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Jan van Eden

bio - biography

Mining in Zambia-70s&80s

Personal interpretation of fateful political events for Zambia in the seventies


My arrival in Zambia at the end of the year 1967 was three years after independence. The social system of Zambia would not have been much different than in the last colonial days under the English. But the Zambian government under President Kaunda had nationalized the coppermining industry and the population was aware of independence. It was a paradise for us, expatriates, who brought with us the necessary technical knowledge. We did have privileges such as relatively high incomes and housing in modern villas, but the social system was accepted by the black population, with whom we came into contact within the framework of our work. The security in the street was so good that we did not need a key for our house.
But the poignant changes a few years after our departure from Zambia touched me deeply and weigh heavily in my memories. In 1975, the year we were working for a South African consortium in Angola, the railway line from Zambia to Lobito and Benguela was blocked. The result was the total collapse of the Zambian economy and it became one of the poorest countries in Africa.

This event is easily explained as a consequence of the civil war in Angola. But nowhere on the internet can I find any reference to the decisive involvement of South Africa's apartheid regime. The South African massive military invasion in 1975 from South West Africa (now Namibia) in which the entire coast of Angola up to the capital Luanda was conquered. The port of Lobito and the railway were destroyed by the South African military. During this invasion of South Africa, a number of our employees, who fought with the MPLA in the defense of their country, were killed by the South African forces. We were evacuated to the safety of South Africa, but we lost all our personal belongings, which we had to leave behind in Angola. Since then I have lived with a heavy feeling that we were on the wrong side of history.

It was not untill 2002 at the death of Jonas Zavimbi the leader of Unita, who was supported by the USA and Europe that the recuperation of the railway could be considered.
In 2005 talks were initiated between Angola and Zambia to restore operations.

 A financial report from the year 2000 states that Zambia's economy is dependent on the copper mining industry and represents the main source of foreign exchange earnings. The mining sector contributed about 80 percent of Zambia's GDP in 2000 and about US$900 million to the national economy. The dependence on mining during the years we lived in Zambia (1967-1971) was even greater.

The reductions in the supply of copper to the European market due to the complete disappearance of the Zambian and Congolese Copperbelt in 1975 were compensated by opencast mining in Chile. These events came in the midst of a nationalist surge among the copper-exporting nations. Late in the 1960s four major copper producers, Chile, Zaire, Zambia, and Peru had joined to form CIPEC (Conseil Inter-gouvernements des Pays Exportateurs de Cuivre). Its member nations depended heavely on the export of copper for foreign exchange and CIPEC was their way to enforce minimum price levels through production cutbacks. When Allende came to power in Chile he expropriated the copper mines. Allende was killed in a coup (1973), and the government of Pinochet was installed by the Americans.

Zambia barely survived the 1975 Lobito railway blockade and Angola's problems remained disastrous until the early 1990s. In 1993, the privatization of the mines in Zambia started under pressure from the World Bank. The sale of the mines was pressured by a depression in the copper market, which allowed the investors to make demands that the government of Zambia could not refuse and the agreements that were made were highly disadvantageous. To this day, Zambia suffers from the excessive debt burden of the mining sector. But it is my personal conclusion that Zambia, as a frontline state against the apartheid regime in South Africa in the early 1970s, was never able to overcome the problems of decolonization that arose at that time.

The murky circumstances under which privatization took place in Zambia are made clear in a brilliant documentary “Stealing Africa, Why poverty” directed by Cristoffer Quidbrandeen from Denmark, made in 2013.

Good to know that China already provided a helping hand for the export of Zambia's copper in the 1970s with the construction of the TanZam railway to the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Tanzania then had a socialist government under President Nyerere. I still remember the alarming press reports about Chinese interference in African affairs.

Fortunately in 1970, Zambia had got into an agreement with the Peoples Republic of China for the construction of the TANZAM railwayline. Running some 1,870 km from Tanzania's largest city, Dar es Salaam, on the coast of the Indian Ocean to the Copperbelt of central Zambia, the line was a major engineering achievement through largely uninhabited mountanous terrain. The West reacted to Chinese backing for the project with both alarm and derision. The Wall Street Journal stated in 1967, "the prospects of hundreds and perhaps thousands of Red Guards descending upon an already troubled Africa is a chilling one for the West." The TanZam railwayline started operating in 1975.

In 2005 talks were initiated between Angola and Zambia to restore operations of the Benguela-Lobito railway. The People's Republic of China provided $300 to $500 million in financial aid to help the replacement of the war-damaged track.


Nederlandse ontwikkelingshulp in Zambia-vanaf 1966

Stories of our life in the foreign




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