Living for the City. Social Change and Knowledge Production in the Central African Copperbelt

Larmer, Miles
380 S.
£ 90.00
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Geert Castryck, ReCentGlobe, Universität Leipzig

Miles Larmer wrote an extraordinary book about urban life in Congolese and Zambian mining towns since the mid-twentieth century. The book’s genius lies in the reciprocal comparison of the Congolese Haut Katanga and the Zambian Copperbelt (hitherto mostly divided between Belgian and Anglophone academic traditions) on the one hand, and in the inspiring combination of social history and the history of knowledge production on the other hand.

Rather than juxtaposing Congolese and Zambian mining towns, Larmer considers the Central African Copperbelt as a single region, making his analytical approach not only comparative (highlighting both commonalities and singularities), but also comprehensive, addressing “the urban”, space, politics, gender, nationalism, culture, economy, environment, and – running through the entire book – knowledge production. “Shift[ing] the centre of intellectual history […] to its field of production” (p. 25) he makes a case for the inherently social character of knowledge production.

The book is organized in an introduction, nine chapters, and a conclusion. The first chapter deals with the making of the urban as a process of knowledge production. The rural-urban division was not only seen as spatially different, but also construed as different evolutionary stages (p. 50), hence “temporally” different. Even if this is not a surprising observation as such, Larmer demonstrates that African research assistants were both agents and subjects in this knowledge production and fully aware of their political influence (p. 57). He also hints at the continued rural-urban connections and interdependence, to which he returns in later chapters.

The second chapter presents the alleged golden age of the Central African Copperbelt. Despite the master narrative and memory of boom time, Larmer argues that the seeming success was non-sustainable and precarious from the onset and accompanied by growing unemployment and persistent attempts at controlling the population and its activities.

Chapter 3 addresses the spatial organization of mining towns, with special attention going to occupational and “racial” segregations: European and African residential areas, mineworkers’ camps and municipal areas, and above all the “symbiotic relationship, economic and social, between these ostensibly bounded places” (p. 114). The author points out that knowledge production, trade unions (in the Zambian Copperbelt) and ethnic cultural associations (in the Congolese Haut Katanga), and urban planning all have a primary focus on African elites.

The fourth chapter zooms in on late colonial political activism. On both sides, organizational forms were limited to labour unions, ethnic and welfare associations, and only belatedly political parties. Despite different degrees of authoritarian paternalism and of trade unionism, mining towns became decolonization vanguards in both countries and mutually influenced each other.

Gender is at the heart of chapter 5, although the author shows a sensitivity for gender roles and relations throughout the book. This chapter goes deepest into everyday life, meticulously reconstructing households, family policies, food productions, and strikes as community events in Copperbelt towns.

The sixth chapter deals with the national(ization) politics after flag independence. Formal decolonization, in both countries, not only involved the end of “white” domination, but also expelling “non-national” Africans. The parallel nationalization of the mining companies implied that the company was equated with the general interest, which de facto delegitimized union demands (p. 213).

Chapter 7 rightly interprets cultural production as a kind of knowledge production in its own right and as a capacity to explain and express social change (p. 234). The chapter is primarily drawing on the lively art scene – and concomitant academic knowledge – in the Congolese Haut Katanga mining towns. A few images or thick descriptions of cultural productions would perhaps have helped to make this chapter more tangible.

In chapter 8, Larmer returns to the social and economic sphere, but with a stimulating focus on perception, memories, and nostalgia, thus combining social history and spheres of knowledge. The economic decline serves as a backdrop for well-researched depictions of similarities and differences in the memories of golden ages gone-by – even if it remains questionable if they ever existed in the way they are remembered.

The final chapter addresses the environmental impact of over a century of mining, but does so primarily from the point of view of memory, perception, and knowledge. The impact of pollution is overwhelming, also affecting food production and health, but only became an issue relatively recently. Larmer provides a compelling interpretation of how the privatization wave of the 1990s disconnected the historical “waste” – both environmentally and in terms of no longer needed/wanted communities – from an industry that is continuous in terms of operations and workers.

I do have some minor points of critique relating to connections in and of the Copperbelt. Firstly, Larmer does an excellent job reaching out to “non-elite” African voices, giving a counterweight to the knowledge African elites produced and that was taken up by European scholars and administrators. However, he does not pay attention to a similar stratification amongst the European populations in these mining towns: in Lubumbashi (then Elisabethville) Greeks, Sephardic Jews, or other “non-elite” Europeans were themselves subject to and at the same time undermining segregation, they embodied blurred zones in the seemingly neat spatial separations in the town, and in interaction with African urbanites they facilitated African-European exchanges the colonial administration wanted to preclude.1

Secondly, there is very little reference to infrastructural connections, although new railway lines, interruptions for technical or political reasons, and the railway workers and their families had a significant bearing on city life. Moreover, railways connected the Copperbelt to regions where rural-urban migrants came from or returned to, these people carried ideas – knowledge – to and from the Copperbelt, and railway transport complemented peri-urban agricultural production with imported foodstuffs. These links tied into the social dynamics and knowledge production that are central to the book.

Thirdly, Larmer interprets colonial family policies and domesticity programmes in Haut Katanga in the context of a paternalistic mining company. This sounds convincing. However, similar policies and programmes were also implemented in other towns under colonial rule, where more often than not there was no mining or other predominant company.2 Hence, either the role of the mining company must have led to significant differences with these other towns (which are not highlighted in the book), or the company was not as decisive – or hardly distinguishable from the state – after all.

Notwithstanding, Living for the City is an excellent book, that is innovative in its border-crossing approach of the Central African Copperbelt, in its combination of social and intellectual history, and in its incisive critique of mining industry, during and after colonial rule.

1 Sofie Boonen / Johan Lagae, A City Constructed by ‘des gens d’ailleurs’. Urban Development and Migration Policies in Colonial Lubumbashi, 1910–1930, in: Comparativ 25,4 (2015), pp. 51–69.
2 Nancy Rose Hunt, Domesticity and Colonialism in Belgian Africa. Usumbura's Foyer Social, 1946–1960, in: Signs. Journal of Women in Culture and Society 15,3 (1990), pp. 447–474; Daniel Tödt, The Lumumba Generation. African Bourgeoisie and Colonial Distinction in the Belgian Congo, Berlin 2021, especially pp. 176–187.

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