#BookClub: What the Lumumba generation tells us about decolonization in Africa

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The discrepancies between Belgian colonial propaganda and the lived experience of Congolese collided on 30 June 1960 before the eyes of a global public. At the Republic of the Congo’s independence celebrations, King Baudouin was the first to give a speech, in which he glorified independence as the final, crowning achievement of Leopold II’s brilliant plan and as an expression of his civilizing mission, a project tenaciously continued by the Belgian state. Newly elected prime minister Patrice Lumumba spoke next:

“We have seen that the law was never the same, depending on whether one was white or black: accommodating for the former, cruel and inhumane for the latter. […] Who will ever forget the rifle fire in which so many of our brothers lost their lives, the cells into which those unwilling to submit to a regime of oppression and exploitation were brutally thrown? All that, my brothers, we have endured.”

Lumumba’s stark reckoning with Belgian colonial rule reflected his recent experience as an anti-colonial nationalist. A few months before, he had been arrested after calling for a “Congolese revolution” before a crowd of supporters of his party, the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC). But because his presence as a political heavyweight was essential at the negotiations on the colony’s future, he was released from his prison cell and took a seat at the Table Ronde with torture-induced injuries.

There, together with other Congolese negotiators, he fought for and won political independence. Five months later, Lumumba stood at the lectern as prime minister. King Baudouin, meanwhile, may well have been recalling his first visit to the Congo five years earlier when ecstatic crowds waved at him from the side of the road.

It was also the king who, with a paternalistic air, had first held out the prospect of independence – albeit tentatively – a few days into 1959. His goal was to contain the uprising of Congolese in Léopoldville, which had begun following a prohibited political gathering. He wished to see his subjects released carefully into independence and remain under the protection of the Belgian crown.

The contrary narratives advanced by Lumumba and Baudouin on Independence Day are reflected in two trends of the way the history of African decolonization is commonly told. The first focuses on the armed or peaceful anti-colonial struggle, variously involving nationalists, trades unions and armed resistance fighters, which succeeds in achieving independence.

It takes account of the many sacrifices, struggles and privations undergone by the inhabitants of many countries in pursuit of freedom from colonial rule. The second approach, meanwhile, highlights the European architects of colonial policy, who purposefully implemented prudent plans for an orderly and peaceful transfer of power to moderate forces as the best means of releasing the population into independence.

Neither of these narratives bears up against the complex happenings in the Congo – either before or after independence. In the first few months of the Lumumba government, a succession of violent events led to the so-called Congo Crisis. This included declarations of independence by individual provinces, deliberate delays to the transfer of power, mutinies and the putting down of uprisings, as well as the intervention of the Belgian armed forces and the dispatch of United Nations (UN) troops – all under the influence of the superpowers of the Soviet Union and United States.

Under these circumstances, in hindsight Lumumba’s celebrated speech marked the beginning of the deadly end of his premiership. Less than six months later, he was murdered in the breakaway province of Katanga, an event in which Belgian officers were involved. Since then, he has entered the history books as a global icon of the struggle for independence in Africa.

In my recent book, “The Lumumba Generation. African Bourgeoisie and Colonial Distinction in the Belgian Congo” (Translated from German by Alex Skinner; De Gruyter 2021, Open Access). If possible you could also insert a hyperlink here to the translators twitter account: @Skinner_GER_ENG), I show that Lumumba’s life story complicates the brief narrative of an anti-colonial fighter who fell on the frontlines of the Cold War. In a sense, the historical figure of Lumumba oscillates between the two seemingly opposing poles articulated in the independence-day speeches. Lumumba himself was a model évolué and as a young post office worker he had sung the praises of explorer Henry Morton Stanley and the Belgian civilizing mission in 1954.

Yet he was by no means an opportunistic turncoat. His astonishing personal history says little about Lumumba as a person and much more about the heterogeneous social formation to which he belonged: the so-called évolués. His metamorphosis is representative of a generation of Congolese elites for whom there was no contradiction in first serving the colonial state, as most of them did, then defeating and finally inheriting it.

In my book I advance an argument that is equally paradoxical, namely that the évolués undermined the foundations of the colonial order not despite but precisely because of their close collaboration with the colonial state. In the preface to a collection of writings by Patrice Lumumba published three years after his murder, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre expressed the view that Lumumba’s efforts to adapt were only seemingly a matter of ingratiation.

The évolués, he contended, harboured subversive potential because they showed that Congolese could draw even with the supposedly superior Europeans. For instance, when Congolese authors publicly acknowledged in the Voix du Congolais that the Belgians had civilized the elite in record time, the immediately went on to call for full civil rights. This was a highly subtle form of resistance, which did not amount to a radical anti-colonialism but nonetheless entailed a critique of colonialism.

Appropriating colonial propaganda, the évolués turned hesitant announcements of reform into urgent demands. The colonial state may not have been disarmed, but the évolués noticed that the blunt end of empty promises had a sharply pointed counterpart.

It is no coincidence that Congo’s independence, as wrested by the évolués, has been described as the result of a revolution of white-collar workers. I argue that the roots of Congolese independence also lie in the press, the associations, and the daily life experiences. Like Lumumba, other members of government in the post-colonial Congo had made a name for themselves as illustrious representatives of the vernacular elite. And, like him, many of them worked as assistants in the colonial administration, were active as association presidents and journalists, and had attained a special legal status through the demonstrative display of a bourgeois lifestyle.

Their calls for greater participation in political and social life, for greater recognition and equality were met only to a highly limited degree by the colonial state. For the évolués the three-piece suit was both garb of power and straitjacket.

Ultimately, we can only understand Lumumba’s anti-colonial struggle and the contradictory actions and views of other key protagonists in the fight for Congolese independence if we look more closely at their shared backstory – if we look at the évolués’ subtle rebellions. The story I tell in my book is not another history of Patrice Lumumba, a “great man” of decolonization, but rather the story of his generation – the Lumumba generation.

Daniel Tödt  (@DanielTdt1) is Assistant Professor of African History at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

Read the book: “The Lumumba Generation. African Bourgeoisie and Colonial Distinction in the Belgian Congo” (Translated from German by Alex Skinner; De Gruyter 2021, Open Access).

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