Mobile workers, modernist narratives: a critique of the historiography of transition on the Zambian copperbelt [part one]
Questions of labour migration and circulation of population between urban and rural areas in Zambia have usually been described according to a grand modernist narrative charting the progressive, stage?wise emergence of a stable, settled urban working class. In this over?arching, progressive narrative, changes in the nature of migration and urbanisation over the years have been described in terms of a transition through which a ?classic migrant labour system? featuring short?term migration by lone, male, rurally?based migrants gradually gave way to a ?permanently urbanised?, ?fully proletarianised?, settled urban working class. This paper argues that this conceptualisation obscures our understanding of the complex relations urban workers have maintained with rural areas over the years, and stands in the way of the task of coming to terms with developments in Zambia over the last fifteen years, which have no place in the progressive narrative and its scheme of phases. The critical re?examination of issues of migration and labour stabilisation leads to three sorts of conclusions: first, a substantive conclusion about the periodisation of migrant labour and urban ?stabilisation? on the Zambian Copperbelt; second, a theoretical conclusion about the dangers of typological and developmental models based on Euro?centric assumptions; and third, a methodological conclusion about the shaping of historical sources and secondary interpretations by ideological context and by struggles over policy and politics.