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Belgian Paternalism

Reduced to its essentials, Belgian paternalism meant that basic political rights could be withheld indefinitely from Africans as long as their material and spiritual needs were properly met. Paternalism drew its rationale from a vision of Africans as essentially "big children," whose moral upbringing required a proper mixture of authority and dedication. Its essence is perhaps best captured in the opening sentence of a celebrated work by a former colonial governor general, Pierre Ryckmans: "Dominer pour servir (Dominate in order to serve. . . . This is the only excuse for colonial conquest; it is also its complete justification.)."

Putting into effect the social welfare postulate of paternalism was largely the responsibility of parastatal organizations, semipublic corporations enjoying a substantial measure of autonomy in organizing and dispensing social services. Their names became identified with a wide spectrum of social welfare activities ranging from medical services to housing projects, from education and health care programs to family allowances and social centers {foyers sociaux) for African women.

An extensive network of social welfare programs thus reached out to the governed to ensure their material well-being 'from the womb to the tomb." Roman Catholic and Protestant missions, meanwhile, assumed full responsibility for their spiritual well-being, the former being more numerous in the endeavor. Through their teaching and evangelical activities, and with the help of generous subsidies from the state, missions thus formed a major element in the armature of paternalism.

The darker side of this paternalism was the political control and compulsion underlying Belgian colonial policies. Extensive restrictions affected Africans in their everyday life ranging from prohibition of the purchase of liquor (until 1955) to stringent police surveillance and curfew regulations in the urban centers, and from compulsory crop cultivation to various forms of administrative and social regimentation in the countryside.

Part of the Belgian goal was to teach Africans to work, not in the "childish" pursuits of their own culture, but in organized, rational routines of productive wage labor in the European manner, for European employers. Such labor was considered to exercise a civilizing influence. A profitable by-product was the provision of cheap labor. The Colonial Charter had declared that no one could be compelled to work, and by 1912 the forced delivery of rubber and other natural products had come to a stop, but until the depression of the 1930s, mining and agricultural companies resorted to recruiting methods little different from forced labor.

The colonial government believed that Africans could be "civilized" through agricultural as well as industrial labor. Agricultural programs began as early as 1917, when the administration first required Africans to raise certain designated crops. The crops most often raised were cotton for export or food crops for towns and mines within the colony, neither of which threatened European interests, nor did either ensure the health and well-being of the indigenous population.

To help boost production, Belgium set up a national institute that introduced improved agricultural technology to the colony during the 1930s. But a program that had greater influence on African life eventually was the establishment of native farming settlements {paysannats indigenes). African peasants were resettled on them in order to intensify the cultivation of cash crops or export crops, to conserve the fertility of the soil, and to facilitate the introduction of modern farming methods. The settlements were generally successful but represented another European intrusion into African culture. As such, most of the settlements collapsed after independence.

In the political realm, Belgian policy was theoretically to respect the authority of African chiefs and political leaders, permitting Africans to be ruled by their own customs unless these customs were judged disruptive of public order or harmful to development. Colonial administrators divided the entire Belgian Congo into chiefdoms (chefferies), later grouped into sectors. Chiefs, salaried by the state and given administrative and police powers, were expected to provide the link between Africans and the colonial administration.

But the Belgian division of its territory into chiefdoms often did not reflect ethnic boundaries or indigenous political units, and Belgian authorities were generally ignorant of African custom. Moreover, the Belgian colonial system did not encourage indigenous involvement in the colony's political life. By placing the inculcation of colonial moral principles above political education, and social welfare benefits above the apprenticeship of social responsibility, Belgian policies inevitably ruled out the introduction of institutions and procedures designed to nurture political experience and responsibility.

Not until 1957, with the introduction of a major local government reform, were Africans given the opportunity to elect local communal councils. Important as this step was in laying the foundation for local self-government and a major departure from the postulates of paternalism, it was heavily mortgaged by previous decades of enforced political passivity. When independence began to seem imminent in the late 1950s and the future Zairians could make a limited use of their political freedom, few had acquired the necessary practical experience to guide their first steps toward democracy.

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Page last modified: 27-05-2015 19:33:11 ZULU