A Socialist Workplace in Postcolonial Africa: A Connected History of the Yugoslav Workforce in Zambia
Principal Investigator: Dr. Goran Musić
Host Institution: Research Platform for the Study of Transformations and Eastern Europe, University of Vienna
Duration: 2022 to 2025
Funding: Austrian Science Fund (FWF, P34980)
As a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, socialist Yugoslavia stood between East and West (aligned neither with Soviet-style central economic planning nor the capitalist West), setting much stock in its economic, diplomatic, and cultural relationships with the Third World. Newly independent African countries like Zambia became Yugoslavia’s primary allies in the Global South. This study of Yugoslav companies’ workforces in Zambia explores everyday dimensions of Yugoslavia’s links with postcolonial African societies. It connects class, labour, and race into studies of the Yugoslav region’s ambiguous relationship to the Global South through the lens of social history.
Amid recent scholarly interest in state socialist Europe’s global entanglements, historians have re-examined Yugoslavia’s links with Africa to understand how Yugoslavia cast itself as a development and modernization expert, how Yugoslavs made sense of encounters with Africans, and how writers, diplomats, and technical experts put Yugoslav Non-Alignment ideology into practice. At the same time, scholars have revisited the social and cultural history of labour in Yugoslavia, studying how workers understood Yugoslavia’s distinctive socio-economic ideology of workers’ self-management. Yet the histories of the tens of thousands of blue- and white-collar workers employed by Yugoslav self-managing enterprises in Africa have still not been explored.
This project advances knowledge about Yugoslavia’s ‘socialist globalization’ and the Yugoslav working class through the example of two Yugoslav companies in Zambia, one of Yugoslavia’s main African partners. The first case study is Belgrade engineering giant Energoprojekt, which constructed Zambia’s flagship postcolonial infrastructural projects, such as hydroelectric plants, roads, and government buildings. The second case study focuses on the network of repair shops set up across Zambia by the Yugoslav truck and bus manufacturer FAP (Fabrika automobila Priboj). Both enterprises employed Yugoslav and Zambian workers. Methodologically, the study is grounded in a combination of archival research and oral history in former Yugoslavia and Zambia.
The research seeks to reveal the effects of the operations in the Global South on Yugoslav workers’ relationship to the self-management system and its values, as well as how Zambian actors perceived their connections with Yugoslavia. It examines labour relations on the ground and highlights how daily life and work enacted an intimate, embodied, and spatial politics of race. The study thus breaks new ground in labour history, development history, and critical race studies by connecting two domains that social history still separates, postcolonial Africa and state socialist Europe.