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Mobilizing the past: creuseurs, precarity and the colonizing structure in the Congo Copperbelt

Abstract
Abstract

The Copperbelt of Congo was once the bastion of industrial development and no individual embodied its modernity as fully as the salaried industrial miner. Today, with the near collapse of the state-run mining company, Gécamines, and the liberalization of the mining industry starting in 2002, the majority of miners are no longer trained and salaried industrial workers but rather children and youth eking out a precarious living as artisanal miners or creuseurs. In Congo, artisanal mining is paradoxical, for, although it indexes a future of unskilled, untrained, flexible work in rural and peri-urban enclaves, its organization of labour and rudimentary techniques of copper extraction allude to and borrow from the colonial and precolonial past. Creuseurs mobilize the past as a strategic response to the threat of dispossession of ‘their’ land by the state and foreign investors, and they do so by laying claim to an anterior ‘sovereign’ – the ancestors – whose existence predates colonialism. This paradoxical emplacement of artisanal mining, its entanglement in time, invites interrogation of some of the ways in which scholars have understood precarity not only as a politically induced condition resulting from neoliberalism but also as an outcome of the enduring nature of the colonizing structure in Africa.

Résumé

La Copperbelt du Congo fut autrefois le bastion du développement industriel et nul n'incarnait autant sa modernité que le mineur industriel salarié. Aujourd'hui, avec le quasi-effondrement de la société minière d’État Gécamines et la libéralisation de l'industrie minière entamée en 2002, la majorité des mineurs ne sont plus des travailleurs industriels formés et salariés, mais des enfants et des jeunes gagnant tout juste de quoi vivre en travaillant comme creuseurs. Au Congo, l'exploitation minière artisanale est paradoxale en ce qu'elle augure un futur de travail sans qualification, sans formation et flexible dans des enclaves rurales et périurbaines, tandis que l'organisation du travail et les techniques rudimentaires d'extraction du cuivre évoquent et empruntent au passé colonial et précolonial. Les creuseurs mobilisent le passé comme réponse stratégique à la menace de dépossession de « leur » terres par l’État et les investisseurs étrangers, et ils le font en revendiquant un « souverain » antérieur (les ancêtres) dont l'existence précède le colonialisme. L'emplacement paradoxal de l'exploitation minière artisanale et son intrication dans le temps nous invitent à nous interroger sur certaines manières dont les chercheurs ont interprété la précarité non seulement comme une condition politiquement induite résultant du néolibéralisme, mais également comme une conséquence de la nature persistante de la structure colonisante en Afrique.

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