Twelve hundred Zambians gathered on a sunny morning in August of 2012 to protest at Collum Coal Mine, which is located in a rural southern province and, at the time, was owned by five Chinese brothers. They were angry about the working conditions in the mine: Collum had been cited several times by Zambia’s government for labor violations, and miners said that they felt unsafe working there. They were also upset about annual wage increases that they said amounted to only a single Zambian kwacha—the equivalent of twenty cents.
The miners learned that a Chinese foreman had brought outside workers to replace them during the protest, according to one of the protesting miners, twenty-eight-year-old Robert Mundike. Mundike and his co-workers confronted the foreman at one of the mine’s shafts and assaulted him. Then, according to Mundike, they beat up more Chinese workers, along with Zambian miners who were still working even though the protesters had told them not to.
The group—which included not only Collum miners but also their relatives and former workers who said they were owed wages—was becoming restless. They reached another mine shaft, near a cluster of houses where several Chinese supervisors lived. Five Chinese men ran from the settlement, past the coal-carrying conveyor belt and a rock crusher and into the mine, Danny Sikatari, who works as a mine foreman but who did not participate in the protest, told me. The mine entrance was at the bottom of a steep hill. Protesters went to the top, which was sooty from the raw coal, and unhooked a steel, one-ton trolley that stood on a path of railroad tracks. They then pushed it, hard, into the mouth of the mine. One Chinese man, Wu Shengzai, was hit and killed. Two others were hurt.
Several protesters did not know someone had died until hours later, after the police had been called and the mob had dispersed. “We did not want to kill him,” Mundike, who has a frail frame and eyes that nearly fill his face, said. “We just wanted to destroy everything in the tunnel and in the mine.”
Chinese companies operate two thousand enterprises in more than fifty African countries; of those, five hundred are in Zambia. The appeal is obvious: China is one of the world’s biggest users of copper, which is used to make everything from coins to frying pans, and Zambia has the second-largest reserves of raw copper in Africa, among other precious resources like coal, nickel, uranium, and gemstones.
In 2008, China and Zambia set up a zone in which Chinese investors didn’t have to pay taxes to the Zambian government—China’s first such zone in Africa—and fifty companies invested a total of eight hundred million dollars. As of the end of 2012, the Chinese government and private sector had together invested $2.5 billion in the nation. At least eighty thousand Chinese immigrants live in Zambia, which has a population of fourteen million. Partly as a result of all this investment, Zambia has a steadily growing economy. Its politics, though, have recently been dominated by officials who have been accused of enriching themselves by reaping the benefits of Chinese investment instead of using it to help the poor.
I have previously written about the tension between China and some African countries and have been specifically investigating Chinese coal-mining operations in Zambia. As the number of Chinese immigrants and businesses has risen during the past decade, the clash of cultures between the Zambians and the Chinese has intensified. A language barrier keeps many Chinese and Zambians from getting to know one another. In the mines, conflicts have proliferated between Zambian workers and their Chinese bosses. In 2005, at least fifty Zambians burned to death in an explosion at a factory at the Chinese-owned Chambishi copper mine.
Zambia’s President, Michael Sata, won election in 2011 partly by capitalizing on anti-Chinese sentiment. Chinese investors should be called “infestors,” he said during his campaign. Since his election, his administration has launched several investigations of corruption against leaders like Rupiah Banda, the former President, over graft charges. The administration is probing millions of dollars’ worth of kickbacks taken by former officials; Banda currently has several trials pending.
The Zambian government also passed new legislation in the spring that required foreign investors to put their revenue from exports in local bank accounts in order to help eliminate tax and royalty avoidance. (The 2013 Africa Progress Report, published by the Kofi Annan-led Africa Progress Panel, shows that Zambia collected only two hundred and forty million dollars in tax revenue from the copper mines’ ten billion dollars’ worth of exports in 2011.) Sata has also vowed to improve foreign investors’ compliance with Zambian labor laws.
Critics say he hasn’t gone far enough: Collum’s labor and safety violations continued after his election. Zambia’s labor and social security minister, Fackson Shamenda, waved off the incongruence, telling me the new leadership had spurred the miners into action to protest their conditions. “The workers realized there was a friendly government in place,” he said. In February, the government seized the Collum mine, citing repeated labor and safety violations and nonpayment of taxes and royalties. Now the Zambian government owns and operates the mine.
The five Xu brothers, who are from China’s Jiangxi Province, took over the coal deposits in the tiny village of Sinazeze from the Zambian government in 2000 and then built Collum Coal Mine. Zambia’s government was grateful for the venture. Sinazeze had until then been dominated by agriculture. The roads are rocky and uneven, and bordered by jagged rocks, drooping foliage, and wheat-colored weeds that sprout from the hilly terrain. The mine became the only one in the country extracting and processing coal, and the young men of Sinazeze jumped at the chance to make more money than they had been earning as farmers.
But early on, the mine’s owners clashed with the government. The Zambia Environmental Management Agency issued several citations to Collum in the past decade for severe air pollution and for contaminating water sources that served nearby communities. Collum paid the fines but refused to invest in more environmentally friendly equipment, the Agency said.
The labor difficulties began early, too. Chishimba Nkole, president of the Mine Workers Union of Zambia, told me that workers alleged that mine bosses beat them. The Chinese supervisors, detained by the police, would pay a bribe and be released, Nkole said. Collum managers avoided meeting with union leaders, he added, and when they did meet for salary negotiations, the meetings were highly charged.
On a mild day in October, 2010, hundreds of miners gathered outside a mine shaft to protest for higher pay. Across the shaft’s gate stood the miners’ Chinese supervisors, nervously clustered and holding guns. Workers had demonstrated in the past, and when they began demanding a promised pay increase their supervisors started shooting; at least eleven miners were wounded. Collum paid the injured miners modest settlements of between five thousand and eleven thousand dollars. The government eventually dropped charges against the supervisors and let them return to China.
“It has been a very tough experience,” Mundike told me. He described having his pay docked when he used the company ambulance to rush his child to the hospital, and being told to go elsewhere if he didn’t like the low wages. “We were nervous after the shooting in 2010,” he said. “We don’t trust the Chinese anymore: if they could shoot us once, they could shoot us again.”
Collum blamed the miners’ union for the 2010 violence, saying it did not communicate to their members that a wage increase was coming with the next paycheck. The union says it informed the miners, but that they did not listen.
The tension between miners and owners persisted, culminating in the protest and the death of the Chinese mine manager, in August, 2012. Afterward, police rounded up suspects at the scene of the crime and took twelve into custody. “They were just picking whomever they could come across even if they were not involved,” Patson Mangunje, a local government leader, recalled. Within weeks, they had been all released without convictions. Mangunje said it was “because they took the wrong people.”
Mundike described the manager’s death as an accident. Sikatari, the foreman who did not protest, doubts that. “You can’t take the law into your own hands,” he told me.
I met Wanli Xing, a Collum staff member, a few times at a shopping-mall restaurant in Lusaka, Zambia’s orderly capital city. He was pleasant and approachable, with a boyish face. “The Zambian people are friendly,” he told me. “It’s a peaceful country.” (The Xu brothers declined my interview requests.)
The clashes between mine workers and management were the result of miscommunication and “a bad labor culture,” he said. “There are few miners who went to school so they get used to violence and striking as a way to get managers to increase their salaries.”
Xing defended Collum’s working conditions. He said the management gave workers new uniforms and helmets every six months, but miners, he said, sold their clothing to make extra cash, and when bosses didn’t allow them inside the mine because they were not wearing protective gear, their friends went on strike in solidarity. He also complained about miners not showing up enough days in the week to rightfully earn a full month’s wage, and showing up in large numbers on the weekends, when they can earn double pay.
Xing said that he was upset over the release of the men who were arrested after the August, 2012, death. “It’s not right,” he said. “They did not tell us anything about why there was no trial.” Collum paid Shengzai’s family in China a settlement after the death.
In the months since, Xing said, public opinion had turned against Collum. The Chinese company had more or less given up hope that the government would return the mine to it, but wanted to be paid for what it had left behind at the site, Xing told me.
“This is a private company, so we want the government to compensate us for our equipment and the coal above the ground,” he said.
Some argue that Chinese mine owners are no more exploitative than those from other countries or from Zambia itself. (British colonizers were the first to take advantage of Zambia’s copper.) Chinese immigrants are highly visible in Zambian society, where many work as security guards, waiters, and poultry venders.
“People felt they’re taking over their jobs and going too deep into their society,” Oliver Saasa, an international-development expert, said. “So they have become a highly visible scapegoat.”
After Collum’s bad publicity, many Chinese distanced themselves from the mine. China’s ambassador to Zambia often remarked that one of the brothers, Xu Jianxue, had Australian citizenship. “They’re just new money coming here to exploit people,” Liu Ziyan, a Chinese owner of a copper mine in Zambia’s Copperbelt region, said. “I don’t like those guys; it was a bad story for China.” He struck up a conversation as we both waited to see the labor minister in Lusaka’s shabby government complex. He added, in excellent English, that the brothers should have learned English, and that they had brought over bad mining practices from China.
The Chinese embassy’s commercial counselor, Chai Zhijing, warily accepted me into a lounge outside his office when I showed up unannounced in May. Zhijing advises Chinese investors looking to do business in the country. “We respect Zambia’s government’s decision,” he said. “We’re only worried about the Chinese investors being treated fairly—their legitimate rights and interests should be protected. This is something the Zambian side should worry about because this is about the image of Zambia, not the image of China. If they cannot have a good environment, maybe Chinese investors or other investors could find somewhere else to go.”
He blamed the local media for not covering the positive things the Chinese did, such as building roads and hospitals, and questioned whether Zambians would be able to adequately run the mine. A fire broke out at the mine in July under the government stewardship, burning some miners.
If the Zambians mismanage the mine, the fault may be that of both the Chinese and the Zambians. Chinese companies, throughout Africa, have long been criticized for not transferring technology and skills to their African employees, and African governments have been criticized in turn for not requiring those transfers while making billion-dollar deals.
“The Chinese investors have been the most strategic, taking on challenging mines abandoned by others, reviving them and cutting operational costs,” Mooya Lumamba, the government’s director of mines, said. “But anyone who invests, not just the Chinese, has been able to extract and sell in their own countries, with little going back to Zambia.” He added, “Zambia is very rich; every mineral you can think of, you can find here.”
On a recent morning, Mundike and his co-worker Africano Muziki walked to work from their homes in Sinazeze.
“My family is so worried about the work I do, and they question whether I will come back alive,” Mundike, who has four children, said. Mundike has worked at Collum for more than four years. He recalled a time that a roof of rocks collapsed on him in the mine. “Things were not all that easy for me growing up,” he said. “I had to leave school at grade nine. I wanted to be a doctor.”
“I just wanted to be a soldier,” Muziki, who is short with bright skin, said. The men laughed.
“It was very difficult to communicate with these people,” Muziki went on. “We would communicate in short phrases, but they didn’t want to hear anything from us.” Adjusting his blue uniform, he said he had high hopes for the new Zambian management.
The men commiserated over tunnels that caved in, and over working in wet clouds of dust with no place to use the bathroom.
After a silence, Mundike spoke. “My goal is not to do this forever,” he said.