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The End of White Rule?


On July 11, 1961, the Independent State of Katanga celebrated the first anniversary of its independence by opening an “International Trade Fair” at Elisabethville. The only official foreign exhibitors were Portugal, with Portuguese Angola and Mozambique, and the Central African Federation.

The Independent State of Katanga ceased to exist in 1963; Katanga is now the Shaba Province of Zaire: Elisabethville is now Lubumbashi. The Central African Federation also ceased to exist in 1963; its successor states are Zambia, Malawi, and threatened Rhodesia. The Portuguese empire in Africa ceased to exist in 1975; Angola and Mozambique have revolutionary governments, proud of their victory over Portuguese imperialism.

The component parts of that illomened International Trade Fair have been scattered by the winds of change. Moise Tshombe—in quest of whom I walked through that fair on that July day sixteen years ago—died in Algeria, having been hijacked to that country by people who felt him to have outlived his usefulness.

But the concept which Tshombe’s Katanga represented has not outlived its usefulness. The forces that created Katanga, as well as those that destroyed it—some of these being the same forces—are still at work in Africa, in relation to the South African “homelands” to certain African states and to plans for Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, and for South West Africa/Namibia.

The concept represented by Tshombe’s Katanga was that of the preservation of the reality of white power—especially the power of white business—in conditions which made it advisable to concede the trappings of power to selected black people.1 It is safe to assume that this same concept is strongly present in the minds of Mr. Smith and his white Rhodesian colleagues today as they seek to negotiate an “internal settlement” with Bishop Muzorewa and other African political leaders living in Rhodesia.

But the history of the Congo showed that different ideas about how to embody the same basic concepts may negate one another. The Independent State of Katanga was in effect an improvised interim embodiment of the concept, filling a gap between an initial unsuccessful embodiment, also improvised, for the whole Congo, and a later embodiment, also for the whole Congo, which has proved remarkably successful, at least so far as the Western nations that support it are concerned.

The initial embodiment—Belgium’s 1960 formula for decolonization of the Congo—resembled the formula for which Mr. Smith is now looking, in combining the same two principal elements: a general election, based on “one man one vote” and producing a mainly black parliament and government, together with continued European control over the security forces. The commander of those forces in the Congo, General Janssens, using a blackboard to instruct his black NCOs, explained the situation, as far as they were concerned, in terms of the chalked equation:

After Independence = Before Independence

The equation, however, failed to convince those to whom it was addressed, and in whose power it lay to disprove it, as they did. The Belgian formula for safe decolonization was destroyed by the mutiny of the Force Publique and the expulsion of the Belgian officers. It seems that black NCOs and troops, seeing black men in (at least apparent) supreme political power, and perhaps excited by the rhetoric of some of those politicians (notably Patrice Lumumba), rejected their own continued subordinate status and wrecked the system based on the presumption of continued military subordination.

Mr. Smith—whose political sagacity is more often underestimated in Europe than in Africa—has certainly long reflected on the significance of those transactions, and on the threat which they imply to the system which he is now trying to build. In a major speech on November 7, 1960, attacking the Monckton report—which heralded the eventual break-up of the Central African Federation—Mr. Smith specifically linked “the fiasco which we have recently witnessed in the Congo” with “the rot setting in within our own borders” (i.e., the borders of the Federation). The rot has now set in more deeply, after the dissolution of the Federation and Portugal’s abdication of its African role, with the increase in guerrilla activity in Rhodesia and the consequent strain on the white economy, and the increase in European net emigration. Of the 260,000 Europeans who lived in Rhodesia until recently, a considerable number have left. There are more than five million black Africans.

Yet the measures designed to check this “rot” have these ominous points in common with those Congo measures which, in seeking to check a similar “rot,” resulted in the great “fiasco” of mutiny followed by United Nations intervention. In assuming—or working in the hope—that a similar fiasco can be averted in Rhodesia, Mr. Smith certainly relies on a vital distinction which he made in the course of his November 1960 anti-Monckton speech. That distinction was between, on the one hand, “the powers that be [who] sat six thousand miles away trying to control operations—Belgium, Britain, Portugal,” and, on the other hand, “the best people to make decisions for any country, those who have their roots deep down in the country…those people who have to live with the decisions they make.”

That distinction—however one might choose to word it—remains important. Smith’s Rhodesians do know they will have to try to live with the consequences of the choices they now make. They see their future as dependent on the loyalty of the security forces—loyalty to a constitution protective of the whites—and they therefore have had to give much more thought to these forces than the Belgian government did to the Force Publique, whose loyalty was generally assumed as axiomatic. The equivalent forces in Rhodesia—unlike the Force Publique—are now designed to have a significant number of African officers, as well as a high proportion of white fighting men. Nonetheless the central reality—that of a largely black force controlled by white senior officers—remains precarious, and possibly at the mercy of similar forces to those which took over in the Congo. Even assuming a “successful” outcome to the present negotiations, a subsequent “fiasco” cannot be excluded from the possibilities.

Yet the history of the decolonization of the Congo showed that even fiascoes are not necessarily irreparable. The particular system designed by the Belgians broke down over most of the Congo. It was possible, however, to salvage it in one province, the richest, that of Katanga, and to try to use that province as a springboard for a “restoration” throughout the rest of the Congo. In the event—and by a process which no one had planned—the “restoration” turned out to involve the destruction of the “springboard.”

In this part of the Congo story also there appear to be some lessons for present-day Rhodesia (and to a lesser degree for South Africa). Independent Katanga—like Rhodesia since it unilaterally declared independence from Britain in 1965—was an illegal and militant anticommunist state entity.

It would be wrong to assume, as both Katangans and Rhodesians have done, that the second characteristic necessarily compensates for the first. Under certain conditions, militant anticommunism may compound the international embarrassment—embarrassment to potential friends, that is—created by illegality. Thus, in the phase in which Katanga’s fate was decided, the exuberance of Katanga’s anticommunism was among the factors that swung the United States, slowly and reluctantly, but at last firmly, in favor of the use of United Nations forces to end the secession of Katanga. The idea was that anticommunist secession in Katanga could be seen as justifying procommunist secession in Orientale Province, thus giving the communist bloc (or Sino-Soviet bloc, a term then still heard) the foothold in central Africa for which it was assumed to yearn. In order to keep out the communists, then, the anticommunists had to be crushed by force.

One of President Kennedy’s close advisers on African matters, Mr. Roger Hilsman, has described in his book To Move a Nation with what reluctance, repugnance, and even bewilderment he and his colleagues felt constrained to advise this step. And the step was taken. The existence of the Independent State of Katanga was terminated by United Nations forces, with the backing of the United States, in January 1963.

None of the parties to the present disputes in southern Africa can afford to forget that that happened, because the forces that made it happen are still at work, though in greatly changed circumstances. Last September the US and the UK made proposals for a transition to majority rule in Rhodesia in which the UN would have a part: no one can foresee—any more than anyone foresaw in the Congo—how exactly that part might come to be played. Juridically, Britain, as sovereign over the area, has authority to invite United Nations forces into Rhodesia, but the forces will not arrive unless the Security Council (or, in certain circumstances, possibly the General Assembly) agrees. It is hard, but perhaps not impossible, to envisage circumstances in which Britain and the other four permanent members of the Security Council, including the Soviet Union and China, could agree on a mandate for a United Nations force in Rhodesia; if there is agreement on such a mandate it seems safe to predict that, as in the Congo, there will be disagreement about its interpretation.

Katanga, we must remember, was sacrificed in order to safeguard, throughout the Congo, the same general interests—though not the identical specific interests—that Katanga itself was intended to safeguard. The pressures on white Rhodesia are similar in kind: that regime has become an embarrassment to its “natural” friends, with whose interests in the rest of Africa it conflicts. Paradoxically, it now seeks to extricate itself from its perilous position, not by diminishing but by increasing its resemblances to the state of Katanga: by appearing, that is, to acquire a black front for white power. On the face of it, and in the light of that ominous precedent, this does not seem to be a promising move: it has already been denounced, and in much the same terms as Tshombe’s Katanga used to be denounced.

Yet precedents in politics are only suggestive, not determinant. There are very important distinctions between the cases. Independent Katanga was rigged up in feverish haste, an improvisation within the only slightly less feverish improvisation of the decolonized Congo. It lasted just two and a half years. Smith’s independent Rhodesia has already lasted twelve years.

In Katanga, too, the black collaborators, generally unprepared and apprehensive, were hurriedly pressed into service and furnished with masterful white “advisers.” The local whites often seemed anxious to prove that those who were called their “black puppets” were indeed just that, and could never be more than just that.

There are probably whites in Rhodesia who take a similar view of the attempted “internal settlement,” just as the critics of that attempt do. But such a view is imprecise. In essentials a “black front” is no doubt what the whites want. But if they are going to have any kind of internal settlement at all, protecting even their minimal interests, it will have to be with blacks—civil or military—who will want to be, and are capable of being, much more than a front. And it is with such blacks that Mr. Smith now has to negotiate, including Bishop Abel Muzorewa and the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole.

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    This concept was in itself not novel. The idea of indirect rule is of great antiquity, and found African embodiments in the nineteenth century, in Lugard’s Nigeria and Sir Theophilus Shepstone’s native policy in Natal. But the Congo, including Katanga, remains of crucial significance as the first major testing ground of the strength and weakness of indirect rule in the context of twentieth-century decolonization.

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