“Don’t Sell the Country”: Cultural Import-Substitution in the Post-Colonial Era

Written by: Thomas Sørensen & Manfredi Pozzoli

Identity is an essential part of the interactions between humans in society and between different societies. The breakdown of local communities and the attempts by colonial powers to generate wholly new subjugated identities for their colonial subjects left many post-colonial states divided and with identity-building as a core project in anti-imperialism. The Zambian independence movement and subsequent government encountered these issues too but responded to them in new ways by applying methods from economic ‘import-substitution’ models to culture to generate a national identity. This adaptation however often followed the same rhetoric and state-building patterns utilised in the economic and military spheres by other post-colonial countries. Moreover, Zambia’s case is especially interesting because of the unforeseen consequences of the application of these measures.

Video 1:  Source: “The song Ubuntungwa, from Keith Mlevhu’s 1976 album Love and Freedom, is a clear reflection of the Humanist nationalistic rhetoric”

Identity Crises

The post-colonial world saw a rapid proliferation of newly independent governments and, simultaneously, worries of re-colonisation by other means. Concern about renewed control by the colonialist powers centred primarily around creating a sovereign military, independent economy and a non-colonial national identity. Hence the primary worries about neo-colonialism was a removal from controlling the nation’s own destiny. These worries were widespread, especially in Latin America where exploitation had long centred around foreign companies and countries exacerbating class and racial divides to prevent united action. Salvador Allende, Chile’s president, saw neo-colonialist exploitation as both an affront to the nations ‘dignity’ as a whole, but more specifically as method preventing a proper conception of the nation itself. The notion of being ‘under attack’ fuelled Allende’s campaign and it was no wonder that the ‘Marseillaise’ and national anthem would be sung at his rallies, left fists raised.

This idea of rebelling for regaining dignity and with it a notion of the national was echoed in Thomas Sankara’s 1984 speech to the United Nations where he stated as president of Burkina Faso that his nation “has chosen from now on to assert itself and to take responsibility for its own history, in both its positive and negative aspects…” and echoed Kwame Nkrumah’s notion that “in the grip of neo-colonialism [the State] is not master of its own destiny.” The idea of owning one’s history showcases a core nationalist notion: that a conception of the State requires a certain identity to be in actual control, something that in turn necessitated complete control of the State by those identifying with this identity. Nationhood’s role in the independence movements and governments was hence to create the identity and unification required to generate the greater goal of realised independence from the imperial powers. 

This conception of what independence entailed, not just nominally, but in a fully economic and cultural sense, readily lent itself to socialist tendencies against the colonial powers with even governments like Jomo Kenyatta’s, who, while rejecting the more left-wing aspects of African Socialism still perceived a need to generate and “ensure Africanization of the economy and the public service.”  Africanisation meant that the control of the nation’s fate should be in local hands who would have a direct interest in the community’s prosperity. This desire to create an immediate break with the colonial world was the primary goal for the newly independent governments, who would in Allende’s words “embrace my people [from who] I obtain the strength I need to struggle for you and for my patria.”

In Zambia – the former British colony of Northern Rhodesia – worries about the return of imperial oppression arose almost immediately after independence in 1964. Feeling surrounded by the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, and the apartheid states of Southern Rhodesia and South Africa, the first president of the country, Kenneth Kaunda, was keenly aware of the risks of neo-imperialism. The government’s philosophy of Humanism, a type of African Socialism, was developed, in part, due to this ‘siege mentality’ of the first years of independence. According to this doctrine, Zambia should reject Western development models, instead adopting an approach to socioeconomic progress rooted around the traditional village.

However, Humanists were not just worried about economic domination. At the 1969 Conference on Culture, held at the University of Zambia in Lusaka, vice-president Simon Kapwepwe spoke about the risks of cultural imperialism, stating that Zambians “[had] completely adopted a foreign culture”.  The new means of communication introduced by modernisation were especially responsible: for Kapwepwe, imperialists were using radios and televisions to brainwash Zambians into adopting a foreign, ‘white’ identity through the spread of Western cultural materials.

Kapwepwe’s speech essentially highlighted Humanism’s dual nature as a nationalist philosophy: here, both cultural and economic forms of subjugation were seen as direct products of the material conditions enshrined by Western-imposed modernisation. Therefore, Humanists saw the State’s appropriation of media platforms as necessary for the rediscovery of an independent Zambian identity. 

Import-substitution as Remedy

The interventions in Guatemala (1954) and Congo (1960) heightened the post-colonial nations’ fears of having different factions in their countries be utilised to overthrow their governments. To prevent factionalism from being exploited, leaders sought rapidly create a unified identity and make the nation truly a nation. Nation-building would focus heavily on economics for unification; if the economy was “Africanised” and centralised, neo-colonialism would not have an economic base to operate from. The core of the economic project was import-substitution, the goal of which was to render the country non-dependent on “satellite relationships” which was described as a violation of the “political and economic independence so close to the hearts of the people.” What import-substitution meant was a replacement of the goods normally imported for ones produced at home, continuous investing in the home economy and the generation of heavily one-sided trade deficit. 

‘Investing in the nation’ was at the core of the import-substitution programme and tied up with nationalist attempts at identity creation. The Africanisation programme of Kenya and other African socialist countries specifically meant to foster this new national identity and loyalty towards the country. To these nascent nations the predominance of Western culture was seen as a threat, one meant as direct propaganda to defeat the liberation movements and undermine nationalism as a force. Nkrumah’s references to American Evangelism as an “insidious method of the neo-colonialists” meant to teach “citizens not to salute the new national flags” showcased these worries. Western culture in this view becomes neo-colonialism’s attempt to strangle the developing nations and prevent a proper united front against the west, and with it the key aspect became fostering a new African and nationalist culture to counter this. 

In Zambia, Kaunda considered import-substitution crucial for the Humanist project. Since the earliest days of independence, the regime had taken drastic action to affirm its economic independence: the nationalisation of the copper mines – Zambia’s most profitable material export – and industries constituted the core of this process. Likewise, the same logic also applied to culture: in order to replace foreign influences, Humanists tried to create an independent, partly state-run culture industry. Throughout the 60s and 70s, Kaunda heavily promoted local art-related initiatives, from music to theatre, which were coordinated by the newly-established Department of Cultural Services.

The case of music is particularly fascinating. At the 1969 Congress, Kapwepwe had warned about “all that wa-wa-wa and Beatle nonsense”: the imported music that had become omnipresent in the country’s growing urban centres posed the threat of detaching Zambia’s youth from its national identity. In the mid-70s, Kaunda ordered radio stations to almost exclusively play music of Zambian origin; the result was the creation of a cultural ‘void’, which was quickly filled by a new series of artistic currents, which synthesized both Western and traditional elements. 

“Zamrock” was perhaps the most famous of all these new genres. Combining traditional-folk sounds with ones derived from rock music, Zamrock artists quickly became an alternative to “import” bands. In many cases, their music echoed Humanism’s nationalist, anti-imperialistic rhetoric: while, in his song Ubuntungwa (“Freedom”), Keith Mlevhu warned the government not to “sell the country” to “rich foreigners”, The Peace’s album “Black Power” espoused the global anti-apartheid movement. In general, however, artistic movements like Zamrock were not inherently ‘nationalistic’. Indeed, most artists were independent, ‘Western-oriented’, and often critical of state authority. Rather than successes in cultural import-substitution, these movements could be described as ‘collateral effects’ of nationalist, identity-building policies.

Video 2: Source: The Peace‘s 1975 album Black Power tackles the issues of imperial domination and colonialism, and links Zambia’s struggle to international anti-apartheid struggles”

Culture and Independence

Throughout the 20th century, import-substitution was adopted by numerous post-colonial governments. For these administrations, political independence hinged on the State’s capability to maintain control over its own economic system. In many cases, the same basic principle was applied to the sphere of culture: producing independent cultural materials meant affirming one’s identity against foreign influence, and thereby taking control of the national destiny.

Zambia presents a unique case for the study of top-down legislation in fostering nationalism. Kaunda’s government saw economy and culture as operating according to similar principles. Consequently, nationalising copper mines and radio stations was equally useful for the fight against imperial control. These measures of cultural import-substitution were only partially successful, as many of the new cultural movements created as a result of these nationalist policies were still heavily influenced by Western-global trends, even if they employed Humanism’s rhetoric. 


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