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Peoples of the Southern Uplands: Kasai-Shaba

DR Congo Ethnic MapExtending across much of the southern savannas east of the middle reaches of the Kasai River are the Tshiluba- and Kiluba speaking peoples. (Ki-luba is the language of the Luba-Katanga as distinct from Tshi-luba, the language spoken by the Luba-Kasai.)

The Shaba (Katanga) region of Zaire is rich in copper, cobalt and zinc and had a population of five million in 1992, of whom about 1.5 million came from Kasai. The Belgian colonizers had regarded the Luba as hard-workers and high achievers, bringing thousands into Shaba to fill positions as skilled workers and clerks. In subsequent generations, many Luba rose to high positions in mining, industry, commerce, and education; but their success gave rise to jealousy among the native Lunda in Shaba as economic hardship mounted.

As pressure for democratization increased in Zaire in the early 1990s, Mobutu and regional politicians linked to his regime manipulated resentments against Luba residents of the Shaba region in order to weaken and undercut democratic opponents of Mobutu - particularly Etienne Tshisekedi, a Luba from Kasai who was prime minister in 1992-93, and to force Luba residents from the Shaba region.

The collapse of the Zairian state after 1991 revived the myths and symbols of the old Katangese secession. In 1992 most of the inhabitants who were not regarded as true Katangese citizens (largely those of Luba origin) were expelled from the mining towns where they had formed the major part of the administrative, industrial, and technical personnel since their arrival in the colonial period. Immediately after Etienne Tshisekedi became prime minister in August 1992, the violence took on an entirely different scale and direction. Massive gangs of youth attacked Kasaians and forced them out of their homes. These gangs, whose attacks were systematic and well organized, appeared as if out of nowhere, accompanied by drugs and fetishes.

J.C.Willame wrote"Kasai, mostly Luba, ethnic “particularism” was perceived as one of the major threats to the political cohesion of Zairian society. Like Katanga, Kasai seceded from the central government in 1960–62. Since then, Luba administrative, social, and commercial elites have spread all over the Congo country to form an ethnic diaspora that has been viewed with suspicion by the rest of the political class. Meanwhile, in their stronghold of South Kasai, the Luba have taken over the second source of economic prosperity in Zaire: the diamond trade, a business whose profits they have been compelled to share with other regional barons.

"As early as the 1960s, the Baluba regarded themselves as the “Jews of the Congo,” and some of their most notorious leaders (for example, J. Ngalula) were called “Moise.” They felt persecuted by most of the other ethnic constituencies, who disliked the privileges the Baluba allegedly garnered under the white administration. During the Second Republic they remained highly visible in politics: President Mobutu’s strategy was to consistently absorb the Luba elite into the highest levels of the political hierarchy in order to better control it. Since 1978 one of the harshest opponents of the regime among the Luba elite has been Etienne Tshisekedi, later named the “Zairian Moise,” who, together with ten fellow Kasaians, led a protracted struggle against Mobutu.

"With the implosion of the copper and cobalt sectors and an economy that relies nowadays mostly on the legal and illegal export of diamonds, Kasaians — and thus the Baluba — are regarded with suspicion as their region has become the center of the “real” economy of the country. The fact that they are a leading force behind the main radical opposition party, the UDPS, as well as having members involved in many other smaller political groups, has antagonized most of the other ethnic and regional elites.

"In almost all the regions and provinces, the Luba diaspora is implicitly accused of wanting power only for its own people. Like the Shabans, the Luba are threatened with expulsion by the “native sons.” The grievances of the “Jews of Zaire” once again resonate."

Anthropologist Jan Vansina distinguishes three clusters: the Luba-Katanga — comprising the Luba-Katanga proper, the Kaniok, the Kalundwe, and the Lomotwa; the Luba-Kasai — comprising the Luba-Kasai proper, the Lulua, the Luntu, the Binji, the Mputu, and the North Kete; and the Songye — comprising the Songye proper and the Bangu-Bangu. Closely related to the Luba-Katanga and living to their east are the Hemba, separately distinguished chiefly because, unlike the others, they are matrilineal.

All of these peoples appear to have shared a tradition of chieftainship, but it was among the Luba-Katanga that more complex centralized states emerged as early as the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Elsewhere, the people and territory over which a chief ruled were much more restricted, and even among the Luba-Katanga, local chiefs had a substantial degree of autonomy.

In Central Shaba maize found its place among a dozen crops, usually in a common field. Some of the villagers who produce it have integrated maize flour into their cassava-based diet, but for many it is exclusively a cash crop. A more tender maize is grown as a vegetable, consumed fresh on the ear. Sweet-corn is grown in small women's vegetable plots behind the village. In the village of Kamwenzi farmers reported growing cassava, maize, peanuts, beans, rice, squash, bananas, sugar cane, pineapples, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and onions. They also protected oil palms that took root spontaneously on cleared forest land, that matured as it returned to fallow. The trees remain the property of the clearer, who derives significant cash income from their harvest. The most important cash crops, in rank order, are maize, peanuts, bananas, beans and rice.

The national policy context favored urban consumers at the expense of rural producers for nearly two and a half decades. The particular policies that discouraged small farm food-crop production included, from independence until 1990, unfavorable monetary policies: an overvalued currency, scarce foreign exchange used mainly for government projects (neglect of agriculture and surface transport), and escalating public debt. In 1974-75 Zairianization, radicalization, seizure of expatriate plantations, meted out to Zairian political elite. This led to a focus on large mechanized farming, pushing small farmers into the background. Peasants were organized into production brigades. Private land ownership was again allowed and encouraged from 1985.

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Page last modified: 26-03-2017 19:17:50 ZULU