From International Socialism (1st series), No.2, Autumn 1960, p.4.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Whatever the immediate reasons for Belgium’s precipitous retreat from imperialist control of Congo, the fundamental factor is that the colony had become too hot and too expensive to hold. The demand for labour during World War II more than doubled the African population in urban and mining areas (from 9 percent of the total African population in 1938 to 20 percent in 1950); the new workers increased their incomes from about £7 per year to about £7 per month; they saw the Belgian workers – well beyond the colour bar, it is true, but still working in close proximity – take advantage of Congo’s enforced isolation from Belgium to demand and gain the right to form trade-unions (1942) and the right to strike (1944); they too demanded these rights and won them (1946 and 1947) and went on to win a common penal code covering work contracts (1958) and equal pay (granted in theory in January 1959). These gains had to be fought for; and the history of Belgian Congo during and since the war is one of intermittent industrial and political struggle from the great Union Minière strikes in 1941 to the first revolt of the Force Publique at Luluabourg (1944) and the strikes and riots at the port of Matadi the following year, right through to the final phase: the uprising of Leopoldville’s unemployed at the beginning of January last year, which extracted the promise of independence (“without undue haste”) within one week from King Baudouin, and which, in turn, lifted the lid off the steaming mass struggle of the past year.
These concessions took the gilt off colonialism for Belgian capital. Congo as a whole became a liability. Between 1921 and 1948 Belgian investments in the colony increased fifteen-fold in money terms but not at all in real terms; on the other hand, ordinary budgetary expenses in Congo had increased 43-fold in money or 2-3 times in real terms. Congo’s balance of payments surplus dropped from over 2¼ thousand million francs to only 42 million. Not only had production in Congo become more expensive for Belgium’s parochial imperialists but other fields were opening up; the European Common Market attracted Belgian capital away from the White Man’s Burden: in 1938 Belgian imports from what are now the Common Market countries ran at just over four times her imports from Congo, thirty years later, in 1958, they were just under nine times as much; Belgian exports to her European partners were almost 12 times her exports to Congo in the latter year.
However, the rotting oyster housed a pearl – Katanga. Belgium thought at first to keep it through indirect control of the ex-colony (after all, on the eve of independence there were only 3 Africans in the first three grades of the civil service compared with 4,600 Europeans; there were 30 African warrant officers to some 1,000 Belgian officers in the Force Publique; besides, did not the Friendship Treaty provide for the resident Belgian minister to sit in on Congolese cabinet meetings?). But events proved too much and, as the Economist put it “at the twelfth hour (Belgium) hived off the only really profitable branch of the concern” (16 July).
That Belgium will not be able to stem, at the borders of Katanga, the tide of African freedom that has swept through Congo in only four years  goes without saying. There is a continent of evidence to prove it. But what then? Will it be a pension from the West to forestall another Russian toehold in Africa? Will collective western imperialism operating through the United Nations impose on the country a unity in form and a fragmentation in substance? Or will the forest return, and a peasant slum consolidate? It is yet too early to know, but such is the logic of Cold War, that until class society east and west of the Iron Curtain is smashed, the fate of Congo will be determined by considerations other than the interests of its people.
The withdrawal of Belgian troops is necessary. It is hardly sufficient to guarantee both independence and progress to Congo today.
1. The first tepid demand for independence “within 30 years” was put forward as recently as 1956.
Last updated on 14 February 2010