Although Gecamines (formerly known as the Union Minière) was, for a long time, the economic hub of Katanga and the primary source of foreign exchange earnings, it became a gigantic industrial wasteland during the chaos of the 1990s. It was only when peacetime resumed at the beginning of the following decade that the company began working again, under the aegis of the World Bank, following the transfer of its mineral deposits to private investors and a drastic downsizing of its workforce.
The new book (1) by Benjamin Rubbers gets right to the heart of the “great transformation” of the mining fields of Katanga. The wealth of these mines has been a “world issue” for more than a century and continues to be much coveted. Beyond this fact, however, the great merit of this book lies in the fact that it focusses our attention on the plight of the 10,000 employees of Gecamines who suddenly found themselves abandoned. How have they reacted to being made redundant and what has become of the solidarity that once united the “children of the Miner Union”?
Benjamin Rubbers, a Professor in the Laboratory of social and cultural anthropology of the University of Liege, knows Katanga very well. Being the committed anthropologist that he is, he has returned to Katanga twice a year since 1999. He is part of the new generation of researchers that returned to Central Africa at the beginning of the 2000s to explore subjects that are different from those of the past. “Lubumbashi (formerly Elisabethville) has changed a lot during the last ten years. A new middle-class has emerged there. Money is circulating, the roads have all been repaired and the shop fronts have all been given a fresh coat of paint. However, in terms of development, this dynamism has had little or no impact on the local economy. In fact, inequality has grown and the population is experiencing a sharp increase in the cost of living”, he explains.
Between 2006 and 2011, Benjamin Rubbers made several trips to the city of Panda, each lasting at least a month, on the outskirts of Likasi, in order to meet the Gecamines’ ‘old-guard’. “The choice of this encampment of around 15,000 inhabitants, one of Gecamines’ oldest, was determined by the fact that I knew some Congolese nuns who were happy to provide me with accommodation and to assist me in my endeavors. A student in the area by the name of Bernard helped me to translate questions and answers in the Swahili language”.
During many interviews with the workers of Panda, but also with those of the city of Kikula, in the center of Likasi, and with former Gecamines managers, the Belgian researcher was able to collect an impressive volume of information-and reactions- on the Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) that was offered to Gecamines workers in 2003-2004. Staff members with more than 25 years’ service were offered voluntary retirement in the form of a lump sum (which was lower than the statutory sum that should have been offered in law). Insofar as they had 36 months wage arrears, no fewer than 10,000 employees (out of the 24,000 that the company was made up of) accepted the offer of voluntary redundancy, many of them intended to switch to agriculture, small business or transport.
“This scheme, orchestrated by the World Bank, was clearly part of a neo-liberal agenda. The objective of drastically cutting staff levels to prevent the company from suffocating was certainly achieved, but contrary to claims made by a subsequent World Bank report, the reinsertion of former Gecamines employees into the local economic system has been far from successful. Many of them have been reduced to a state of poverty”, recalls Benjamin Rubbers.
(1) Le paternalisme en question.
Les anciens ouvriers de la Gécamines face à la libéralisation du secteur
minier katangais (RD Congo)* Ed. L’Harmattan, Africa Museum Tervuren.
* Paternalism examined . The former workers of the Gecamines in the aftermath of the liberalization of the mining sector in Katanga (DR of Congo)