“1970: The Year of the Yugoslavs”. Locating Zambian-Yugoslav cooperation in the British Archives

Examining Zambian-Yugoslav cooperation in independent Zambia, it is clear this was not taking place in a vacuum. While conducting research in Lusaka and elsewhere, we have been also trying to account for the ways in which Yugoslav-Zambian relations overlapped and intersected with the engagement of other countries in Zambia. Indeed, a common trope in oral history interviews with Zambian workers, UNIP cadres and Yugoslav workers and managers alike, was the extent to which Yugoslavs and their working practices were similar or differed from the contemporaneous activities of other countries in Zambia – namely China, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and other countries of the Warsaw Pact, Italy, and Great Britain.

Considering that Britain was the former colonial power, English was retained as the official language, and Britain remained Zambia’s largest trading partner after independence in 1964, examining British diplomatic sources has been one of the final tasks in gathering empirical sources for this project. This month, Goran Musić and Rory Archer spent time at the British Archives in London with the goal of identifying some of the attitudes of the British state towards Yugoslav involvement in postcolonial Zambia through the records of the Foreign Office and British High Commission in Lusaka.

Having consulted the Yugoslav Diplomatic Archives in Belgrade earlier in the summer which brimmed with largely ambitious and enthusiastic accounts of Yugoslav-Zambian cooperation in the late 1960s and 1970s, it was somewhat jarring to pivot to the cynical and often racist accounts of how British diplomats from the same era viewed Zambian society (along the lines of Hugh Trevor-Roper, British diplomats declared “Zambia is a country with virtually no history..:”[i]). Of course, the purpose of consulting the documents was not to rehash deeply problematic British attitudes towards its former colonies,[ii] but rather to locate Yugoslavia within the matrix of independent Zambia and to assess how Britain viewed the activities of Yugoslavia in Zambia at the time, in particular the activities of larger Yugoslav firms like Energoprojekt and the joint Zambian-Yugoslav venture, ZECCO.

The British High Commission Annual Review for Zambia proclaims that 1970 was “the year of the Yugoslavs, whose influence in the political, social, economic and defence fields has been greatly strengthened.” This was based on “Kaunda’s admiration for President Tito and for Yugoslavia’s reputed success in combining non-alignment, anti-imperialism and industrial democracy” and manifested in two visits by Tito, a determination to borrow from Yugoslavia in the field of social relations, the activities of the joint Zambian-Yugoslav construction firm ZECCO and cooperation in defence.[iii]

The next year the British conceded that “Britain has been replaced as the principal external influence in the Zambian forces … leading to increased Communist influence”. A 1971 report on the Zambian Defence Forces concedes that “Yugoslavs replace the British”.[iv] With the new conservative government in Britain poised to supply arms to South Africa, the report claims Kaunda remarked that Zambia could no longer buy arms from countries supportive of the racist regime in Pretoria. Following increased Yugoslav-Zambian cooperation and in the wake of the 1970 Non-aligned summit in Lusaka, the defence report notes Kaunda’s “sincere admiration of President Tito, who sedulously and skilfully wooed him during this period.” The British did not consider that Zambians had any intention of “going Communist” however, and “would prefer to limit their sortie into Eastern Europe to Yugoslavia”.[v] An appendix to the report authored by the Central and Southern African Department of the Foreign Office added that even if Yugoslav assistance collapsed, Zambia would be unlikely to approach any NATO state for military help and the report concludes that “In the circumstances, the Yugoslavs may be a better devil than … the Chinese.”

British diplomats acknowledged the Non-aligned position of socialist Yugoslavia but perceived this to be a means of instrumentalising economic objectives. In the lead up to the Non-aligned conference held in Lusaka in 1970, internal reports claimed Yugoslavia’s NAM interests included “economic and commercial penetration of the Third World for motives of strictly national profit” and “self-advertising and keeping Yugoslavia on the map”. Normative and ideological aspects were discounted (“getting as much mileage as they can out of the remnants of colonial issue, which they now pose in mainly racialist terms”).[vi] Parallel to a deep cynicism towards NAM which is described as “a more or less bogus doctrine evolved by 1961 and 1964 conferences” the British gave weight to Yugoslav foreign policy in a broader sense describing “Yugoslavia’s own balancing act “as a “highly realistic and demanding policy”.[vii]

While not enamoured with the early 1970s ascendancy of Yugoslavia in Zambia, it was regarded as preferable actor than the Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact states, or China. In fact, Yugoslavia was a state that the British were even willing to enter business with, although Yugoslav (and joint Zambian/Yugoslav) firms had pushed some of their British counterparts out of the market. A 1970 report on Yugoslav commercial interests in Zambia outlined some of the challenges and opportunities for Britain:

ZECCO have proved themselves efficient engineers and builders, capable of carrying out road construction to the specifications required and producing good quality finish to their buildings. They are usually on excellent terms with the architects and consultants, who are mostly British firms, retained by the Ministry of Works. (…)

The success of ZECCO has undoubtedly been one of the factors leading to the withdrawal of British contractors from Zambia. Richard Constain Ltd. Pulled out in 1966, leaving no British road construction contractors in Zambia. Constain (Zambia) Ltd. And Mitchell Construction (Zambia) Ltd., announced in 1969 that they were closing down. British sub-contractors and suppliers, however, have not lost out as much as we feared from ZECCO’s growth. ZECCO operate in Zambia like any other major contractor and use plant and equipment available locally, which in many cases means British (…)

In their buildings they are obliged by the specifications of architects and consultants to use many British products. We would much prefer to see ZECCO awarded contracts in Zambia than Italian firms which use Italian plants and supplies to a maximum extent. It is also becoming increasingly plain that on major projects it may pay our suppliers to partner the Yugoslavs in a consortium rather than attempting to form all-British consortia. For example, a British/Yugoslav consortium to build the steel mill is already under consideration, and a similar consortium for the Kariba North Bank power station might be formed in preference to an Anglo/Italian one, if our consortium bids are required.[viii]

British diplomatic sources from the early 1970s suggest that despite fears that Zambian cooperation with Yugoslavia could pave the way for more cooperation with other Eastern European socialist countries, the USSR and China, there was a firm belief that Kaunda could not be meaningfully wooed by the socialist bloc due to his non-aligned credentials.

It is abundantly clear that President Kaunda is not susceptible to the charms of communism, even though he admires China’s achievements, takes a Soviet stance (but not a pro-Soviet stance) on many problems, and feels very close to the Yugoslavs on most matters. (…)

Presidents Kaunda and Tito have found some political advantage in declaring each other to be apostles and followers of each other’s philosophies of Humanism and Non-alignment.” [ix]

Somewhat counterintuitively, when it came to commercial interests, a strong Yugoslav presence could ultimately be more advantageous to Great Britain than some capitalist European competitors (in the example above, Italy) as Yugoslav embedded relations on the ground necessarily meant buying from and using the services of British firms and contractors.

The British had also learned from the experience of the Kafue Dam and Hydro-electric scheme, “the greatest Yugoslav success” in Zambia, awarded to Energoprojekt in 1968. Energoprojekt placed all electrical and mechanical supply contracts to firms from France, Italy and Norway with Britain gaining nothing from the tender. Thus, one of the summary points of the report on Yugoslav commercial interests in Zambia was that the “possibility of joint Yugoslav/British consortia for other projects should be kept in mind.[x]

Such plans, ultimately, did not come to fruition. With the economic decline in Zambia following the collapse of copper prices during the mid-late 1970s, the Yugoslav presence in Zambia receded from its 1970 peak, and with it, any impetus for Ango-Yugoslav economic cooperation in large infrastructure projects. By 1976, the British High Commissioner sensed a “development of somewhat warmer relations between Britain and Zambia” (“despite the running sore of the Rhodesia problem”). “Some of the new friends Zambia acquired after independence have proved less attractive, and Zambians have come to realise they have a great deal in common with their old enemy, the British”.[xi]

Rory Archer, 19.09.2023

FCO 45/536 Communist Activities in Zambia, 1971.

[i] The National Archives of the UK (TNA), FCO 45/1317 Annual Review of Zambia for 1972.

[ii] E.g. see Christopher Prior, “Reverberations of decolonisation: British approaches to governance in post-colonial Africa and the rise of the ‘strong men.” in, Sèbe, Berny and Stanard, Matthew G. (eds.) Decolonising Europe? Popular Responses to the End of Empire (Routledge, 2020); Toyin Falola Nationalism and African Intellectuals (University of Rochester Press, 2002).

[iii] FCO 45/876 Annual Review for Zambia for 1970.

[iv] FCO 45/907 Defence Forces in Zambia, 1971.

[v] FCO 45/907 Defence Forces in Zambia, 1971.

[vi] FCO 28/1177 Visit of President of Yugoslavia to Africa.

[vii] FCO 28/1177 Visit of President of Yugoslavia to Africa.

[viii] FCO 28/1177 Visit of President of Yugoslavia to Africa (Author’s emphasis).

[ix] FCO 45/536 Communist Activities in Zambia, 1971.

[x] FCO 28/1177 Visit of President of Yugoslavia to Africa.

[xi] FCO 45/2067 Annual Review of Zambia, 1977.