The discovery and opening up during the late 1920’s and 1930’s of the rich underground orebodies along the Zambian Copperbelt were soon to make that small region – 120 km long by forty km wide – one of the worlds’ most concentrated and renowned mining areas.
A number of small gold and copper mines operated during BSAC times, but they were hardly viable. There was viable mining of lead and zinc at Kabwe. Kabwe was formerly called Broken Hill, and this is where the famous Broken Hill prehistoric skull was found in 1921.
The deep orebodies of the Copperbelt, most of which were located beneath ancient workings, were promising enough to attract large-scale investment from abroad. Over the years, the industry came to be controlled by two large groups, the South African Anglo American Corporation and Roan Selection Trust with a predominantly US shareholding. The BSAC, which owned the mineral rights, was to earn handsome royalty payments – 83 million pounds by 1963.
Exploitation of the reserves required a large labour force and Zambians from all over the territory were drawn to the Copperbelt. While the migratory system of the past tended to disperse people, the Copperbelt concentrated them so that a permanent population of African miners, working in a modern, technically advanced industry soon took root. They were essential to the production of up to 800 000 tons of refined metal a year. Even when ‘tribal’ affiliations remained in force, they became increasingly irrelevant in this new situation: a miner was primarily a miner, not a Tonga or a Bemba, and the same applied to workers in the enterprises that sprang up around the mines.
As much as colonial authorities promoted ‘tribalism’ in their system of direct rule through the chiefs, the Copperbelt broke this down, creating a unity of interest that was eventually to be expressed in the state motto ‘One Zambia One Nation’.
The management of the mines and all skilled jobs were in the hands of Whites, many of them from South Africa and imbued with racialism. An occupational colour bar prevented Blacks rising above manual or menial labour, but strengthened their unity of purpose.
In 1935 they staged a strike against unfair taxes; in 1940 there was a pay strike with 13 miners killed. In 1948, the first African Mineworkers Union was formed; in 1955 there was 100 % stoppage over pay conditions that lasted 58 days – ending with victory for the miners. The mining companies now started seriously, if slowly, to move Africans into management.
On the broadly political front, African nationalist feeling had been growing since the 1939-45 world war, in which many Zambians fought for the Allies in Burma. By the end of the 1940s, the Northern Rhodesia African Nationalist Congress, led by Harry Nkumbula, had been formed out of various Welfare Associations initiated by the ‘mission graduates’ of the pre-war decades.