DRC: Belgian colonialism: 1908 - 1960

Updated June 2005

The Belgian government immediately set to work to remedy the worst excesses of the King. Belgian colonial ideology constructed the Congolese people as children who required a benign but firm hand of control. The state would ensure their wellbeing and in turn demanded their loyalty, obedience and hard work. While brutal practices such as massacres and the chopping off of hands of peasants who failed to fulfill their quotas ceased, the exploitative practices of forced labour and compulsory production were only slowly phased out (Library of Congress 1993a).

Belgian government of the territory was an uneasy mixture of indirect rule through existing chiefdoms, which were substantially remodeled to conform to the exigencies of colonial needs, and ridged and pervasive measures of social control. The attempts to transform traditional rulers into salaried functionaries, and the endless tampering with these structures that followed on this, undermined their legitimacy and hastened their disintegration as valid expressions of indigenous civic life. The curfews, population resettlements and stringent police controls, on the other hand, engendered hostility without creating structures of enduring value (Library of Congress 1993b).

In line with prevailing European thinking on such matters, the colony had to be made to pay for itself. Social expenditures on health, education and welfare were avoided by delegating responsibility to missionary groups (especially Catholic orders), who were encouraged to set up operations within the territory. Business interests were allowed, and even required, to exercised functions that would elsewhere be performed by the state (Library of Congress 1993b, Answers.com 2005).

The entire, rather extensive, civil service and the leadership ranks of the security forces were staffed by Europeans. No thought was given to the training of indigenous people to staff these structures at any point in the future, any more than measures taken to draw the Congolese into representation in governing councils or participation in the selection of governing agents (Library of Congress 1993b).

Congolese docility had existed more in the minds of the colonisers than in those of the colonised. Almost all Congolese shared a history of resistance to Belgian penetration at various places and times. The emergence of the Kimbanguist Church in the 1920s was, as the Belgians themselves quickly appreciated, an act of resistance. Belgian persecution of the movement only embittered Congolese and hardened anti-Belgian attitudes (Answers.com 2005).

The Second World War accelerated the social transformations already underway, urbanisation, proletarianisation and the emergence of an indigenous intelligentsia. These new social groups were neither docile nor obedient; they were easily infected with European concepts such as self-determination, democracy, socialism and nationalism (Country Watch 1998).

Like other colonial powers Belgium awoke too late to the changes that had been unleashed. Reforms promulgated by the government aimed at co-opting and incorporating Congolese into governing structures were inadequate to satisfy emerging aspirations, while paradoxically reaffirming the legitimacy of those aspirations (Country Watch 1998).

The consequence of all this was the emergence in the 1950s of nationalist leaders and groups among the Kongo (the ethnic Alliance of the Kongo People), in Katanga (the regional Confederation of Katanga Associations) and in the formation of the left-wing Mouvement National Congolais (led by the charismatic nationalist Patrice Lumumba (Library of Congress 1993d, 1993e).

The new nationalist movements expressed themselves in the democratically elected local structures created by Belgian reforms. When Belgian efforts at stemming the nationalist tide in Kinshasa (then Leopoldsville) provoked riots they abruptly executed a u-turn and set the Belgian Congo on a rapid timetable to independence (Library of Congress 1993c).


ANSWERS.COM 2005 "Democratic Republic of the Congo", [www] http://www.answers.com/main/ntquery;jsessionid=16o66sa9kiwtz?tname=congo- country-zaire&curtab=2222_1&hl=congo&hl=country&hl=zaire&sbid=lc02a [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

COUNTRY WATCH 1998 "Country Information for the Congo (DRC)", [www] http://www.countrywatch.com/country_profile.aspx?vcountry=40 [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS 1993a "Belgian Paternalism: Underlying Postulates" IN Country Studies, [www] http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+zr0041) [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS 1993b "The Apparatus of Control" IN Country Studies, [www] http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+zr0042) [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS 1993c "Postwar Reforms" IN Country Studies, [www] http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+zr0043) [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS 1993d "The Rise of Militant Ethnicity: Abako" IN Country Studies, [www] http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+zr0026) [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS 1993d "The Challenge of Territorial Nationalism: Lumumba and the MNC" IN Country Studies, [www] http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+zr0027) [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).