DAVID RENTON, DAVID SEDDON & LEO ZEILIG.
THE CONGO: PLUNDER & RESISTANCE. NY: ZED BOOKS, 2007.
A thorough history of all of the Congo's history, this book begins with a shaky chapter and progresses incrementally to a very powerful final one. The emphasis is on relations between the Congo and the West, particularly on the way resources have been exploited to the advantage of the West and to the disadvantage of the Congo. The target audience is specifically British (p. 2), but any reader will profit from it. The author's own perception is obviously Labor/Marxist/socialist/trade union, and the very broad range of sources they use is enriched by ones one doesn't always find in histories of the Congo: The New Left Review, Socialist Register, International Socialism, International Socialism Journal, and of course Marx and Gramsci (but only in small amounts). Author Zeilig has written a dissertation on students and the struggle for democracy in Africa, and an article on Zimbabwe in International Socialism. Author Seddon has written articles on class struggle and on Marxism and anthropology, and has edited books, sometimes with co-author Zeilig, on similar topics.
The book is well researched in general, only occasionally using a secondary source (in this case) such Michela Wrong to tell us of Mulele's death. (117) The authors' political persuasions do not interfere with presenting the objective facts of the Congo's past.
There is some chronological marching backwards and forwards, due largely to the chronological organization within the sections of each chapter. For instance, the Belgian government's takeover of Leopold's Congo in 1908 is presented on page 38, then again ten pages of narrative later on page 48, in the next section.
Chapter 1, "Missionaries and Traders" actually begins, in spite of the title, with events 50,000 years ago, then goes rapidly on to the kingdoms and empires of the Congo, such as Kongo, Luba, and Lunda, the explorers such as Livingstone and Stanley, and finally, and in much more detail, King Leopold's Congo Free State (1885-1908). The author (one is not told which of the three authors wrote which of the chapters) was very insecure about his material, especially in the pre-1885 period. He states incorrectly that there are volcanoes in the area of the Bakongo (9), that only written sources are available for the history of the Congo (10), although that statement is amended later (34), that "new societies [Kuba, Luba] flourished on the ruins of the Kongo and Yaka societies" (15),and that Stanley got his "Bula Matadi" nickname during his exploration of the Congo River 1874-77 (19). He confuses Stanley's work on founding the CFS in 1879+ with his Emin Pasha expedition years later (23). Outdated terms are also used in this chapter: pygmies (7,9), tribes (15). Obviously the author of chapter one had a tenuous grasp current scholarship on the history of the Congo prior to 1908.
Things improve greatly in the succeeding chapters. Chapter 2, "Miners and Planters" covers 1908-1945, the period of the Belgian Congo up to the end of World War II, with sections on "Elisabethville" (emphasizing the issue of labor in the mines of Katanga), "The Church" (brief, mostly on the Catholics), "The social wage" (again on labor relations), "The limits of reform" and "Away from the cities (including rural issues like imposed fields), "Early independence struggles" (including Kimbangu), and "World War II". Some minor corrections: HCB was a British, not a Belgian company in the Kwilu.(54 Did Union Minière actually work in Stanleyville? (58) It was French Congo, not the Belgian Congo that Gide visited and criticized. (58 Lumumba was Prime Minister, not President. (72, but corrected 83 It was not in the late 60s that "the Belgians were being challenged for the first time" (75), as the numerous cases of resistance previously presented testify. But these are minor points, The chapter is overall valuable.
Chapter 3, "Rebels and Generals", does a good job in covering 1945 to roughly 1965 on the struggle for independence which came in 1960, the secessions of those turbulent 1960s, the fall of Lumumba, the early attempts at reuniting the nation, the civil war in the mid-60s, and finally Mobutu's 1965 coup. Some minor corrections: Hammarskjold was headed for, not from Rhodesia when his plane crashed. (104 Mercenaries were not used to crush Mulele's rebellion, but that of the East. (105) And it is an overstatement to say that the army, after 1965, took over "the running of an entire society." (109)
Chapter 4, "The Great Dictator" covers most of the Mobutu years from 1965 on, years when many of our readers were in the Congo. No great new revelations here, but a fine detailing of those events leading from the popular hope of the coup, through the various permutations of the Mobutu agenda, the economic downturn of the mid-l970s, the various attempts by IMF and others to undergird a government becoming increasingly corrupt and repressive, and the mounting resistance leading to 1990. The perceptive analysis includes the statement that "It would be absurd to regard the urban and rural poor, who had seen their living standards crumble, as somehow having benefited from the new opportunities in the informal economy." (140).
Chapter 5, "The Failed `Transition'", details those frustrating last years of the Mobutu regime in the 1990s, as hopes for change following the fall of the Soviet Union were continually dashed by the dictator's crafty sabotage of democratic efforts. It begins with the well known looting of 1991, followed by the continuing collapse of the economy, resistance and demonstrations, the "March of Hope" led by the Catholic church in 1992, the Sovereign National Conference, the various revolving governments, and finally the end of Mobutu's regime in 1997. Minor correction: diamond mining was not "new" in 1995. (150 This chapter begins the emphasis of the last two chapters: "The convergence of `criminal' activity in areas outside the control of `legal' international and national political actors is rather a defining feature of the new globalized world. Zaire was one example at the frontier of these developments." (151)
Chapter 6, "Speculators and Thieves" is the most powerful of the chapters. One would wish it could be printed as a pamphlet for wider distribution. It is an indictment of those using violence to enrich themselves at the expense of the people of Congo. The whole system is profoundly analyzed. Most attention is naturally paid to the eastern part of Congo, the role of neighboring states, the U.N., the Congolese government, local militias, and foreign companies. It covers the "rebellion" of 1996-97 that overthrew Mobutu, the brief reign of Laurent Kabila, the second war following 1998, and the rule of Joseph Kabila. Unfortunately the latest events are in 2005, a half a decade ago. The most recent source is the excellent The Curse of Gold put out by Human Rights Watch.
Some minor criticisms: the portrayal of the saga of Rwandan refugees fleeing across Congo in 1994 does not refer to the fact that many of them were being slaughtered. (177 In the 1996-97 invasion, isn't it a bit excessive to state that "American troops and spies poured into Rwanda." (179). Perhaps the figure of sixty mentioned later in the paragraph is more reasonable. In any case, the authors point out the heavy American involvement then.
Among the statements worth quoting: "The direct involvement of foreign Africa troops in the Congo in recent years has indeed led one commentator to describe them as a `self-perpetuating class of rent-seekers, prospering at the expense of productive civilians whose security and well-being will be correspondingly reduced.'" (191 While post-genocide Rwandan leader Paul Kagame was the "darling" of the West, "their economic success was being built on the exploitation of Congolese minerals sold to Western companies."(194 "The involvement of international business in the Congo has sustained the war." (204) "Coltan and diamonds dug by hand were the perfect minerals of war." (205
There is one map, a good one, an index, abundant endnotes, but no photographs and no bibliography.
May I point out some other errors for the benefit of those who do get the book (and perhaps for the authors in their next edition). These correct spellings are needed: expatriates (60), Kwilu (75, 78), Elisabethville (not Leopoldville 88), Yemo (112), Mobutu (156), Uganda (180), Onusumba (195). Sentences are repeated (8, 137, 144, 145). Quotation marks are missing (8).
Critique of the numbered footnotes will be by chapter, using roman numerals for clarity: Chapter I: footnote 12: M'bokolo, and not 1945. 16: Harms! Not Harris. 46: Stengers. 64: anciens.
II,6 and 13 and 15 and 48: Perrings. 14: Harms again. 16: River. 17: Nzongola. 36: Likaka.
III, 50: Northrup.
IV, 8,9 is not from Rumba but probably Young & Turner's impressive The Rise and Decline of the Zairian State.
Overall, the sources are in general excellent and very numerous.
In the "Conclusion", there is a fine critique of Western attitudes toward Africa. "The Congo becomes for the European, a paradigm of Africa, its `darkness' even greater than the rest of the continent....It is against these absurd arguments that this book has argued that there were no mysteries to the war, or the recent history of the Congo. It was a human catastrophe linked to globalization, profit and Western manipulation...The war, so often characterized as primitive, barbaric and inexplicable, was inherently regional and global." (208-209). The authors finish with a flourish, comparing the past in Congo, the past of Stanley and Leopold, to the present, and pointing out that today the Congo "state's collapse had come about as a result of the pressures of global restructuring that broke state capitalist regimes across the world." (209), and they quote Kennes that "the pressure of globalisation in the mining sector contributed to the final breakdown of the formerly existing model of integration of mining interest into the nation state structure" and they continue that "the convergence of `criminal' activity in areas outside the control of `legal' international and national political actors is rather an integral and even defining feature of the new globalised world." (210) They leave us in conclusion with the necessity of the resistance of the Congolese themselves, a resistance the authors have detailed in previous portions of the book. "During the years 1990-1994 the people again took to the streets, almost breaking Mobutu's reign. Civil servants, university students, trade unionists, informal traders and other groups were not acquiescent, but fought bravely for a different, democratic Congo in which people would be free of hunger and free to vote. It is to these forces, and to their resistance, that the Congo must again turn." (212)