Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason K. Stearns (2011)

There was not one Congo war, or even two, but forty or fifty different, interlocking wars. Local conflicts fed into regional and international conflicts and vice versa.
(Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, page 69)

Twin wives

The coolest thing about President Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (1930 to 1997), latterly known as Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, dictator of Congo / Zaire from 1965 to 1997, was that, after his beloved first wife Marie-Antoinette Gbiatibwa Gogbe Yetene died in 1977, he married twins.

Well, technically, he married Bobi Ladawa in 1980 (Mobutu asked Pope John Paul II to officiate at the ceremony but the canny Pole politely declined). But Bobi had an identical twin, Kosia, and they shared the presidential marriage bed, sometimes singly, sometimes together, and they appeared at state occasions as a threesome.

Bobi bore the Great Leader four children, and Kosia bore him three daughters. Rumour had it that the deeply superstitious Mobutu was scared by the thought that the ghost of first wife Marie-Antoinette would return to haunt him so he a) had the vault of her mausoleum hermetically sealed to prevent her spirit getting out but b) kept the twins by him so they could ward off ghostly attacks from either side. Obviously that didn’t stop Mobutu having many other sexual adventures, like all the men in this story, but I can’t help admiring the twin wife strategy for warding off supernatural attack.

The two wives of Mobutu: Bobi Kadawa and Kosia, identical twins

The two wives of President Joseph Mobutu, Bobi and Kosia Kadawa, identical twins

Synopsis

The Great War of Africa is said to have lasted from 1998 to 2003. At its height it drew in armies from about 12 African countries and involved over 40 different militias to create a chaos of violence, massacre and destruction across large swathes of what was then called Zaire, now the Democratic Republic Congo, in central Africa. The war was meant to have been ended by the Sun City Agreement supervised by South African president Thabo Mbeki but in fact, nearly 20 years later, conflict continues to wrack various parts of the Congo, including the Kivu area in the far east of Congo, near the border with Rwanda.

Background

Traditionally the best way to understand roots of the great war is to start with the Rwandan genocide (1994), and the best way to understand that is as one of the snowballing consequences of the Rwandan civil war (1990 to 1993). Everything derives from this event. This idea immediately puts things in perspective and much easier to explain.

Tutsi and Hutu

To understand the Rwandan civil war you need to know that the Tutsi minority in Rwanda had been subjected to racial prejudice and periodic pogroms and massacres since before the country’s independence in 1962. For a century or more prior to this the Tutsi minority which made up about 10% of the population of Rwanda had lorded it over the Hutu majority. For centuries there had been a Tutsi king at the head of a Tutsi aristocracy and they all regarded the Hutu as peasants who worked the land.

In 1959 the Tutsi monarchy was overthrown when the last Tutsi king died in mysterious circumstances (after being injected by a Belgian doctor) and Hutu politicians led an uprising which drove many Tutsis into exile in the neighbouring countries of Uganda to the North, Zaire to the West and Tanzania to the East. This became known as the Hutu Revolution. At independence in 1962, Hutu politicians took leadership of Rwanda and there were periodic pogroms and massacres of the Tutsi minority in local regions or towns throughout the 1960s and 70s, forcing more to flee into exile.

In Zaire the exiles were mostly centred in two areas, north and south Kivu, so-named because they lie to the north and the south of Lake Kivu which forms most of the border between Rwanda and Zaire.

Yoweri Museveni

However, it’s in Uganda that the story begins. Because it was here that second-generation Tutsi exiles from Hutu-led Rwanda decided to join Yoweri Museveni’s rebellion against Ugandan dictator Milton Obote in the 1980s. Why? Because the Rwandan refugees in Uganda were persecuted by Obote, as they had been by his predecessor Idi Amin – discriminated against, lived in poverty, were jeered and spat on by Ugandans – so overthrowing Obote would directly improve their lives.

Museveni’s campaign became known as the Ugandan Bush War and ended with Museveni seizing power in 1986. (In fact, Museveni remains president of Uganda to this day, an indication of how difficult so many African nations find it to manage transitions between leaders.)

Having successfully overthrown one dictator, the senior Tutsis in Museveni’s army naturally got to thinking about overthrowing the dictator of their own homeland Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana, and thus being able to return from exile.

The RPF and the Rwandan civil war 1990 to 1993

In 1990 a small cohort of Tutsis who had risen to senior positions in Museveni’s army went absent without leave, taking guns and weapons with them, and launched an invasion of north Rwanda, calling themselves the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

The Rwandan army, supported by French soldiers flown in to support them, repelled the invasion and drove the RPF back into the northern mountains, but here they regrouped under the brilliant leadership of Paul Kagame and settled into an effective guerrilla campaign.

This dragged on for three years until international arbitrators forced the RPF to the negotiating table with Rwanda’s dictator Juvénal Habyarimana in August 1993. Habyarimana and elements in the Rwandan military and political world then did everything they could to delay implementation of the peace deal – the Arusha Accords – which they deeply resented because it required assimilation of the Tutsi exiles into the Rwandan cabinet and army.

Unlike the hardliners, however, Habyarimana came under pressure to fulfil the accords from the ‘international community’ and by spring the following year, 1994, looked like he was about to begin implementing them.

The racist ideology of Hutu Power

During the war a loose association of Hutu extremists had developed which enunciated an ideology of Hutu Power in racist propaganda outlets such as magazines and radio stations. They had representatives at the highest level of the army, political sphere and the media and slowly cranked up propaganda claiming the RPF didn’t just want to return from exile, but were planning a Tutsi revolution to restore the Tutsi monarchy and return the majority Hutu population to serfdom and slavery.

Habyarimana’s plane is shot down triggering the Rwandan genocide

It was against this extremely tense background that President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down by two ground-to-air missiles as it came in to land at Kigali airport on the evening of 6 April 1994, as he returned from attending a summit of East African leaders in Dar es Salaam. To this day there is acrimonious dispute about who shot it down: the French (Habyarimana’s strongest Western supporters) claiming it was agents of the Tutsi RPF; the RPF claiming it was hard line elements within the Hutu military.

The truth will probably never be known, but within the hour leading Hutu Power hardliners seized power, sending Presidential Guards to murder the country’s Prime Minister and all other cabinet members who weren’t part of their Hutu Power ideology, then ordering all army units to round up and kill as many Tutsi as they could get their hands on. This only makes sense if you realise it was the behaviour of men who genuinely thought a) the RPF was attempting a coup to restore Tutsi total domination of society, and therefore b) Hutus must be rallied to ‘fight back’ and eliminate all Tutsi, everywhere, because who knew how many of them might not be traitors and Fifth Columnists, enemies and – to use the dehumanising word which the propaganda relentlessly drummed home – ‘cockroaches’.

Rwanda has always stood out from its neighbours in being an unusually well organised and hierarchical society, and orders from the centre were quickly dispatched to regional leaders and passed down to ‘commune’ level. These local administrators had lists of all Tutsis living in their area, and the army and the fast-growing militia, the Interahamwe, were sent to work systematically through every city, town and village, to identify and murder every Tutsi they could find. By the time the message percolated down to militia level it had become very simplified: all Tutsi were in on the conspiracy to murder the beloved president and return all Hutu to slavery. “Quick, now, kill them all before they start to murder and enslave us!”

The RPF end the genocide

As soon as the killing started the RPF, which had established headquarters 50 miles north of Kigali, abandoned the peace accords and resumed its advance. Being far more disciplined and effective fighters than the poorly disciplined Rwandan army, let alone the drunk, crude, blood-thirsty Interahamwe gangs, the RPF advanced quickly.

The genocidal attempt to exterminate all the Tutsis in Rwanda was not halted by any external powers, not by the UN or Americans or French, but solely by the efforts of the RPF as it systematically conquered the country and, everywhere it came, ended the massacres. By July 1994 they had taken the country and the genocide effectively came to an end.

The Hutu refugee crisis

But such was the terror the Hutu Power propagandists had sown about Tutsi domination that as they swept through the country, the RPF created panic among the Hutu population and a huge number of Hutus fled. In the end as many as 2 million Hutus fled across Rwanda’s borders into exile, the great majority west across the border into Zaire.

Here a number of mega-sized refugee camps were established. At first the refugees lived in utter poverty, disease took hold, hundreds died every day of cholera until international aid agencies arrived by the hatful, with tents and water and food. It was a vast operation, which ended up costing millions of dollars a day.

However, there was a bitter irony at work because among the hundreds of thousands of impoverished refugees were many of the Hutu organisers of the original genocide and they rapidly set about re-establishing their authoritarian rule over the civilians, using the Interahamwe and other militias to terrorise the refugees. They established no-go zones where UN write didn’t extend, they inflated the numbers of refugees in order to maximise Western aid, which they then creamed off for themselves.

In the Rwanda capital, Kigali, Paul Kagame, officially vice-president but still head of the army and the acknowledged power in the land, complained that the international community had done nothing to stop the worst genocide since the Holocaust, and was now giving more money and support to the génocidaires than to the country they had half destroyed.

Hutu Power regroups and renews anti-Tutsi violence

Not only that but the Hutu Power ideologues began military operations. There were long-established Tutsi populations in north and south Kivu and revitalised Hutu armed groups began attacking them with the sole purpose of killing as many Tutsi as possible. Then they began crossing the border into Rwanda and attacking police stations or massacring small Tutsi communities. In other words, the same people who carried out the anti-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, were trying to continue it in their new setting.

Kagami asked the UN to move the refugee camps further away from the border with Rwanda, and appealed to individual Western powers such as America and France. Individual Western analysts later admitted that the optimal solution would have been to use overpowering force to go into the camps and separate the militias and the Hutu Power authorities from the vast majority of Hutu refugees, to peacefully return the latter to their towns and villages in Rwanda, and to have imprisoned and charged the latter.

But this would have required a lot of UN soldiers, cost a fortune and, most decisively, risked all out conflict a) something the UN is not meant to get involved in b) something vetoed by America since its traumatic experience during the Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993, when highly trained, well-armed American forces had entered Mogadishu to neutralise a militia which had been terrorising the city, but which ended in the surrounding and killing of 19 US servicemen. Intervention in the huge, highly armed Hutu camps would have been a very similar scenario with the same risks. The Americans said no (p.335).

Rwanda creates the AFDL

The situation festered for 2 years but Kagame but the Rwandan leadership had made their minds up and begun planning soon after the genocide ended. They knew the international community would severely disapprove of an invasion but would be less censorious of an internal conflict. Therefore they created an entity named the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL). Stearns goes into greater detail than anything else I’ve read on the way the leadership for the new group was chosen and gives an extensive profile of the disgruntled old Marxist rebel leader, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who had been leading a feeble rebellion against President Mobutu’s rule since the 1960s, who was chosen for the job.

The First Congo War October 1996 to May 1997

But despite its Congolese name and Congolese ‘leader’ the AFDL largely consisted or Rwandan and Ugandan armed forces. In October 1996 they invaded eastern Congo and began fighting the Congolese army. Stearns gives plentiful eyewitness accounts of how utterly useless the Congo army was. Troops, including senior officers, simply turned and ran, looting what they could along the way.

The AFDL entered the refugee camps, fought Hutu Power elements who fled west into the jungle, and dramatically succeeded in their first aim, which was to dismantle the camps and force up to a million Hutu refugees to return to Rwanda where, to their surprise, they were treated well and helped to return to their towns and villages.

Zairian dictator Joseph Mobutu had been a close personal friend of Rwandan dictator Habyarimana and after the plane crash had his remains flown to his complex of luxury palaces in Gbadolite. He promised her and the other Hutu Power ideologues that he would help them return to power in Rwanda. Mobutu supported the reorganisation of the génocidaires in the refugee camps and his army helped revived Hutu militias carry out anti-Tutsi massacres in Kivu.

Therefore it was entirely logical and no surprise that the second aim of the AFDL was to overthrow Mobutu. Stearns interviews some AFDL officials and some of the many child soldiers or kadogo who made up the AFDL ranks and gathers the sense that most of them were incredulous at this aim. Attacking the refugee camps a few miles from Rwanda’s border was one thing, but ‘marching’ the thousand miles west to Zaire’s capital Kinshasa, through thick jungle with few if any usable roads and fording umpteen rivers, seemed like a fantasy.

Yet they did it. AFDL forces split into two broad wings, one marching west to Kinshasa, the other heading south to seize the vital mineral centres of Mbuji-Mayi and, in the far south of the country, Lubumbashi, the other heading west to the capital. Stearns is keen to clarify that:

The war that started in Zaire in September 1996 was not, above all, a civil war. It was a regional conflict, pitting a new generation of young, visionary African leaders against Mobutu Sese Soku, the continent’s dinosaur. (p.54)

Thus:

Not since the heyday of apartheid in South Africa had the continent seen this kind of mobilisation behind a cause. For the leaders of the movement, it was a proud moment in African history, when Africans were doing it for themselves in face of prevarication from the west and the United Nations. Zimbabwe provided tens of millions of dollars in military equipment and cash to the rebellion. Eritrea sent a battalion from its navy to conduct covert speedboat operations on Lake Kivu. Ethiopia and Tanzania sent military advisers. President Museveni recalled: “Progressive African opinion was galvanised.” (p.55)

RCD massacres and atrocities

It would be nice to report that the advancing AFDL and their Rwandan and Ugandan allies were greeted as liberators from the tired old dictatorship of Mobutu, and in many places they were, but, alas, Stearns gives eyewitness accounts of many places where Rwandan forces carried out massacres of locals, giving stomach-churning details of the massacres at Kasika and Kilungutwe, pages 251 to 261.

If only it was the story of an aggrieved nation overthrowing the wicked dictator of the neighbouring country who had supported the genocide, it would be a clean-cut fairy tale. But Stearns has clearly been very affected by the survivors of local massacres and pogroms he met and gives a much darker picture. He extrapolates out from the specific towns he visited to quote UN figures for the number of civilians massacred in the war and the extraordinary number of women raped and defiled (by defiled I mean things like pregnant women having their bellies ripped open by bayonets, their babies torn out, and then their dismembered bodies carefully arranged in obscenely pornographic poses – that kind of thing.) Thus it was that in a few short years, what many hoped was a kind of pan-African crusade, turned into a squalid affair of massacres and corruption.

Within several years, the Congo was to become the graveyard for this lofty rhetoric of new African leadership as preached by Mbeki, Albright, and many others. Freedom fighters were downgraded to mere marauding rebels; self-defence looked even more like an excuse for self-enrichment. Leaders who had denounced the big men of Africa who stayed in power for decades began appearing more and more like the very creatures they had fought against for so many years. (p.56)

And there is something eerie about the way the issue of Tutsis remained central to the entire story, as if the Tutsi-Hutu animosity is some really deep, ancestral Biblical curse. The atrocities Stearns investigates later on the book were all carried out by the RCD (the Congolese Rally for Democracy, the fig leaf name given to the Rwandan forces in the AFDL alliance) and these were of predominantly Tutsi ethnicity and this leads Stearns to discover that a bitter and abiding hatred of the Tutsi had been created in a trail of bloodshed right across Congo. Reading this book was sometimes like being in a nightmare where no-one can escape from the endless hyperviolence triggered by the endless obsession with ethnicity.

May 1997 Mobutu flees, Kabila becomes president

To cut a long story short, after failed negotiations mediated by everyone’s favourite African leader, Nelson Mandela, Mobutu and his ruling clique hastily fled Kinshasa into exile (where he died a few months later, an embittered sick old man) and Laurent Kabila was installed as president, promptly changing the country’s name back from Zaire to Congo.

Here as elsewhere in this book, Stearns goes into a lot more detail than any other account I’ve read, giving an in-depth account of Kabila’s 18 month rule, its few strengths and its many weaknesses. Chief among the weaknesses was the simple fact that he had no democratic mandate. He had won power by force and, what’s more, very obviously force backed by foreign countries, Rwanda and Uganda. He was a foreign imposition. Many in the political class had spent their entire lives campaigning against Mobutu, had been imprisoned sometimes tortured, multiple times, most notably the political survivor Étienne Tshisekedi. Polls suggested that if free elections were held, Tshisekedi would win by a landslide 70+% while Kabila would get around 10%. So he couldn’t hold free elections.

And his foreign backers very quickly made themselves unpopular. In the kind of detail this book excels at, Stearns tells us that youthful RCD cadres lorded it over the easy-going Kinshasans (or Kinois, in French). They took it upon themselves to upbraid Kinshasan women for wearing immoral western outfits (tight jeans) and  forced Kinshasan men to lie on the floor and be beaten with canes for minor traffic infractions.

Stearns’ account makes it easy to understand why Kabila lost popularity on all fronts. None of this would have mattered, at least in the short term, if he had kept the support of his chief external backers, Rwanda and Uganda. But, seeing how unpopular their presence was making him, Kabila made the fateful mistake of blaming everything on them and expelling all external forces and advisers.

Second Congo War August 1998 July 2003

The details are complicated but the overall story is simple: Rwanda reacted very badly to being expelled by the very man they had helped to put in power and so they and Uganda, once again, mounted an invasion of Congo in what was, in effect, the Second Congo War. This time, however, more foreign countries got involved and this is the start of what came to be called the war of Africa.

In the First Congo War, other nations beyond Rwanda and Uganda had got involved. Other regional powers such as Angola and Zimbabwe wanted to see Mobutu overthrown and so had sent nominal forces to help the AFDL. There was general unanimity among most of his neighbours to get rid of the old leopard.

However, the second Congo war saw the breaking up of this alliance: Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi were still allies and the main force behind the second invasion; but Angola, Namibia, Chad and Zimbabwe lined up behind the Kabila regime.

The first Congo war was fought on points of principle: closing the refugee camps, neutralising the Hutu militias and overthrowing Mobutu. The second Congo war was more about seizing resources, about money and influence. Thus Robert Mugabe, dictator of Zimbabwe, had loaned Kabila up to $200 million during the first campaign and wanted it paid back. As a reward, Kabila had awarded Zimbabwe a valuable ammunition contract, and other lucrative agricultural and mining contracts were in the offing.

For Angola, Mobutu had been a thorn in their side, offering sanctuary to the UNITA rebels (and channeling CIA funds to them) as they fought the left-wing Angolan government. Kabila had presented a clean break with that tradition and so won Angolan support.

Once again there is something eerie in the way the Tutsi issue raised its head again for Kabila responded to the Rwandan invasion by trying to rouse Congolese patriotism on his side chiefly by  resorting to fierce anti-Tutsi propaganda, just the kind of hate speech he had been hired by Kagame and co to stamp out in the Hutu Power refugee camps.

In the absence of strong civic institutions, ethnicity remains an enduring identifier

It’s an example of the point Stearns makes in the summary of his book that, in the absence of strong state institutions and traditions, ethnicity is one of the few enduring, solid, easily identifiable values citizens of many post-colonial countries have. It provides a mental, cultural, linguistic identity which everyone can understand, from the most over-educated professor to the illiterate peasant in his field. As soon as news of the new invasion from Rwanda became known, all Tutsi everywhere in Congo became fair game, and Stearns recounts numerous roundings up and mass executions of Tutsi. This is what I meant by the nightmare of ethnicity which I mentioned earlier. There is stomach-churning violence and bloodshed on almost every page of this book.

Just the buildup

Believe it nor not, all the preceding is just the the build-up to the great war of Africa. You need to understand all the above to make sense of what followed, which was five years of confusing conflict, eventually involving the armies of some 12 African nations and over 40 different militias.

The odd thing about this book is that it is brilliant about the build-up, shedding light on many of the incidents and events I’ve outlined above. Stearns has met a lot of key players and eyewitnesses and treats their testimony with great sophistication, starting chapters by introducing us to apparently random individuals and then, by letting them tell their stories, slowly revealing the role they played as army leaders, or political players or child soldiers or survivors of massacres, filling in part of the jigsaw and then often going on to make general points about, for example, the role of child soldiers in the conflict, or the recurrence of anti-Tutsis sentiment, or analysing in detail just why the Congo army was such rubbish and why the Congo state as a whole collapsed so easily to foreign invasion.

(This is because, in a nutshell, Joseph Mobutu had spent 32 years hollowing out, undermining and weakening the Congolese state. Mobutu thought that strong state institutions, such as an independent judiciary, police force, free press and strong well-trained army would all threaten his hold on power. So he created a system in which nobody received regular wages but everyone depended on him, the Great Chief, for handouts, bonuses and rewards. He recreated the traditional African social structure of the strong chief handing out rewards to family, clan, tribe and those who pleased him, and in doing so hollowed out and destroyed almost all the structures of a functioning society, including even the mining companies which were all that kept the Zaire economy from complete collapse, but which he sold off for quick profits, preferring to cream off money here and now so that none was left to invest, so that the infrastructure collapsed, power stations failed, mines flooded, entire mines were abandoned, output collapsed and the Zairian economy along with it. The more you read about his rule, the more astonishing it becomes that someone could be so criminally irresponsible in running a country.)

Weakness of the book

Often Stearns creates this effect by starting a new chapter by introducing us to a new personage, who we slowly get to know, describing the circumstances of his interview and so on, before slowly getting round to the point of how they fit into the history. In other words this is not a conventional chronological history, it is more like a series of magazine-style profiles of emblematic individuals which help us into the events and stories which form the history.

Anyway, although the book is nominally about the Great African War it’s more than a bit ironic that this method, which has served him so well during the preceding 200 pages, somehow breaks down when it comes to the main subject of the book. David van Reybrouck’s book about Congo breaks the Second Congo War / Great War of Africa down into 4 distinct phases with an explanation of each phase and maps showing how the vast territory of Congo was divided between various armies during each phase.

There is nothing as clear or graspable in this book. Instead Stearns continues his method of approaching the subject obliquely via biographies of individuals who he met and interviewed at length but, after a few chapters, I began to feel I was missing any understanding of the bigger picture. Thus there’s a long profile of Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, an ageing Marxist professor who was, unexpectedly made head of the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) and why, not surprisingly, this didn’t work out. Stearns tracks him down to poverty-stricken shack in a remote suburb of Kinshasa and finds him still unbelieving of the mass violence which accompanied the RCD campaigns.

Jean-Pierre Bemba

Then there is a long chapter about Jean-Pierre Bemba, the bull-like rebel who set up his own group, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) which in 1999 took control of the north of the country. Stearns is good on Bemba’s close relationship with Mobutu during the good times, and the roots of his rebellion, and then the (inevitable) descent into massacres and atrocities (real atrocities which are so disgusting I won’t repeat them, p.230). The kind of thing which wrecked the high-minded pan-African rhetoric which I quoted at the start.

Pastor Philippe

He meets Pastor Philippe, witness to a horrifying massacre in Kisingani, in which his own children were brutally murdered (p.243) and this broadens out into a series of descriptions of atrocities carried out throughout the region. Wherever you turn there’s a group of soldiers gagging to round up the village, lock them in the local church, chuck in some hand grenades and burn the building to the ground, or spray it with machine gun fire, or round up the village into a hall and call them out one by one to have their throats slit like goats, or get the men to watch while the women are gang-raped, and so on. On and on it goes, with stomach-churning atrocities on every page. Pastor Philippe thought the Tutsi soldiers were so savage because they were brain damaged after the genocide (p.243). (This is not as eccentric as it sounds; elsewhere Stearns quotes a study in a psychiatric journal estimating that around a quarter of Rwandans who lived through the genocide still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. p.46).

Occupants of a house in a village Rwandan troops had taken over got into an argument with the soldier standing guard outside so he stuck his kalashnikov through the window and emptied a clip, killing everyone inside (p.248).

All these accounts explain why Stearns has a markedly more anti-Rwanda attitude than most of the other accounts I’ve read. It also feeds into a chapter Stearns devotes to estimates by aid agencies and the UN about how many people died during the five years of the war. The best estimate is 4 to 5 million died either through direct violence or the result of being dislodged from their land, becoming refugees, disease and starvation, and a shocking 200,000 women have been raped (p.263).

(This critical attitude to Rwanda is partly explained by Stearns’ CV. Born in California in 1976, and privately educated, Stearns took a degree in political science and was lined up to attend Harvard Law School when he first travelled to the Congo in 2001 to work for a local human rights organization, Héritiers de la Justice. Between 2005 and 2007, Stearns was based in Nairobi as a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, working on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. In 2007, he left to spend a year and a half researching and writing this book, based on interviews with leading protagonists of the conflict. In 2008, Stearns was named as coordinator of the United Nations Group of Experts on the Congo, a panel responsible for researching support and financing of armed groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. In their final report, the Group found both the Rwandan and Congolese governments guilty of violating United Nations sanctions. So Stearns is very highly qualified indeed to make these kinds of judgements.)

Back to the war, only a tiny fraction of the estimated 5 million death toll came from actual fighting because, as Stearns makes abundantly clear, the soldiers were mostly useless at set piece battles. The Congolese army, in particular, just dumped their weapons and ran away. What all the armies and militias of every side were extremely good at was massacring unarmed civilians, slitting their throats, tying their hands and chucking them in the nearest river, bayoneting them to death, gang raping women before cutting their vaginas open, dashing babies and toddlers brains out against walls or trees, and so on, and on, and on, for page after page. (The most disgusting disfigurements are from the massacre at Kasika on page 257.)

The assassination of Laurent Kabila 16 January 2001

Chapter 18, pages 267 to 284, is devoted to the assassination of Laurent Kabila, two and a bit years into the war, on 16 January 2001. He was shot dead in broad daylight in his office in Kinshasa by one of his personal bodyguards, a former child soldier who had accompanied him from the early days of the First Congo War. The assassination is the departure point for a review of Kabila’s administration which, basically, reverted to the same kind of personal rule as Mobutu, keeping all civic institutions weak and running everything by feudal patronage of the king-chieftain. Because of the collapse of the mining infrastructure Kabila became more and more reliant on cash from Angola and Zimbabwe to pay his troops and just about keep his rule afloat.

Stearns explains that in Congo this is known as envelopperie i.e. the system whereby nobody receives a fixed salary, but everything works by unmarked envelopes filled with cash. This isn’t corruption. It is the way the entire state is run, from the highest level of the cabinet, throughout the civil service, all local administration, the army and the police, right down to the lowliest business deals (p.321).

Anyway, Kabila’s assassination was also the focus for numerous conspiracy theories, just as the shooting down of Habyarimana’s plane had been seven years earlier. Was it a revolt of the small cadre of child soldiers who were disgruntled at not being paid and the general chaos of Kabila’s rule. Or was it organised by the Angolan government who had previously supported him, because Kabila had reverted to allowing UNITA to smuggle diamonds through Congo as long as he got a much-needed cut? Or was it the people who had most to gain, a conspiracy organised by Paul Kagame and the Rwandans?

After much debate among his courtiers, it was decided he would be succeeded by one of his many sons by his numerous mistresses, Joseph Kabila, and this leads onto an extended profile of Joseph’s shy, reclusive, character. Anyone who expected a dramatic change in the style of government in Congo was initially heartened when he slowly got rid of the advisers who had surrounded his father and replaced them with a young generation of technocrats, but then disillusioned as he proceeded to use many of the same tactics his father. Joseph went on to rule as president from January 2001 to January 2019. He was only with difficulty persuaded to have genuine democratic elections in December 2018, which led to the election of Félix Tshisekedi, himself the son of Étienne Tshisekedi who was for so long a thorn in the side of Mobutu. African dynasties of power and who is, at the time of writing, still president.

Congo’s crooked mining industries

The next chapter, chapter 19, titled Paying For The War, pages 285 to 304, does what it says on the tin and gives a detailed account of the heroic mismanagement of Congo’s vast mineral wealth by Mobutu inn his 32 years of misrule, which was accelerated by Kabila in his three and a half year rule.

Both these rulers proved incapable of understanding that you need to invest significant amounts in infrastructure (power plants and cabling, roads, proper maintenance of mines and machinery, decent accommodation, schools and hospitals for tens of thousands of workers) and let all those things decay and collapse into (literal) ruins. This explains why few respectable multinationals were prepared to step in to run mines to extract the rich stores of copper, tin, coltan and uranium which sit under Congo soil.

And it explains why the way was left open for smaller operators who were prepared to take more of a risk, who didn’t have the wherewithal to rebuild the ruined infrastructure, but had the nous to get in and extract the easiest veins or even trawl through heaps of slag to extract what they could. Mobutu and then Kabila encouraged this behaviour because they wanted some money now to pay for the endless war, rather than vague promises of a lot of money in the future, and this explains why, as per Stearns’ method throughout, he elucidates the subject via a profile of entrepreneurial mining engineer Jean-Raymond Boulle, a foreigner (p.286), and then of Pierre Goma, a native Congolese (p.296). Olivier is attributed a pithy quote which sums things up usefully:

“The first war had been about getting rid of the refugee camps and overthrowing Mobutu. The second was about business.” (p.297)

Joseph Kabila

The penultimate chapter, pages 307 to 325 of this 327-page book, is devoted to the character and achievement in office of young Joseph Kabila who succeeded his assassinated father. This is all very interesting as far as it goes, but as I got to the end of the book I realised something fairly simple.

Somehow, in the previous 100 pages, although he makes mention of some military engagements and the leader of one particular rebel group, Jean-Pierre Bemba, and the stuff about the mineral industry, and some stomach-churning accounts of atrocities… somehow Stearns has failed to give a good overview of the Great War of Africa itself. There’s no chronology or overview or sense of the different phases of the war as are given in just a handful of pages in David van Reybrouck’s account.

It’s strange that a book ostensibly devoted to the Great War of Africa contains a wealth of information about the build-up to it, extensive information about the key players and many peripheral aspects of it, such as the funding from Zimbabwe or the trade in illegal diamonds and so on… and yet almost nothing by way of conventional account of the war itself, which groups fought where, if and where there were any major battles. In the quote I give at the start of this review he mentions that the war in fact involved 40 or more conflicts but he nowhere explains what these are.

I think the good reviews of the book stem from the fact that he is brilliant on the long, long buildup to the war, gives more in-depth and information rich profiles of key players such as Paul Kagame or Laurent Kabila than I’ve read anywhere else, and also features extensive profiles of individuals whose stories shed light on all aspects of the conflict which kicked off with the RPF invasion of Rwanda in 1990… and yet details of the Great War itself… oddly patchy, unsystematic.

I like the persona of Stearns who emerges from the book, I admire the immense amount of research he’s done, I enjoy his clear, authoritative, reasonable style, I am gripped by the portraits of so many Congolese and Rwandans, every page contains fascinating insights into life in the region, complemented by facts and figures from western aid agencies or economic bodies (about the Congo economy, the mining industry and so on).

And yet, puzzlingly, almost bizarrely, there’s a hole in the middle of the book where an authoritative account of the war itself should be.

Conclusions

In his final short chapter  (pages 327 to 337) Stearns draws some conclusions from this sorry history.

The media

First he blames the media:

  1. the short attention span of 24/7 news in which only the most bloody/grotesque stories can make it amid the endless turnover of domestic stories means that…
  2. stories from beyond the West rarely feature and, if they do, without any background or context…
  3. thus fuelling the general sense that these atrocities are happening far away in a conflict which is endlessly plagued by genocide and civil war

1. This is all true but it’s hard to see what can change it. It’s the same complaint Michael Ignatieff makes in chapter one of The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience (1998) where he calls for sweeping reform of TV news, which will replace superficial 3-minute items with in-depth documentaries, thus informing the citizens of the West about the deeper causes and contexts of the umpteen conflicts around the world, and so informing the decisions of Western governments about where and how to intervene and help.

2. Secondly, it’s not the media making it up or exaggerating – there has been a steady flow of atrocities, civil wars, massacres and genocides from Africa for most of my life, which overlaps almost exactly with the arrival of African independence in the early 1960s. The Congo Crisis, the Biafra Crisis, Idi Amin expelling Ugandan Asians, Emperor Bokassa and his fridge full of human heads, the daily reports of police atrocities in South Africa, the famine in Ethiopia, civil war in Sudan, civil war across the Mahgreb, the antics of Colonel Gaddafi, the Ethiopian famine and Band Aid, the collapse of Somalia and the activities of its pirates, the Rwandan genocide and so on. In the last week, while I’ve been reading this book, there’s been 1) a military coup in Sudan 2) the rapid advance of the rebel alliance which looks like it might overthrow the Ethiopian government, and 3) ongoing killings in the Kivu region of east Congo, which has suffered continual unrest since the events described above. In other words, Africa has been a source of endless disaster stories for most of my life. The media isn’t making them up.

It is unrealistic to expect the British viewing public to submit to hour-long documentaries about each of these situations. All the evidence is that the majority of the British public don’t give much of a damn about politics in their own country, so expecting them to put the effort into understanding the intricacies of conflicts thousands of miles away is utopian.

3. Thirdly, Stearns’ own text acts against his own argument. He scolds the media for presenting an image of Africa dominated by disaster, war and death at the end of a long, gruelling account of disaster, war and death in Africa. Far from countering the stereotype, Stearns’ book deepens and exacerbates my sense of Africa as the location of unending ethnic conflict, massacres, pogroms, atrocities and a terrifyingly high level of killing and rape.

The best way for Africans to stop their continent being portrayed as a zone of endless civil wars and atrocities is not to blame western media but to stop having endless wars and atrocities.

Ignatieff and Stearns in their different books seem to think that if only western audiences knew more about these faraway African conflicts, they would take a more sympathetic view of them. Well, looking up the Sun City Agreement on Wikipedia led me in two clicks to the ‘Effacer le tableau’ genocide. This isn’t even mentioned in Stearns’ book but was one of the many catastrophic side-effects of the Congo wars.

‘Between October 2002 and January 2003, two the rebel groups, the MLC and RCD-N in the East of the Congo, launched a premeditated, systematic genocide against the local tribes and Pygmies nicknamed operation ‘Effacer le Tableau’ (‘erase the board’). During their offensive against the civilian population of the Ituri region, the rebel groups left more than 60,000 dead and over 100,000 displaced. The rebels engaged in slavery and cannibalism. Human Rights Reports state that this was because rebel groups, often far away from their bases of supply and desperate for food, enslaved the Pygmies on captured farms to grow provisions for their militias or, when times get really tough, simply slaughtered them like animals and devoured their flesh, which some  rebels believed gave them ‘magical powers’.

Can you seriously argue that if the average westerner learned knew about these conflicts, they’d become more sympathetic? More disgusted and repelled, I suggest.

The fundamental cause of civil violence

Stearns agrees with Ignatieff that the fundamental cause of the unending violence is the pitiful weakness of state institutions. As explained above, Mobutu systematically undermined any modern state institution which might present a challenge to his power and replaced it with the law of the Strong Man, the African chieftain who dispenses largesse to his favourites and locks up anyone who criticises him. This has been the identical pattern across numerous other African states since independence.

Since independence, the story of political power from Joseph Mobutu to Joseph Kabila has been about staying in power, not about creating a strong, accountable state. (p.330)

The lack of any state institutions to rein in power and limit violence helps to explain why ethnicity and tribalism remain behind as two of the few means left to politicians to mobilise their supporters and entire nations in times of stress. So long as African states have weak, powerless state institutions, so long will ethnicity remain an organising and rallying cry for leaders trying to remain in power (p.331).

Foreign aid

This is a very vexed issue. I worked at the UK’s Department for International Development for 2 years where I heard, read and researched the countless arguments for and against western aid to developing countries. It’s a big subject, with vast numbers of books, papers, speeches, political policies and research devoted to it, but the outline of the basic arguments are relatively simple.

1. Endless aid retards the development of civil society…

Stearns makes the point that giving aid indiscriminately encourages poorly developed states like Congo to remain such. If the French or German or Swedish government are paying for roads and hospitals in the Congo, then the Congo government doesn’t have to. More subtly, it won’t learn the tricky, fiddly, frustrating way in which western democracies work (most of the time) with their complex interplay of independent institutions, judiciary, free press and huge range of civil society agencies, charities and watchdogs and whatnot.

2. …but we must continue to give aid

Stearns disappoints me a little by saying we must continue to give aid to Congo ‘obviously’ because of the centuries of slavery, colonialism and exploitation by the West (p.332). But must we, though? There are some equally powerful counter-arguments. The slave trade was abolished over 200 years ago. How much longer must we continue to atone for it? Another hundred years? Forever?

The colonial period lasted from about 1885 to 1962, some 77 years. 77 years after independence will we still be bailing out the Congo government? How long does it take a post-colonial country to become truly independent? The pro-aid argument suggests the answer to that question is never. Former colonies will never cease requiring Western aid. Throw in periodic calls for reparations for slavery and/or inflicting climate change on them, and paying out to Third World countries will never end.

Wasted aid to date…

But the most powerful argument against aid is ‘look what happened to all the aid we’ve given so far’. It was creamed off by Mobutu and redistributed to his clients and powerbrokers with no regard to their ruined country. It went into the mad extravagances of Mobutu’s palace and Concorde lifestyle. It went directly into the purchase of bijou properties all over Europe. A huge amount of it never impacted the lives of the ordinary Congolese in the street, which got steadily worse and worse as time went by i.e. as the sum total of aid poured into the country increased. More aid = greater poverty.

When I worked at DFID there was a hoary old saying that development aid involved poor people in the  First World giving money to rich people in the Third World. Certainly when you read about the lifestyle of Joseph Mobutu 1965 to 1997 it’s hard not to get very angry that all those palaces, luxury cars, expensive patisserie flown in from Paris, was paid for by aid money and countless loans from the World Bank or IMF or Western donors.

Not only that, but there’s a respectable anti-aid case which argues that Western aid keeps African nations infantilised, semi-developed, and dependent on their patrons. It encourages reliance. It is a form of neo-colonialism because it ensures the recipient countries will never be weaned and acquire real independence.

Pro aid people say we’ve learned from all those mistakes, and now we are much more savvy and targeted about how we give aid to named, defined projects which have specific measurable outcomes. Maybe. But if this book shows one thing it is the utter inability of Congolese politicians to run a country. They couldn’t run a medium-sized business. The clientilist system perfected by Mobutu was swiftly copied by his successor Laurent Kabila, and then by his successor, Joseph, creaming off short-term profits, fire-selling state assets, stealing whatever aid they could – all in order to pay off the army involved in endless stupid wars, and to pacify important stakeholders, army bosses and regional powerbrokers. To build civil society and proper infrastructure? As little as they could get away with.

On their own two feet

The vast, desolating irony is that everyone agrees the Congo is sitting on a literal goldmine, along with copper mines, diamond mines, uranium and coltan mines of incalculable value. It ought to be the richest country in Africa, but it has had a succession of leaders who were kleptocratic morons, who have run its mining industries into the ground.

Therefore, you’d have thought that if aid to the country is to continue, it should be focused on rebuilding the ruined infrastructure around the mines with a view to providing the country with a decent income of its own. Even if this involves inviting back in Western mining companies, this strategy would start to give well-paid employment to everyone living in those areas and, if production is taxed at an agreed and consistent level (i.e. not managed via corrupt backhanders and payoffs) then Congo’s budget would soon by buoyant and it could set about a plan for reviving the legal economy, building roads, investing in electricity and digital infrastructure, restoring a strong police force and civil service which receive regular decent pay so don’t have to resort to bribery and corruption, and generally try and make its way towards being a half-decent, viable state which provides a reasonable standard of living for its population. That’s the hope.

Demographics and climate

But lurking behind the political plight of all African and developing nations are two objective realities which no amount of books and articles and strategies can argue away: explosive population growth and environmental damage/climate change.

In 1962 when Congo became independent its population was an estimated 16 million (there’s never been a census). Now, as I write, it is estimated to be 90 million and every one of this huge country’s  ecosystems – its agricultural land, its rivers, its rich rainforests – are being permanently degraded. It’s hard to be optimistic.

Congo proverbs and sayings

I started reading Stearns immediately after reading Philip Gourevitch’s famous book about the Rwandan genocide which readers of my review will know I had an allergic reaction to because of its foregrounding of the author’s naively American, blank incomprehension at the monstrosity of the thing, rather than applying knowledge and analysis.

As I read the Stearns I noticed a tiny but symptomatic difference between the two authors which is that whereas Gourevitch, being the A-grade English graduate that he is, uses as epigraphs to his chapters entirely inappropriate quotations from George Eliot or John Milton, Stearns instead uses Congolese proverbs and folk sayings. These are teasing, suggestive, evocative, flavoursome ways of entering into an alien culture, and also indicative of how much deeper Stearns has got under the skin of this country and its people than Gourevitch did of Rwanda.

  • Power is eaten whole. (p.3)
  • A cat can enter a monastery but she still remains a cat. (p.163)
  • No matter how hard you throw a dead fish in the water, it still won’t swim. (p.181)
  • The gratitude of a donkey is a kick (p.239)
  • Death does not sound a trumpet. (p.249)

Credit

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason K. Stearns was published in 2011 in the United States by Public Affairs. All references are to the 2012 Public Affairs paperback edition.

Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions and memoirs set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

South Africa: The art of a nation @ the British Museum

This is an interesting and enlightening exhibition with plenty of good things in it, but which in parts is a little puzzling and frustrating.

Deep prehistory

The curators (John Giblin, Chris Spring and Laura Snowling) say they’re setting out to give an overview of the art of South Africa and this they certainly do with visual representations of every period of South Africa, beginning in the inconceivably distant past with a stone from a site inhabited by pre-humans some 3 million years ago. The experts think it was brought from some distance away because of its presumable similarity to a human face, and so indicates self-awareness in our remotest ancestors.

There’s a hand axe made by Homo ergaster, a predecessor of Homo sapiens, and dated to 1 million years ago – apparently, in fact, not that practical as an axe, but here to demonstrate that an aesthetic sense seems to have existed in our remotest ancestors.

There’s the Blombos Cave beads, created some 75,000 years ago, painted and pierced in order to be strung together as a necklace. There’s the Coldstream Stone from 9,000 years ago.

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7,000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

And the beautiful Zaamenkomst Panel, cave paintings made between one and three thousand years ago.

Taken together, these wonderful objects give a powerful sense of South Africa as one of the origins not only of early humans but of the earliest art works.

Contemporary art

What’s a little confusing is that right from the start this very museum-y ancient history is mixed in with works by contemporary South African artists – a lot of works. It may be creative curating, but it means it’s quite a lot to take on board – the origins of our species, the ancient prehistory of the area, done rather quickly – while, at the same time, we’re trying to understand post-apartheid art which, by its nature, mixes African traditions with the confusing panoply of postmodern artistic techniques and assumptions.

Thus I can see that it’s clever to place Potent fields by Karel Nel (2002) next to the ancient cave paintings, since both use ochre as a colour and material. And the curators have put a tapestry, ‘The Creation of the Sun‘, made by artists at the Bethesda Art Centre, opposite the cave paintings to show the continuity of style and creativity from South Africa’s first peoples, the San|Bushmen and Khoekhoen, to their contemporary descendants. In these first rooms we also see:

Clever but… it demands quite a lot of the visitor to juggle all these different frames of reference.

Tone

Another slightly disorienting element is the rather patronising or simplistic tone of the commentary. Right at the start there’s a wall panel titled ‘Cradle of Humanity’, which points out that the prehistoric finds gathered here prove that humanity evolved in Africa and so that – contrary to Eurocentric narratives – we are all in a deep sense Africans. What puzzled me is that I’ve never thought otherwise, I’ve never read anywhere anywhere any alternative theory of human origins: all my adult life I’ve known that humans evolved from apelike ancestors in Africa, my children know that, everyone knows it. A quick search reveals that Darwin suggested it as long ago as 1871 in The Descent of Man. Who are they arguing with? If apartheid taught that humans evolved in some other place – like Holland – it would have been informative and funny to have read more about it.

Scattered throughout the exhibition are wall panels talking about the need to fight and counter apartheid ‘narratives’ about the ‘savagery’ of the blacks or their ‘lack of culture’ – all cast in the present tense, as if this is an ongoing struggle.

a) I was there in the 1980s when we all wore anti-apartheid badges, sang along to ‘Free Nelson Mandela‘ and ‘Biko‘, and boycotted South African products. I never met anybody who in any way defended apartheid. Looking around the visitors to the show, I don’t think there was much risk that any of them would defend ‘apartheid narratives’ about ‘savage’ blacks or the ‘lack of black culture’.
b) It was all such a long time ago. The apartheid regime collapsed in the early 1990s and free elections brought the ANC government to power in 1994, 22 years ago. Many of the wall panels give the impression the curators are still bravely fighting a battle which, in fact, ended a generation ago. My companion joked that maybe their next exhibition should be devoted to bringing down the Soviet Union.

Because of the interleaving of big and very varied works by contemporary artists I found the timeline of pre-colonial South African art a bit hard to follow. I got that the Bantu people spread across the region (which in fact I knew from Chris Stringer’s book The Origin of Our Species). There was a case of exquisite gold statuettes of African animals, including a golden rhino which, we were told, are from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290). Maybe I blinked and missed the follow-up information, but I would really have liked to learn much more about the rise of kingdoms and territories and language groups and cultures and traditions across this huge area.

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria. The golden rhino is now the symbol of the Order of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s highest honour that was first presented in 2002 to Nelson Mandela.

Maybe the history just isn’t there, I mean the written history that would allow that kind of detailed narrative to be constructed. There were a few display cases showing weapons – a big shield made of hide alongside spears – and another one containing traditional carved wood figures, including a really beautiful ‘stylised wooden figure’, examples of traditional beadwork and some striking traditional dresses.

But I felt slightly afraid of liking anything because the wall labels made quite a point, repeatedly, of emphasising how the European colonists from the first Dutch arrivals in the 1650s through to the end of apartheid in the 1990s, had in a whole host of ways denied the validity of pre-colonial art and culture, denying in fact that the land was inhabited at all or, if conceding that it was, then only by ‘savages’ who didn’t plough or reap, by non-Christians who needed to be converted, by violent tribesmen who needed to be pacified.

And that one of the ways the European colonists/imperialists/racists limited and controlled the native people was by defining their art and traditions as ‘exotic’, pigeonholing them as ‘primitive’, demeaning and debasing their traditions and achievements. Thus told off, I felt a little scared about ‘liking’ any of the pre-colonial art in case I was displaying an ‘ethnocentric’ and patronising taste for ‘the exotic’.

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (Late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This unnerved me because some of my favourite objects in the whole British Museum are the wonderful bronzes of Benin, among the most complete and finished works of art I know of from anywhere – as well as the whole range of weird and wonderful and powerful fetishes, images and carvings in the Museum’s Africa galleries.

Contemporary art 2

Anyway, the main thing about this exhibition is that interwoven among the pre-colonial artefacts which you would normally associate with the British Museum, are the works of a large number of modern and contemporary South African artists, black and white, men and women. Hopefully we are freer to express an opinion about these without running the risk of being considered ethnocentric or Eurocentric.

Apparently, the Museum has been collecting contemporary South African art for some 20 years, since – in other words – the collapse of apartheid, the first free elections and the coming to power of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. This explains why so many contemporary artworks are threaded through the show right from the first room and why the later rooms are entirely full of what you’d call modern art.

Artists and works

  • The Watchers by Francki Burger (2014) a photo montage of the site of the Battle of Spion Kop in the Boer War.
  • Oxford Man by Owen Ndou
  • Pantomime Act and Trilogy by Johannes Phokela
  • The Battle of Rorke’s Drift by John Muafangejo
  • Butcher Boys by Jane Alexander (1986) not actually physically in the show, there is a vivid photo of it here.
  • It left him cold – the death of Steve Biko (1990) by Sam Nhlengethwa
  • The Black Photo Album/Look at Me by Santu Mofokeng, who has spent years researching and retouching hundreds of b&w photographs commissioned by urban black working and middle-class families in South Africa between 1890 and 1950.
  • Christ playing football by Jackson Hlungwani (1983)
  • Candice Breitz’s extended video ‘Extras’, filmed on the set of a popular black soap opera, in which all the actors play out straight soap opera scenes except with the artist herself, blonde Candice, placed in bizarre stationary positions around the set. I laughed out loud when I read that it explores ‘an absent presence or a present absence’ – it’s good to know that Artbollocks is a truly international language.

Willie Bester’s Transition (1994) commemorates seven children killed when security forces stormed a house supposedly occupied by terrorists. (See a video of the artist talking about it)

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

South African Timeline

It was difficult to grasp the ancientness of the earliest exhibits here, which wasn’t helped by their interspersion with bang up-to-date contemporary art. Apart from the gold animal statues from Mapungubwe (which I’d like to have learned more about), you got little sense of the region’s pre-colonial history. Many artefacts (carvings, weapons, figurines), yes; but a clear chronology with maps? Less so.

Purely from the point of view of being able to orient oneself in time and space, it was in many ways a relief to enter recorded, written history with the arrival of the Europeans and the (all-too-familiar) story of colonisation. The Portuguese made the first contacts in the 1490s, but it was the Dutch who built a settlement at Table Bay in the 1650s, as a stopover on the long sea voyages to their trading colonies in the East Indies. The British seized Cape Town from the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). It was this dual colonisation which explains why the country is English-speaking but with a large Dutch or Afrikaans minority, a minority the British went to war with twice, in the First Boer War (1880-81) and the more famous second Boer War (1899-1902).

It was informative to learn how in the 19th century the British Empire imported labour from elsewhere in Africa and Asians from Indonesia and India, to work in South Africa. The exhibition includes one of the distinctive pointed hats worn by Chinese immigrants, as well as a pair of sandals the most famous Indian immigrant – Mahatma Gandhi – made for the country’s leader, General Jan Smuts, while he was in prison in 1913. Gandhi was to formulate many of the ideas in racist South Africa which he then took back to India to use in his campaign for independence.

As a language student I learned:

  • That ‘Hottentot’ was a Dutch nonsense word meaning ‘one who stutters’, insultingly applied to the native blacks because of the use of click sounds in the San language. Hence it is a derogatory word which is not now used.
  • That ‘Kaffir’, another derogatory term for blacks widely used in colonial times, derives from the Arabic for ‘unbeliever’.
  • That ‘Boer’ derives from the Dutch word for ‘farmer’.

What I’ve never really understood and didn’t get any enlightenment about here, is the period between the First World War – when South Africa sent troops to fight alongside the British – and the end of the Second World War, when the foundations were laid by Nationalist governments for the system which would become apartheid. There were several rooms about the evils of apartheid and one about the end of apartheid, but I was left as ignorant as before about the origins of apartheid – about the economic, social and cultural forces which led to its creation, with the main milestones clearly marked out and explained.

Modern South Africa

The room full of images of the horror, violence and oppression of 1960s and 70s and 80s apartheid, with records of the Sharpeville Massacre (1960), the murder of Steve Biko (1977), a display case full of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ badges and so on, felt very familiar to me from my school days in the 1970s and student days in the 1980s, when we all protested against apartheid, signed petitions, boycotted South African goods and so on.

As I viewed photos and artworks depicting the humiliations, poverty, incredibly long hours forced to work in menial jobs and the debasement and restrictions imposed on blacks by the apartheid state, I wondered whether the exhibition was going to dwell on the exploitation, the anger and the resistance of people during that era, and move on to cover the 25 years since Nelson Mandela was released, when things have got a lot less black and white.

For according to the newspapers, TV, documentaries and films which I consume, since liberation South Africa has developed into one of the most crime-ridden societies in the world, with just over 50 murders a day, and so many rapes that it has been called ‘the rape capital of the world, with one in four men admitting to having raped someone’.

At the same time South Africa is thought to have more people with HIV/AIDS than any other country in the world – 5.7 million, 12% of the population of 48 million. There was a small display case showing some dollies made in a traditional style which were a response to the AIDS epidemic by an artistic collective – but nothing about the era of ‘denialism’ under Thabo Mbeki (president from 1999 to 2008), who refused to accept the link between HIV and AIDS, and whose ban on antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals is estimated to be responsible for the premature deaths of between 330,000 and 365,000 people.

BMW Art Car 12 (1991( by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

BMW Art Car 12 (1991) by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

Contemporary South Africa today faces immense social, political, economic and medical challenges.

In the videos supporting the exhibition, the Museum curators make the point that this is quite a ‘political’ exhibition. That would have been the case if this was 1986 and voices could be found – in Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party, say, or the CIA – which defended the South African apartheid regime as a vital bulwark against Soviet-backed communism – but that was an era ago and it feels like they are fighting yesterday’s war.

Throughout the exhibition the curators criticise the Eurocentrism and racism of the colonists and the Imperialists and the founders of apartheid, who denied or denigrated black cultural achievements – as if this was still a battle being fought now; as if apartheid is still a flourishing regime which urgently needs challenging; as if unregenerate imperialist views about pre-colonial South African history are still widely held by lots of people.

In the exhibition, gold treasures of Mapungubwe will be displayed alongside a modern artwork by Penny Siopis and a sculpture by Owen Ndou that encourage the viewer to challenge the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras. (Press release)

Really? Does anyone even know what ‘the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras’ are, that are being challenged? In this respect it feels incredibly old-fashioned: the Us-versus-Them mindset made me nostalgic for my student days when international politics were so much clearer cut.

Meanwhile, back in 2017, the modern ‘struggle’ in South Africa is to formulate economic and social policies which will boost the economy and try to spread wealth and well-being out to the great bulk of the (black) population who have never seen the benefits of the end of apartheid and who are still mired in poverty and illness. A much harder ‘struggle’ because it is no longer so easy to identify the goodies and the baddies and, in fact, there may be no easy solutions.

Credit

Hats off to Betsy and Jack Ryan who sponsored the exhibition and to IAG Cargo who transported many of these objects from museums and galleries across South Africa. It’s a brilliant opportunity to see all kinds of works from South Africa, from the rarest prehistoric artefacts to bang up-to-date contemporary art. Maybe it’s my fault if I found so many complex histories and paradigms difficult to process in one visit.


The trailer

Museums and galleries are producing more and more videos to explain their exhibitions. The British Museum has set up a channel containing eight videos about this show.

I strongly recommend watching the videos before going to see the exhibition, as they explain the rationale for the layout, and prepare you for the emphasis on modern artworks, ahead of your arrival.

Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other British Museum shows

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