World War II marked a watershed in the history of the Belgian colony. Profound social and economic changes stirred up the collective consciousness of Africans both in the rural and urban sectors. The heavy demands made upon the rural milieus by the war effort accelerated the flow of migrants to the towns; a new class of educated, French-speaking Africans called evolues (sing. , evolue) came into being, increasingly vocal in their demands for reforms; and the frequency of labor disputes and strikes in the industrial centers of Katanga Province (now Shaba Region) drew attention to the changing attitude of African mine workers.
After the Second World War, the colony bore all characteristics of a developing country. A large road network was built, often areas that were sparsely populated but rich in ores. The population was forced to migrate according to the needs of the mining industry.
The city was a magnet for young families and workers. But life was not necessarily better there. People got away from the authority of the village patriarch and from hard rural labour, but at the same time they got alienated from their traditional world and framework. Epidemics such as the yellow fever regularly broke out in the cities. It was only in the 1940s that the housing issue was addressed. Yet, not much changed. In 1950, up to 230,000 black people tried to survive in former Leopoldville on only 16,000 parcels.
Black and white people lived physically separated from each other, with a neutral zone between them preventing the transmission of diseases to the “white” part of the city. The colonial system was based on this division, of which especially children from mixed relationships were the victims. The indigenous population was being “proletarised” and also lived in the countryside in penury. There was no middle class. When university education was made accessible to black people in the 1950s, this caused disturbances. At the time of independence, only 16 black persons held a university diploma.
Nor were the changes limited to the domestic arena. Anticolonial sentiment was quickly emerging as a fundamental reality of the international scene, and the United Nations (UN) was becoming a major forum for promoting the aspirations of the colonized. No longer could the Belgian Congo be kept in a state of splendid isolation. These pressures and challenges on Belgian officials resulted in the idea of a Belgo-Congolese community, articulated for the first time in 1952. Rather than a radical change in the constitutional relationship, what the Belgians envisioned was a polity in which Africans and Europeans would learn to live in harmony with each other, share the same interests, and ultimately become equal participants in the political life of the Belgian Congo.
As a first step toward this goal, the 1952 decree on immatriculation provided for the juridical assimilation (i.e., transferring the persons concerned from the jurisdiction of customary law to that of European law) of Africans who were able to show "by their upbringing and way of life" that they had reached an adequate "state of civilization." The decree, which reasserted the provisions for immatriculation in the Colonial Charter, was followed by a series of measures designed to break down the barrier of racial discrimination between Africans, whether matriculated or not, and Europeans.
A decree of February 1953 allowed Africans to own land in urban and rural areas, and in 1955 they were allowed free access to public establishments and authorized to buy alcoholic beverages. Several years later, in 1958, substantial changes were introduced in the judicial system of the colony. From then on, offenses committed by Africans could be tried in all courts of law instead of just in native tribunals.
The really critical step toward political participation came with the March 26, 1957, introduction of the urban statute, a move intended to give urban Africans a meaningful share of power at the local level. In each of the several communes included in the major towns, Africans were given the opportunity to elect communal councils, to be headed by burgomasters nominated by the councils from among their members. At the city level, a town council would be appointed by the provincial governor from among the members of the communal councils and headed by a first burgomaster. A May 10, 1957, decree introduced equally significant changes in rural administration. The most noteworthy involved the establishment of rural councils (consetls de secteur), whose members were to be appointed "after taking into account the preferences of the inhabitants." The highly ambiguous phrasing of the decree meant that considerable leeway would be allowed to the provincial authorities in designating council members.
The psychological impact of these reforms on the political consciousness of Africans cannot be overstated. For the first time in the history of the colony, the basic premises of paternalism were openly called into question: a legitimate alternative to the status quo had come into view; new opportunities suddenly materialized for genuine political participation at the local level. From this perspective, the 1957 urban reform must be seen as the decisive factor behind the crystallization of aspirations for political independence.
On the other hand, the official ban on the organization of political parties, combined with the growth of ethnic self-awareness in the urban sectors, meant that electoral competition was structured along ethnic lines.
Ethnic distinctions among the inhabitants of the Congo area had always been fluid: the concept of who was or was not a member of a specific ethnic group had never been as rigid as Europeans believed. Yet the Belgian administration acted as if rigid distinctions did exist. The identity cards of Congolese listed the ethnic group to which they belonged, and they were required to supply this information in filling out forms. The European emphasis on ethnic identity helped reinforce the concept of such an identity among the Congolese.
Another critical factor that contributed to the increase in ethnic awareness was the process of urbanization. Congolese migrated to population centers to look for work. Once in the cities and towns, they came into contact on the one hand with other individuals with whom they shared language, culture, and history and on the other with quite different peoples. To promote their culture and to offer mutual support, these people formed ethnically based associations, the benefits of which they communicated to family and friends who had remained behind in rural areas.
The formation of ethnic associations reinforced ethnic lines between groups and at the same time made more apparent their relative size and social, economic, and political status. If members of one ethnic group were perceived as having the best jobs, whether or not this was so, indignation among the others might be aroused. One of the most notable examples of this response was in Leopoldville, where the Kongo people, who believed that they had always been the leading ethnic group in the Belgian Congo, felt threatened by the influx of people from far upriver. It was in large measure in response to this perceived threat to their position that some of the Kongo formed in 1950 the Association for the Maintenance, Unity, and Expansion of the Kikongo Language (Association pour le Maintien, 1' Unite, et 1' Expansion de la Langue Kikongo). This organization later became the Alliance of the Kongo People, or Alliance des Bakongo, known as Abako.
Thus, in most instances, and particularly in Leopoldville and Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi), electoral processes had a catalytic effect on the rise of ethnic sentiment. Almost everywhere ethnic associations served as the main vehicles of political mobilization, and in some regions ethnic conflict reached alarming proportions. The flurry of ethno-nationalist activity generated by the 1957 decrees brought further pressure to bear upon the Belgian authorities to accelerate the pace of political reforms.
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