and every Zambian is a factor in political change. It is this type of thinking that makes certain region think they are better than others. Grow up please. My white wife thinks you have uncivilized way of thinking based on region and tribe. Did you know that the term tribe was coined to refer to group of monkeys. Think about that

    • I was listening to Peter Tosh when I tried to read this madness by Sishuwa and realised that this bald head is still living in the past. What makes leaders in Zambia is the hardworking rural dwellers. Sata tried to ignore them and lost three elections until he realised that people on the Copperbelt are just parasites. The CB was but no longer

    • Sishuwa wrote this piece for an academic audience and not the great unwashed. The following books were probably on his reading list: GUARDIANS IN THEIR TIME, POLITICS IN AN URBAN AFRICAN COMMUNITY, ZAMBIA- THE POLITICS OF INDEPENDENCE, MINDING THEIR OWN BUSINESS, A HISTORY OF ZAMBIA, and if course several journal articles. Article could hv been better with a table showing political parties with seats during the period he wrote about. Today’s Copperbelt is facing hard times. Poverty is visible in ways that I could not imagine only a few years ago. The Jerabo phenomenon,frequency of henious crimes like rape and murder, and of course informal selling in streets. Does Sishuwa think Zambia needs another populist or is better off with a policy wonk at State House? Is he merely telling us…

    • As the Copperbelt goes, so goes the rest of the country. The Copperbelt is Ohio of Zambia.

      No one gets the Zambian presidency without winning Copperbelt hearts. Sishuwa over did himself with this article and he got this one right.

      Sishuwa is finally growing up and getting his head screwed up right. His one flaw in this article is that it seems to suggest at least to me that the NDC parliamentary win is trendy and no just an outlier.

      Therein lies the flaw and its leader seems more buffoonery to attract a support system required for a national movement. He can’t be compared to FTJ’s oratory skills, LPM’s legal gravitas nor MCS’s political acumen.

      Not even ECL’s lack of charisma can derail PF’s inroads on the Copperbelt … overall, great analysis in my book.

      Let’s roll…

  2. To some degree I agree with Sishuwa and a typical example is the UPND that has failed because it has no formula to capture the Copperbelt. People on the Copperbelt unite around common needs irrespective of tribe or origin. Many miners have joined Kambwili because PF has failed them, Edgar speaks for and dines with jerabos not miners.

    • Ayatollah, to say PF has failed the miners is vague. The current mine set up was done by MMD and the IMF programmes of the 1990s.When the commodities boom set in during Mwanawasa’s rule, there was massive investment which benefited the miners. But the liberal conditions where the new owners can repartiate their monies has constantly left the CB in a bad situation. Unlike Chile whose govt. owns 60% of the mines, the sales first come back home, thus empowering locals. PFs reign has seen commodities go bust and the global economy slow down.

  3. Ostrich thinking doesn’t help in terms of numbers Luapula, Northern, Lusaka and Eastern are a huge harvest for winning an election simply by volume of people.

  4. Indeed political change starts from the Copperbelt as evidenced by PF’s humiliating loss in the roan parliamentary by-election a few months ago

  5. Is this a University lecturer writing this rubbish analysis? Each person only has one vote. People must not be cheated to think that they determine leadership of the country lest they grow big headed. Mwanawasa won 2006 despite losing the copperbelt to Sata. Let me end here because a dull University of Zambia lecturer will not understand anything if I talk of 2001, 2015 and and 2016.

    • Daniel, did you read what the author sought to discuss in this article and assess him against that objective? Also, who won Copperbelt in 2001, 2015 and 2016? Did they also win the presidency?

  6. Had Sata not gained support in other areas, he would not have become president. The only take from this is that the copperbelt is important and thats all.


  8. Shuwa shuwa would have write that southern province remain the factory of political change in Zambia.why mention of CB or you want to attract insults…?
    Robots will kill you with insults.

  9. No mention of HH as a force in kopala, this will not please upnd cadres and so called leaders. No wonder the insults from traditional sources.

    By the way so HH political career was born in mamba near choma? Now that is not Copperbelt is it?

  10. Most of the comments above are very worrying, too much vulgar.
    The article should just be taken simply as something to massage your mind and have an alternative view regarding Zambian domestic politics.

  11. UPND cadres never seem to amaze me. Instead of putting forward contrary views to those of Sishuwa, they just decide to go ballistic and attack the person of Sishuwa. Do not worry about them, Sishuwa. It is part of their weakness of failing to tolerate a different view from their own. The more reason people sometimes understandably fear a UPND government would be an intolerable one to the levels we have not seen before. It is this kind of attitude.

  12. I read Sishuwa’s first 3 lines and knew straight away Kambwili’s name would crop up somewhere. He has become so easy to predict.

    My take is Kambwili won’t win anywhere else on the Copperbelt other than Luanshya. Watch this space.,

    • And Luanshya is unique and not an ideal benchmark to assess ones political clout. It always goes anti establishment. Pwele and Unip beat the ruling MMD for the same roan constituency. Even Kambwili himself beat the then ruling MMD’s candidate to go to parliament. For roan constituency in particular, the major reason is simply that this is a constituency largely comprised of miners who have had a rough ride since privatization with the mine having changed hands on 4 occasions.
      Care to look at the by elections in Kitwe’s Lubwa Ward! NDC came out a distant third following the PF and UPND. This was after following the same campaign strategy he had used in roan.
      Political followers will note that stock for this loud mouth is falling and falling very fast! Come 2021 he will not be a…

  13. Care to look at the by elections in Kitwe’s Lubwa Ward! NDC came out a distant third following the PF and UPND. This was after following the same campaign strategy he had used in roan.
    Political followers will note that stock for this loud mouth is falling and falling very fast! Come 2021 he will not be a factor, only of nuisance value. Even HH & UPND seem to have dropped him as an ally as demonstrated in the kitwe and luapula bye elections where they threw the alliance pact to the dogs

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