Racial Imaginaries on the Yugoslav Construction sites in Zambia

Josip Broz Tito and Kenneth Kaunda’s fraternal relations paved the way for Yugoslav self-managed companies to be contracted for some of Zambia’s most important and sensitive infrastructure projects between the late 1960s and 1991, including the construction of convention centers, military bases, airports, roads and power plants. Yugoslav construction companies and joint venture investments contracted dozens of smaller Yugoslav firms as subcontractors, meaning Zambia hosted one of the largest Yugoslav communities in the Global South and Yugoslavia took over projects which were previously the preserve of British companies (e.g. Kafue Gorge hydroelectric plant). In 1969 there were some 1,500 Yugoslav workers of all skill levels in Zambia. Together with the family members and Yugoslav citizens who entered Zambia in private arrangements this made up a community of over 2,000 people by the early 1970s. Such successful diplomatic and economic interactions in Zambia and other African countries emboldened Belgrade officials to brag to US diplomats in 1974 that Yugoslavs were ‘enjoying the status of the most appreciated whites in Africa’.[i]

The Yugoslavs presented themselves as benevolent, socialist modernizers in the Global South and distanced themselves clearly from the ‘whiteness’ of Western colonizers. The recent scholarship has reevaluated the Yugoslav intellectual and political elites’ shifting identifications with ‘modernity’, ‘development’, ‘Europe’ and ‘race’ in a critical manner, often causing a stir among the researchers dealing with Yugoslav state socialism.[ii] Yet the ways in which individuals in wider Yugoslav society made sense of these notions in everyday intercultural encounters remains to be fleshed out. Studying the social history of Yugoslav enterprises abroad and Yugoslav/Zambian workers’ interactions thus offers new opportunities to understand how Yugoslav(s’) frameworks of race developed in practice, and to theorize Yugoslavia’s place within structures of global racial capitalism.

Energoprojekt, a globally oriented self-managed engineering and construction company with projects in several African, Asian and Latin American countries, presents a suitable case study. In the late 1960s and 1970s it worked on a number of projects in Zambia ranging from the construction of business towers in downtown Lusaka to building refugee and training camps for Zimbabwean nationalist fighters in the Zambian countryside. Moreover, the company sent Yugoslav workers with a wide range of qualifications to Zambia, from engineers and architects to manual workers, who employed and trained the local workforce.

In the autumn of 1970, the enterprise psychologist, Branka Maksimović, noted how Energoprojekt lacked a well-thought preparation program for its employees about to be sent abroad.[iii] She claimed that the gap between personal expectations and realities on the ground creates psychological problems for many workers engaged on the projects in the Global South and conducted a series of interviews with returnees to map the main issues. Analyzing the interviews, the company psychologist concluded the following:

  • The first trip abroad triggered many anxieties, ranging from fear of flying to fear of infectious diseases (Yugoslavs were not used to long distance travel and allegedly had a harder time adjusting in the Global South in comparison to other nations)
  • The presence of experts from the Western countries on the same projects in the developing countries had a demoralizing effect on the Yugoslav workers as they felt the need to compare their status.
  • Yugoslav workers had limited prior information about their host countries.
  • Yugoslav workers had no knowledge about the ‘mentality of the local workers’.

Branka Maksimović suggested a more thorough education about the ‘customs, culture and mentality’ of the local societies to ‘break prejudices and dismiss fear toward the country and people encountered abroad’. A particular emphasis was placed on the allegedly different attitudes toward work as: ‘…it is well known that people in less organized societies have a harder time adjusting to work norms and, as a rule, are less efficient’. Interestingly, the report mentions this type of preparation work was needed solely for the projects in the developing countries. In contrast, travel to developed countries (Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the United States were mentioned explicitly) allegedly required a preparation program with a ‘completely different content’.

Private archive (creator unknown) acquired in Belgrade, 2022

A recent article by Peter Wright shows, the late 1960s and early 1970s as years of growing reflection among Yugoslav writers, social scientists and officials about actual racism at home instead of viewing it solely as a foreign and anachronistic phenomenon.[iv] Applying industrial and organizational psychology to tackle challenges of intercultural understandings at Energoprojekt worksites abroad can be seen as part of this growing awareness and debates brought about by the increase in the number of Yugoslavs traveling to developing countries, but also the mounting grievances raised by African students in Yugoslavia. As Peter Wright notices, these efforts to problematize the existing racial imaginaries were contradictory in the sense that they openly addressed everyday racism of Yugoslav socialist citizens while at the same time using Orientalizing tropes in description of people from developing countries. Branka Maksimović’s writing fits this mold. She criticized Yugoslav workers in the Global South as prejudiced, inapt and perplexed, suggesting the company should organize better sensibilization to foreign cultures parallel to essentializing the local workforces through the colonial trope of a ‘lazy native’.

The psychological study thus offers a rather bleak picture of Energoprojekt’s deployment of workers in the Global South. On the other hand, the reports and personal accounts from Zambia published in the company newspaper tell a somewhat different story of the workers’ adaptation to local conditions and their relations with their Zambian colleagues. The following two longer citations describe the initial shock and unpreparedness of the Yugoslav guest workers. However, they suggest relatively quick adjustment and a keen sense of improvisation, enabling them to complete the tasks successfully. Again, the local workers are presented as backward and in dire need of modern technology and civilized manners. Still, these are not depictions of atavistic Africans inert to change. Quite the opposite, the contact with Yugoslavs and joint labor are presented as transformational for Zambians, leading to new sensibilities and fraternal relations.

The first passage is citing Radovan Dimitrijević, a construction worker in charge of setting up a work camp in a remote Zambian district:

“My arrival to the place of future housing settlement in Sicongo on the border with Angola resembled a parachute drop. We found ourselves literally in the middle of the desert without any vegetation, shade, or water…We managed to build a good settlement there. In 22 months some 60 apartments with electricity, running water and sewage…for the most Zambian workers employed on that construction site that was the first time in their lives that they saw a truck, earned a wage. Men and women walked around wearing only a single rag. They scared their children with a white man, came to touch me…in only one year you would not be able to recognize them – labor and steady earnings gave them new life (preporodili). I am from a peasant family myself. I understood them well and I helped them.”[v]

Private archive (creator unknown) acquired in Belgrade, 2022

The second citation is from Energoprojekt newspaper interview with Slavko Štrbac, an engineer in charge of Zambian workers on Kafue Gorge hydroelectric plant:

“When we first started employing workers they would walk into the office with fear, fall on their knees and clap their hands as a sign of good faith (dobra namera) and beseech (molba). They needed time to understand the Yugoslav employer who lifted them up on their feet and kept his and their dignity. Together with the advancement our projects came the progress of the Zambian worker. He learned how to detonate rocks, poor concrete, handle machinery, drive trucks and manage other Zambian workers. I would meet them on different construction sites shoulder to shoulder with our workers. They greeted me as people fully conscious of their new knowledge and value. They would wave to me from above, seated in the cabins of bulldozers, heavy trucks and cranes. We would sit together in a restaurant and even ate our Yugoslav food, cracking jokes at the Zambian waiter and communicating in a fortunate mixture of English, Serbo-Croatian and Nyanja.”[vi]

Private archive (creator unknown) acquired in Belgrade, 2022
Private archive (creator unknown) acquired in Belgrade, 2022

These two citations give the impression of Yugoslav workers as self-confident and successful modernizers in Africa. The Yugoslavs present themselves as the carriers of emancipation and civilizational values, aspiring to ‘lift up’ the Zambian workers. The habitat and local workers are pictured through Orientalizing cliches. The terrain is rugged, and the people are living in poverty, ignorance, and naivety. The relations of power go clearly in favor of the Yugoslavs, who appear technologically and culturally superior. Nevertheless, unlike the Western colonizers, they choose not to take advantage of the natives’ backwardness. Energoprojekt workers act as benevolent teachers who ‘keep the dignity’ of the locals. Moreover, the Zambians are not perceived as passive, stuck in this unequal position. They quickly transform into ‘modern people’, able to acquire working men’s pride and rational command over technology and personal income ‒ a curious Yugoslav mixture of a socialist worker and homo economicus. Modern machines and manual labor are seen as playing a crucial role in this process. In the second passage the success of the Yugoslav emancipatory mission is illustrated literally by the picture of Zambian workers ‘uplifted’ in the cabins of various machines, waving gratefully to their teachers who become friends.

The Zambians were thus clearly seen as the ‘Other,’ embodying the primitive, less developed, and unwary. The civilizational hierarchy based on technology and knowledge is firmly established. However, in the depictions above, the gap between the ‘pupil’ and the ‘teacher’ does not come across as being that wide and certainly not unbridgeable. The Yugoslavs appear particularly well-positioned to understand the Africans and transmit modern expertise as they come from a place that, until recently, shared many of the same features of underdevelopment. Radovan Dimitrijević’s remark about his peasant background enabling him to communicate better with the local population is an excellent example of this self-perception. The Yugoslav national liberation and revolution during World War Two was won by a peasant guerilla army and the postwar social contract relied on the steady improvement of the general living standard through transformation of peasantry into the urban working class.

Labor stood at the center of Yugoslav socialist values and this understanding was projected abroad as well. The joint manual work was seen as a fundamental transformative and leveling activity on the Zambian worksites. The narrations and pictures show how despite the division between the instructor and the trainee, the scarcity of machines and improvisation on the construction sites made the Yugoslavs and Zambians work side by side. This proximity created social intimacy (e.g., common pidgin language) and paved the way for less hierarchical relationships. It was exactly this flexibility in approach to work tasks and less deep-rooted hierarchies on worksites which made the Yugoslavs feel different to ‘whites’ from former colonial countries. This belief in ‘Yugoslav exceptionalism’ fostered social interaction between foreign and local workers. Paradoxically, at the same time it paved the way for condescending attitudes and uncritical reproduction of Eurocentric tropes. Taking the Zambian view into account is a necessary next step in the research. By seeing if, and to what extent, the Zambian side recognized the Yugoslavs as distinct from other ‘whites’ in Africa will provide a necessary corrective to the self-perceptions sketched above.

Yugoslav-Zambian work team in front of a FAP (Fabrika automobila Priboj) truck, Livingtone, 1975.
(D. Lukić. Stigla petnaestica, Energoprojekt: Organ kolektiva inženjering organizacije Energoprojekt, Beograd, October 1975, 3).

One should therefore approach such self-righteous and triumphant accounts with due caution. The enterprise newspaper which published them had a clear interest in spreading feel-good stories that presented Energoprojekt in the best light and created unity of purpose among its employees. For the authorities in Lusaka, training the Zambian workers and the gradual passage of responsible positions to the local workforce was one of the main aims of collaboration with the Yugoslavs. It is thus no surprise that Energoprojekt invested time in reporting about the allegedly smooth development of this task. However, this self-congratulatory tone of Yugoslavs as knowledgeable and successful modernizers did not go unchallenged. As already noted in previous research on Yugoslav self-managed enterprises, the company newspaper cartoons, aphorisms and jokes presented an outlet for controversial topics, critical undertones, and more ambivalent views on the business practices of Yugoslav socialism.[vii] The following cartoons found in Energoprojekt’s newspaper add nuance to the described interactions on the ground.

‒In translation: “I will explain to Mr. Maržik, their director, that we have already gathered all the copper and gold two centuries ago!…

This cartoon titled ‘Geological research’ depicts the Yugoslav experts searching for iron ore in Zambia.[viii] The first thing that catches one’s eye is the blatantly racist presentation of the local population. The tribal image of the Zambians stands in stark contrast to the modern, scientific presentation of the Yugoslav scientists. The locals are communicating in nebulous-sounding words mimicking (making fun of) African languages. Nevertheless, this is only the first layer that hides other pointers and messages. Upon reading the text below the picture which translates their talk, it becomes clear that the natives already know the answer for which the Yugoslavs are desperately searching.[ix] All the modern expertise is in vain. The white explorers are fooling themselves, blinded by the promise of making money by the excavation of Africa’s mineral riches. The opportunistic business side of the Yugoslav’s activity is hinted through the description ‘Enterprise for the exploitation of mining wealth’. The word ‘exploitation’ is indeed commonly used in Serbo-Croatian to describe the extraction of valuable raw materials from the soil. Still, it is hard to miss its cynical usage in the context of socialist Yugoslavia’s business activity in the Global South, usually described in terms such as: assistance, aid, and cooperation.

“Kill the snob, he is well fed…. We might break our teeth on the rest.”

The second cartoon entitled ‘On the right spot’ presents a group of Yugoslav and Zambian workers walking unaware of the wild cats lurking on the tree. The animals suggest they should eat the ‘snob’ (skorojević) and spare the rest. The cartoon makes an intriguing class line of separation drawn within the ‘white’ Yugoslav community instead of the customary racial distinction between the foreign and local workers. The ‘snob’ is well-fed, wears a fancy suit and smokes a cigarette. It most probably depicts an expert or a manager. The black and white workers, on the other hand, share the physical features of wearing construction helmets and being skinny, indicating they are less well-of and engaged in manual labor.

The third cartoon also uses African animals to launch critical statements about the Yugoslav business practices in Zambia. The two monkeys comment cynically on the ‘civilized’ ways of cutting all the trees on the construction sites with no regard for the environment.

“Hey brother, one can see that they are civilized!…”

These visual depictions follow the ambiguous pattern of the previously cited sources. They can be seen as a candid, self-critical attempt to tackle, often hidden, controversial issues surrounding Yugoslav modernization strategies in the Global South and implicit racial imaginaries present on the ground. The exaggerated depiction humor of a caricature allowed leeway in this direction. The cartoons reveal a degree of reflexivity over one’s actions and sociability, social intimacy and solidarity forming at construction sites, with a potential to transcend the traditional divisions along color and civilizational lines. Yet, the specific, racialized, and dehumanizing way in which the comics distort the Zambian protagonists shows that Yugoslav popular imaginaries usually did not reach beyond the inherited past representations of Africa and blackness formed in a colonial context. Instead of creating stronger bonds, these provocative depictions might have thus added to the entrenchment of ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ in these micro communities.

The sources presented in this post showcase how social historical microstudies of enterprises and their workforce on the construction sites can add nuance to the research of Yugoslav social relations with partners from the Global South and racial identities within the Non-Aligned Movement. They alert us to the importance of space, class and multilayered contexts when interpreting accounts of such encounters. As already noted, to get a more comprehensive understanding of the specificities of Yugoslav presence in Africa, the next step in the research will be to engage with Zambian sources and see how they perceived the Yugoslav workers in relation to other foreigners.

Goran Musić, 05.12.2022.

[i] House of Representatives, Committee on International Relations, Africa: Report from the Continent. US Government Printing Office, 1974, 150.

[ii] See: Jelena Subotić and Srđan Vučetić, “Performing solidarity: whiteness & status-seeking in the Non-Aligned world”. Journal of International Relations & Development, 22(3), 2019, 722–43 and Немања Р. Радоњић, Слика Африке у Југославији (1945-1991). Докторска дисертација. Универзитет у Београду, Београд, 2020, 14-15.

[iii] Branka Maksimović, Predlog dopune postupka odabiranja radnika za gradilišta preduzeća u inostranstvu, Energoprojekt: Organ kolektiva inženjering organizacije Energoprojekt, Beograd, September-October, 1970, 12-13.

[iv] Peter Wright, “‘Are There Racists in Yugoslavia?’ Debating Racism and Anti-Blackness in Socialist Yugoslavia.” Slavic Review, 81 (2), 2022, 418–41.

[v] Umesto nekrologa, Energoprojekt: Organ kolektiva inženjering organizacije Energoprojekt, Beograd, December, 1975, 8.

[vi] Kako smo učili Zambijce, Energoprojekt: Organ kolektiva inženjering organizacije Energoprojekt, Beograd, November, 1970, 7.

[vii] Rory Archer and Goran Musić, “Approaching the Socialist Factory and its Workforce: Considerations from Fieldwork in (former) Yugoslavia” Labor History, 58 (1), 2017, 44-66. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0023656X.2017.1244331

[viii] Energoprojekt planned to build a Steelwork named TIKA (Tito-Kaunda) in the second half of the 1970s.

[ix] It is interesting to note that the project failed due to the low concentration of iron in the ground years after this cartoon was published.