A “Social” Model in Africa: The Congo, 1908-1960

Anti-globalist demonstrators burned huts today in Gleneagles. What a dreadful thing to do. Black smoke filled the sky, adding to pollution and, hence, global warming. The Gleneagles demonstrators asked for social and altruistic welfare policies in Africa. Do they know that Africa had “a social and altruistic state” between 1908 and 1960? Belgium’s Congo colony.

Belgium’s colonial record is well known. It started with King Leopold II, who owned the Congo as a private colony from 1885 to 1908 and under whose rule almost half the indiginous population perished. But, after the Saxe-Coburgs had “donated” the country to Belgium, Brussels devised a constructivist social scheme to pamper the survivers. For those of you who have read Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost here is the sequel.

Emile Waxweiler

The Belgian social scheme for the post-Leopoldian Congo was masterminded by the engineer Emile Waxweiler (1867-1916), a friend of Leopold’s successor King Albert I. Waxweiler saw colonisation as a utilitarian enterprise. The natives were the valuable manpower needed by the mining industry in the Katanga and Kasai provinces. Leopold II murdered tens of thousands, but, under Albert’s rule, population management became a priority. In 1906, Leopold II had brought the Congo economy under direct control of a number of companies belonging to the Société Générale holding, such as the Union Minière (UM), its mining subsidiary. As manpower was especially needed in scarcely populated mining areas of the Katanga and the Kasai, the UM imported labourers from other parts of the Congo to supply the workforce for the mines. The labourers were selected by physicians according to strict medical criteria, because “recruiting weak elements is not only a cruelty, but a useless cruelty and economic nonsense.” They had to live in labour camps of a quasi-military nature. They were well-fed, well-housed, well-cared-for, but closely controlled. Various types of camps were drawn by Waxweiler’s Institut de Sociologie and different methods of disciplining the blacks were studied, in order to give optimal long-term labour results. Waxweiler even conducted research into the ideal diet to guarantee the highest labour productivity at the lowest cost.

In the early 1920s, the Belgian social scientists concluded that all labourers had to marry. “Married men have a better morale and a higher morality than single men. As a consequence, their ratios for sickness, mortality, desertion and absenteeism are lower and their productivity is much higher,” Waxweiler’s pupil, Dr. Leopold Mottoulle, the head of the UM’s social policy division and a leading member of the Institut Royal Colonial Belge, wrote. The UM went very far in its policy. It forced all its non-married black employees to marry. The company selected the brides. The UM actually bought young women, paying the traditional African dowries to their families. The women were recruited according to medical criteria which envisaged the ‘production’ of future labourers of quality standard.

Whenever an already married black man applied for a job at the UM, his wife had to pass medical tests as well. If she was considered physically “insufficient,” her husband did not get a job. The marriages were duly registered in order to allow the company to control the breeding process. Keeping a concubine was forbidden for the black employees, as was polygamy and adultery. The labour camps were transformed into so-called “villages indigènes,” where the labourers had to live with their families. This allowed the workforce to supply the company with children that could be moulded from the cradle into workers of optimum quality.

The so-called “indigenous villages” soon developed into huge townships where the inhabitants were pampered, but where at the same time they were guinea pigs for the Belgian social engineers. It was a closely controlled totalitarian society. “If one could say that the Union Minière was a state within the colonial state, then it was in any case a social and altruistic state,” a 1992 book about the system (Fernand Lekime’s La mangeuse de cuivre) states.

The UM-villages did, indeed, resemble the ideals of the “social and altruistic” welfare state. Every black family had its own house with a garden. The houses were semi-detached and built along avenues and streets lined with trees. The blacks were fed by the company with a protein-rich diet and much attention was paid to hygiene. Health care was free, as was the education of the children, who had to be sent to kindergarten and to primary school, where they learned basic skills, including French. Parents who did not send their children to school were punished by lowering the food ration of the mothers (not the fathers, because they had to labour in the mines). Education beyond primary school was not deemed necessary. The aim of the school was to discipline the boys into “becoming good labourers” and to teach the girls “how to be good mothers.”

Especially female behaviour was closely monitored in the “indigenous villages”. Women were perceived to be potentially more subversive elements in society than men. The women were not allowed to leave the camp. If they wanted to visit their own families, they had to provide a valid reason (such as attending a funeral) and needed a UM permit. Breastfeeding the children was discouraged, because the UM wanted to boost feminine fertility in order to create as large a pool of future labourers as possible. To enforce this policy, mothers had to bring their children to kindergarten from the age of one to be fed by the company. If a woman insisted on breastfeeding her child, her food ration was lowered.

The culmination of the Belgian social engineering project in the Congo was the creation of a new people: the Tshanga-Tshanga. Dr. Mottoulle considered it a good idea to diminish the ethnic tensions between the various tribes and peoples of the Congo by substituting them with a new race, wiping out all previously existing differences. Inter-ethnic marriages were enforced in order to artificially construct this Tshanga-Tshanga people. Its name was devised by the blacks themselves, Tshanga-Tshanga meaning The Great Equaliser. In 1937, the Belgian Prof. J. L. Frateur wrote a study about this racial project for the Institut Royal Colonial Belge, entitled: “The Notion of Race in the Light of the Results of Experimental Heredity.” The Belgians tried to discover what ethnic mixture would make the Tshanga-Tshanga people economically most profitable for the mining industry. As Dr. Van Nitsen, one of the leading racial constructivists in the Congo, wrote in 1932: “Our aim is not to make an elite, but simply to create a strong, healthy, disciplined workforce of devoted labourers.”

Nevertheless, the project was a failure, despite the fact that, as Bruno De Meulder of Leuven University concluded in 1996 (in his book De kampen van Kongo), it was “undoubtedly one of the most consistently applied attempts at social engineering ever.” Indeed, the devoted labourers frequently rebelled and often went on strike. Charles de T’Serclaes of the Société Générale opined that “a certain moral and even physical coercion” was necessary, “because laziness is the cause of the moral decline and the physical deterioration of the race.” As in the old days of Leopoldian tyranny, the chicotte, a whip made of hippopotamus hide that sliced like a knife, was frequently used to whip the blacks into submission. In 1941, after incidents at Likasi, Mottoulle wrote that he was sick and tired of the attitude of the ungrateful Tshanga-Tshanga. He regretted that the army had not opened fire and “killed two or three hundred” in order to set an example.

It is only since the international success of Hochschild’s bestselling book about Leopold II’s Congo tyranny that the Belgian government and the Royal Museum for Central Africa (at Tervuren near Brussels) have begun to admit that “individual abuses took place in the Congo” between 1885 and 1908. They qualify Hochschild, however, stating that he “exagerates” and they reject “the accusations that circulate in the [international] press.” About Belgium’s “social experiment” in the Congo between 1908 and independence in 1960 nothing is said in Belgium’s history books nor in the museum. For all we know, Brussels might even be proud of its attempts to build a “social and altruistic state” in the heart of Africa.

Africa is a block hole for any aid.

Apart from the fact that attempts of naive social engineering has a history of failure everywhere, Africa was the worst place to try it. Something is very wrong with Africa. It has been a blackhole for development aid in the past 50 years, and nothing came out of it. Asia has rebooted itself out of the economic swamp, mostly on its own effort. South-America too.

Is it the climate? Climate can indeed make people "lazy". SE-Asia with a number of equatorial countries proves that shouldn't be an excuse. Is it the tribal culture? Malaysia is equatorial and tribal and basically animistic, but is taking the lead in the regional economical development.

When transplanted to a cooler climate and another culture, Africans keep to be on the base-level of social stratifications. Matongo in Brussels and the African Americans in the US illustrate this point continuously. During The Rodney King incidents in LA, African Americans looted Korean businesses because they proved that one can become "rich" in one generation, even when freshly immigrated in a foreign culture.

Is it genetics? Horresco referens, but the Sherlock Holmes adagio might apply. "When you exhausted all other possibilities, Watson, the inconceivable might be the answer".

Europe makes a serious mistake to axe the bulge of its developmental aid towards Africa. Especially at a time where imminent implosion of the Rineland model doesn't leave a lot of investment room any more. And at the same time Europe maintains its agriculture subsidies and import-taxes at an unacceptable high level. Trade is aid. Let Africa prove itself.


Social models

Chilling and fascinating stuff. A good reminder of what can happen when things are organised by those who know what is best for us, without troubling to ask our opinion.

Bob Doney