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Reflections on the Congo

Submitted by on November 27, 2011 – 11:14 pm2 Comments
© Commonwealth Secretariat

© Commonwealth Secretariat

By Kaye Whiteman, CJA member

As the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) moves into a tense period of elections, a new book puts all fifty-one years of independence, into a broad if not exactly comforting perspective. The book, by Susan Williams, has the challenging title of Who Killed Hammarskjold?  The title provides half the answer, in that it definitely supposes the UN’s second  Secretary-General, the Swede Dag Hammarskjold, was indeed killed by a person or persons unknown, therefore rejecting all the carefully constructed arguments at the time that the plane crash of September 1961 had been an accident.

The book explores with high forensic skill all the different arguments to support the idea that he was indeed intentionally assassinated, but does not come to definite conclusions on the exact means. Susan Williams is too punctilious an academic to force the issue, but she has marshalled the evidence well enough for most readers to form their own assessment. There were too many suspicious circumstances for anyone now to accept the accident theory. But there were also unsolved mysteries, Why was Hammarskjold’s body curiously unscathed in the crash? Was it true that he has an ace of spades playing card in his hand? Why were there so many witnesses to the presence of a smaller plane, confirming the charge made at the time, but discounted in an official Rhodesian report (that was bound to want to cover up in any case)?

Ironically some of the new evidence can be found in the papers of Sir Roy Welensky, at the time the Prime Minister of the Central African Federation, and a central figure in the drama, confirming some of the theories put forward at the time that there was a cover-up. They also, however, in some cases add to the mysteries. For example, the circumspect behaviour of the British High Commissioner in Salisbury, Lord Alport, leaves many suspicions. There were many pro-Katanga whites who certainly believed at the time that ‘their side’ had been responsible for downing the plane. But although the circumstantial evidence is increasingly compelling, there is no clinching proof of how it happened and who exactly did it, supporting the author’s call for a new inquiry into the crash.

There is an unusual episode in the Williams’ book about one André Gilson, an employee of the Union Minière, the multi-national mining company that effe3ctively ran Katanga, and master-minded the province’s secession. UN Intelligence had collected allegations that Gilson had been responsible: it was something he had himself claimed, and a congratulatory party had been held in his honour in Elisabethville. There is a pile of other testimonies, some of them from the archive of a senior UN official, a close friend of Hammarskjold, George Ivan Smith, who spent his remaining investigating the killing. Like Conor Cruise O’Brien, the controversial UN representative in Katanga until shortly before the crash, Smith believed their man had been killed simply because the context was so powerful that it was hard to believe in anything else.

The re-telling of this highly dramatic story is central to the fascination of this book. The context of the shock tremors which the Congo crisis of 1960-1 had in the world, especially in Africa, and how it affected so much of what happened in one of Africa’s most turbulent decades, which make it especially engrossing to read. The author’s scene-setting chapters bring back the whole drama to me, almost as if it were yesterday, to the time when I had just started work as assistant news editor of a weekly illustrated paper called The Sphere (long since dead). Despite my inexperience, the death of Hammarskjold plunged me remorselessly into the bitter emotions of the conflicts surrounding the affair.

The book, which was published in London in September by Hurst, has as its sub- title The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa. This sounds sweeping, but puts the emphasis and political context correctly. This was not just a time when Cold War rivalries were at their height, but a period of rapid change in Africa. The year of the Congo’s over-rapidly conceived independence was also the year of the Sharpeville massacre and Macmillan’s ‘wind of change’ speech. The tide of independence was sweeping southwards and the forces of white racial supremacy felt threatened as never before, and the Congo became the theatre of conflict. Thus these forces, and the Western mining corporations that had profited so much from the territory under Belgian colonialism, engineered the secession of the rich mining province of Katanga from the rest of the Congo.

This was a testing period raising all sorts of compelling issues. Firstly, it was too dangerous for Africa to become a setting for Cold War conflicts; secondly that the continent needed to put practical teeth into aspirations for unity, which led in 1963 to the setting up of Organisation of African Unity (OAU); and thirdly that in the condition of newly-independent Africa, secession was a non-starter.

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    • Hambali says:

      Cleo,,,Your arguments are in large part based upon false persimes, misinformation, prevarication or outright lies you might believe.There is a huge difference between small-business capitalism and unfettered multinational capitalism which controls government, otherwise known as fascism. Morales is for the former and against the latter and you should know that.You claim The people who have the lands or companies, is people who have work very hard to get them and make them productive . yet fail to understand (or admit) that the largest and richest stakeholders bought their positions with bribes, or used force to steal them from the indigenous. Morales has stopped that, and intends to reverse those illegalities.You then pose a strawman argument’ with a fictitious tale about Morales supposedly dividing up a 1000 hectare (~2,500 acres!) farm and giving it to 1000 families with the suggestion that they could not prosper from it. There is no basis in fact for that suggestion. In fact, Morales’ reforms would limit individual land-holdings to 10,000 or 15,000 hectares (25,000 or 37,500 acres) certainly plenty of land to achieve farming prosperity.Then you claim Understand, just a goverment can not support all the people,, the people must be able to support them selves, what a goverment must do, is to support them to achive goals, starat companies, improve education!! all the while failing to understand (or admit) that by providing more Bolivians with the means of production (land), that more people will be able to support themselves, and start their own companies so that government handouts will be less needed.With the neo-liberal economics that you suggest, were most Bolivians educated? The answer is unfortunately no. Since Morales’ was elected, and due in large part to the help of Cuba, many Bolivians are now literate who were previously denied any education.And lastly, you accuse Bolivians of being corrupt and lazy. From my experiences in Bolivia (as opposed to your pot-shots from without) I can attest to the fact that there are few harder-working and more honest people on this earth, and why you seem to want to tear them down is a mystery leading me to wonder whether you have another agenda, or if it is you, not Mark who is the uneducated one with the hubris of the kettle calling the pot black? What is your real agenda, Cleo?With little regard,,,John

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