Belgian Congo

on the World Today

UNTIL recently Belgium’s colonial record in the Congo was favorably regarded by large areas of international opinion. This was partly due to ignorance and to the deliberate smoke-screen policy of the authorities on the spot, but it can also be explained by certain peculiarities of the Belgian Congo, which contribute to the country’s present political ferment.

Next to the Union of South Africa the Belgian Congo is the most industrialized and urbanized land in Africa. Almost one quarter of the African population is concentrated in urban centers, the percentage, rising to as much as 27 and 36 per cent in the provinces of Léopoldville and Elizabethville. Close to 38 per cent of the able-bodied male adults have, willingly or under pressure, left the African economy to work for the Europeans. The exploitation of the country’s resources has been pushed with remarkable vigor, and this has given rise to the illusion abroad that the gigantic modification of the Congo landscape which has taken place in the past fifty years has been accomplished by a regime that was concerned with the African’s welfare and rights.

Another significant feature of the Congo is the fact that the climate has not encouraged a substantial European settlement except in the province of Kivu and, to a lesser extent, in that of Katanga. There are, in fact, only 110,000 whites in the Congo compared to a Negro population of 13 million. The large companies that have established themselves here have thus, ever since 1930, been forced to develop a skilled labor force and the professional capacities of their Negro employees. The numerical weakness of the whites has been of an unquestionable advantage to the blacks.

By exploiting the country’s immense natural resources — for example, the uranium of Katanga the Belgian colonizers have achieved impressive technical and economic successes which are recognized by the Congolese themselves. The three representatives of the National Congo Movement who attended the Pan-African Congress at Accra emphasized their appreciation of these results on a number of occasions, while adding that they were sure that they could put the country’s resources to far better use after independence.

Official Belgian propaganda has spread the notion that the Congo’s impressive economic and technical development has been accompanied by a corresponding rise in the standard of living of the blacks and in some degree of social justice for them. The January riots in Léopoldville, which caused the death of at least two hundred Negroes, shattered the image of the smiling black man of the Belgian Congo, grateful to his European benefactor for a full stomach. Yesterday one Negro out of three was unemployed in Léopoldville; today the ratio is one to two.

One of the differences between 1958 and 1959 is that the Belgians now know these things. The colonial authorities, who used to claim that they only tolerated “social” discrimination, now concede the existence of deplorable racial discrimination. It is no longer a secret that the annual income of the black man in the Congo is 2100 Congo francs ($42) and that the income of the European settler is sixty-three times more, or that the Union Minière du Haut Katanga, which employs 50,000 Congolese workers, makes an annual distribution of dividends amounting to some 30 per cent of the total income earned by the 1.2 million African workers of the Congo.

Belgium’s reaction

When news of the Léopoldville riots reached Belgium, they were first explained away as a consequence of widespread unemployment and a momentarily defective social situation. But today no one denies that the cause of the tragedy is the political frustration of the Africans. The economic and social conditions prevailing in Léopoldville merely acted to trigger a long-threatening explosion.

The political dissatisfaction of the Congolese is no new phenomenon. To find similar incidents one does not have to go back to the grim abuses during the period of the rubber and ivory trade, which were the targets of the Congo Reform Association at the turn of the century. The chronicle of stern repressions over the past fifteen or twenty years includes the butchery at the Union Minière of 1942, when ninety workers were killed for daring to ask for a salary increase of 50 centimes a day as labor’s share of the company’s enormous war profits. It includes the killings at Lubuta and Masisi in the Eastern Congo in 1943; the execution of the African policemen who revolted that same year at Luluabourg, the capital of the Kasai; the shootings at Matadi, in the Lower Congo, in 1944.

The common cause of these diverse explosions is this: the stubborn insistence of the Belgian authorities on considering the African of the Congo as infinitely malleable, a kind of work horse who can go on forever with no interest in politics. Shortly after the end of World War II, the Belgian novelist O. P. Gilbert wrote a book entitled Empire du Silence in which he said that the black man has two rights: to work and to keep quiet. But the reforms which the author and a few men of progressive views then urged on the Brussels government went unheeded, and the watchword which all of Belgium’s political parties adopted was prudence.

It took a Socialist-Liberal government, which came to power in 1954. to destroy the last illusions the Congolese still nourished about the parties of the Belgian capital. Aside from breaking the quasi monopoly which the Catholic missions had on education, this Leftish government simply neglected the Congo. Its colonial minister, M. Buisseret, made an unforgettable name for himself in the Congo by declaring that since the Pygmies had been its first inhabitants, the Bantus had no more right to be in the Congo than the Belgians.

In May of 1956 die Belgian Socialist Party devoted an Extraordinary Congress to the Congo and Ruanda-Urundi and elaborated a sound program for these territories, but this initiative was followed by inertia. The three major Belgian parties, in fact, assumed a common front toward the African colonies, an attitude characterized by a desire to lake the problem of the Congo out of politics.

Congolese political parties

Meanwhile the first nationalist parties had been forming in the Congo. In 1950 a group of Congolese of Bakongo origin who inhabited Léopoldville founded the Abako, an association of Bakongos. Its original purpose was to favor the mother tongue of the Bakongos, which for half a century had been pushed into the shade in favor of a language spoken by the natives of the Upper Congo regions. But it was not long before these linguistic goals were being replaced by political aims.

The Abako first attracted widespread attention in August of 1956 when it launched a vigorous attack upon another well-known native group called Conscience Africaine. This movement had published a manifesto in May, 1956, which appears to have been inspired by European Catholics of more or less progressive views. The manifesto spoke for the first time of the Congo “nation,” but in spite of this Conscience Africaine had indicated a lack of interest in the political liberties of the Congolese and a hostility toward the constitution of native political parties.

The attack on Conscience Africaine touched off a lively controversy, in the course of which the Abako was accused of being a party of revolutionary fanatics interested in provoking interracial conflicts and of harboring international designs aimed at obliterating the existing frontiers of the Congo. These accusations did not, however, halt the now-general drift away from semipolitical groups in Léopoldville which were of European inspiration or membership. “What we want,” the new political group, Action Socialiste, declared in January of 1958, “is the creation of native parties, based on a determined policy, be it Socialist, Christian Democratic, or Liberal . . . and on socio-economic doctrines which are capable of being adopted by any people in a country which is industrialized or in a process of industrialization.”

To these new appeals and yearnings the Belgian administration turned a deaf ear, even going so far as to ban the African weekly Congo in August, 1957. After many hesitations it did, however, consent to the holding of elections in a few towns. But they were organized in such a way as to cut across natural political issues and to split the electorate by reactivating old tribal differences. In the key center of Léopoldville the voters thus coalesced into four associations of a tribal type: the Abako, the Association of the Bangalas, the Kasai Federation, and the KwangoKwilu Federation. Nevertheless, the leaders of the Abako, who had sometimes shown a marked hostility toward other ethnic groups, now sought to speak for the entire Congo.

The Léopoldville elections of December, 1957, turned out to be a triumph for the Abako, which had had time to sink deep roots there under the forceful leadership of Kassavubu, the mayor of the Dendale commune.

The results encouraged the aspirations of the Africans, as was made clear in the inaugural speech delivered by Kassavubu in April of 1958, in which he demanded the creation of scholarships for Congolese, the admission of many Congolese boys and girls to European universities, recognition of the Congo’s nationhood, freedom of the press, and the institution of a democratic regime. “There is no democracy here,” he declared, “since in the police force we do not see Congolese policemen. So too in the militia we never hear of Congolese officers, nor of Congolese directors in the medical corps. And what are we to say about the direction and inspection of the educational system? There is no democracy so long as suffrage is not generalized. The first step has not yet been taken. We demand general elections and internal autonomy.”

The administration’s answer was to castigate Kassavubu for what it called his incendiary statements. It followed up this reprimand by adopting a threatening attitude toward Action Socialiste, which in May of last year advocated a revamping of the electoral system and the creation of a national Congo government, headed by a prime minister, to guide the future destinies of the Congo.

These various moves and countermoves laid the scene for the upheavals of last January. On the ninth of December the delegates assembled for the Pan-African Congress at Accra were agreeably surprised to see three members of the National Congo Movement turn up with the express authorization of the Belgian governor general. Mr. Patrice Lumumba, the president of the National Congo Movement, gave a moderate but firm speech in which he made it clear that his party was working for the transformation of the Belgian Congo from a colony into an independent state.

The demand for independence

There was mounting excitement in Léopoldville when the three delegates returned to report on the results of the Accra Congress. To prepare for it, the Abako had organized a series of meetings in which it sought to expound its basic demands and positions. At the last moment the meeting was banned, but this did not prevent a large crowd from massing in the YMCA building to hear Kassavubu say: “We have asked for our independence. I hope that our voice will be heard by Belgium. . .”

On January 8, following the outbreak of violence, Kassavubu was arrested and the Abako party was banned. The Belgian government’s formal declaration of policy, when it came five days later, did not suffice to calm the local political ferment. For though it looked forward to the holdings of new communal elections in 1959 on a universal suffrage basis and the eventual constitution of a bicameral legislature, it notably failed to mention any prospect of a future government responsible to the local parliament nor did it include a clear-cut timetable for the workingout of independence comparable to those which the British had established in neighboring Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. The declaration said nothing about the urgent necessity of Africanizing the ranks of the administration and of developing the system of higher education.

All this bodes ill for the immediate future. The Brussels government eventually will have to choose between a policy of repression and a policy aimed at granting the Congo independence.