Jonny Keyworth reports on workers’ struggles in war-ravaged Congo.
“History will one day have its say, but it will not be the history that Brussels, Paris, Washington, or the United Nations will teach... they will teach in the countries emancipated from colonialism and its puppets... a history of glory and dignity”.
These are the words of the first Congolese Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, who led a nationalist movement against Belgian colonial rule. At the ceremony for the handing over of power Lumumba declared (whilst the Belgian King and his entourage sat nervously in the front row):
“We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force”.
Lumumba was soon arrested and killed by firing squad, in a coup orchestrated by Belgian commanders who had stayed in the Katanga region after independence. He was replaced with his former chief of staff of the Army, Joseph Mobutu.
During the Cold War, Mobutu became a good friend of President Nixon and enjoyed substantial American aid, which he embezzled as the Congo became his own personal kleptocracy.
Mobutu’s faux pan-Africanism had kept a divided Congo together, but at the end of the Cold War, he was no longer needed by the west; his patrimonial networks were no longer financed. The Democratic Republic of the Congo collapsed into conflict and instability, with the First and Second Congo wars, the genocide in Rwanda, and the more recent conflict in Kivu and Ituri, tearing Congolese society apart.
Analyses of Congolese society have been preoccupied with ethnicity and conflict management, rather than the structure of society and the class relations that perpetuate these divisions.
“Disaster pornography” has dominated images of Congo since the fall of Mobutu, and the horizons for progressive political change have been limited to precarious peace agreements between the government and rebels.
Whilst the international left rightly highlights the struggles of labour movements in North Africa, workers are struggling in sub-Saharan African too. Yet international solidarity with Congolese workers will aid them not only in their struggles for rights, including the right to unionise, but also in their struggle for a place in the development and sustaining of peace as key political agents.
Workers are still suffering from the effects of war and instability.
The conflict has destroyed productive activity in most rural and peri-urban areas, sparking a surge in the informal economy, now involving 80% of workers.
The entrenchment of informal work mitigates against the development of working-class consciousness. This phenomenon is prevalent across the African continent, yet when coupled with ongoing conflict and displacement as in the DRC, informal work is not only exploitative but lethal.
Foreign companies take advantage of this situation. For example the Chinese Cobra Tyre & Rubber Company are suspected of bribing the labour inspector who backed them in refusing to apply the minimum wage. The workplace representative for the main union federation Confédération Démocratique du Travail (CDT, a main union federation) was later dismissed unlawfully. And the telecommunications operator Tigo, and Lebanese company Strippes have used the lack of laws to dismiss huge swathes of workers whilst the union’s application for the new minimum wage is being processed.
The private sector, mostly mining, is dominated by sham unions.
These unions have no active members and are created by employers to discourage real attempts at workplace organising. This is perpetuated by foreign companies such as the China Railway Engineering Corporation which has begun to build roads and railways. Labour inspectors are too frightened to take action against investors, after a history of witch-hunts and harassment.
In 2010, when railway workers went on strike in protest at 36 months of salary arrears, union leader Mulumba Kapepula was arrested and tortured by the National Intelligence Agency.
Minerals are the key commodity for the DRC. The recent global plummet of mineral prices has led to mass layoffs in the formal mining sector; these workers have fled to informal artisan mines where protection and safety measures are absent, and child labour is commonplace.
In areas that have not been so adversely affected by conflict, mining companies regularly clash with artisan miners who dig illegally on mining concessions. The minerals from these mines are often termed “conflict minerals”, particularly in the Eastern provinces, as the profits from their sale have financed the conflict in the Kivu and Ituri.
The disaster imagery that has plagued representations of the DRC in recent years is understandable; the country faces an uncertain future as unrest in the Kivu continues and the rebel M23 movement emerges.
Yet to neglect workers’ struggles limits us to a liberal, “human-rights” response, seeing progressive political change as possible only through limited peace deals and agreements.
International left solidarity based on working-class political economy extends our analysis of the DRC to the “conflict minerals” which drive and fuel the conflict, and the consequent explosion in informal work. We can begin to see the conflict as more than just apolitical jostling for power between opposed, self-interested groups.
For a sustainable peace in the DRC an end to the “conflict minerals” industry, and the respecting of trade union rights in the mines is needed. Workers can then begin to flex their strength and drive a worker-led economic development in the DRC.
The creation of secure jobs and the promotion of workers’ rights will be at the heart of that development.