Aspects of African responses to taxation in colonial Zambia: the case of Mazabuka district, 1904 – 1964

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Phiri, Emmanuel
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University of Zambia
Taxation of Africans by the colonial state was a poignant foundational cogwheel of colonial economic orthodoxy whose implementation and dynamics pervaded almost every aspect of African economic life. Colonial taxation was intended to serve among other purposes the provision of revenue for administrative expenses and mobilization of labour for colonial economic sectors. Taxation, in concert with a cocktail of other coercive extra-market devices such as land sequestration, utilisation of unjust legislation and forced labour, to mention a few, was tailored to ensure Africans’ movement from the traditional economy to the supposedly ‘modern’ colonial sector through participation in the labour market. While scholars have conventionally interpreted these processes as having dealt a major blow to African economic production, particularly in relation to agriculture, livelihoods and local knowledge systems, the study explores aspects utilised by Africans in responding to colonial taxation as opposed to emphasising African victimhood. Utilising the Tonga of Mazabuka, Northern Rhodesia [hereinafter, colonial Zambia] between 1904 and 1964 as a case-study and qualitative research approaches, the study solidly demonstrates that Africans were not always mere victims-powerless and hapless – in the face of an all-powerful, well-oiled and seemingly invincible colonial machine. While it cannot be disputed that Africans were in many instances at the receiving end of colonial tax regimes, among other schemes, narratives of African victimhood only tell part of, and not the entire story. In response to the imposition of taxation, the Tonga came up with sustainable ‘creative responses’ which included, but were not limited to, resistance and proactive engagement through increased agricultural production. The study shows that the colonial state did not always get the outcomes it desired from its taxation policies, such as the exodus of African labour from the traditional sector to the capitalist sector. African agricultural production as a response, my study demonstrates, constituted a dialogue between Africans and the colonial masters who sought to dominate them, where Africans successfully talked back to the regime in defiance of colonial orthodoxy.