The Overstretched Superpower
Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?
IT HAS often been said that Belgium has no official colonial doctrine, and that is true enough in the sense that there is none which is complete and systematic. Leopold II had no firm plans when he founded the Association Internationale Africaine in 1876, nor yet in 1879 when he secured Stanley's services. Neither he nor anyone else could have foreseen then that in 1885 he would be recognized by all the Powers as "Sovereign of the Congo Free State." One thing is certain, namely that Leopold II, acting alone and without the military and financial support of a government behind him, could never have hoped to conquer the Congo by force of arms, to impose himself there against the will of the inhabitants. Therefore no attempt at conquest was made. That was a fortunate beginning.
When Leopold II's political and national ambitions became more specific, he based his right on occupation, not conquest; on peaceful coexistence with the natives who occupied a very small part of the African Equatorial belt. It is true that in the 1890's Central Africa was not uninhabited; but neither was it fully occupied. The King, and later Belgium, never questioned the prior rights of the natives as first occupants. There was plenty of room for everybody--wide empty spaces where one could take up land without interfering with anyone else, without disturbing the natives in their peaceful possession of widely scattered patches of land, without infringing any existing rights.
In the vast area of the Congo basin there lived a few million natives, lost in the jungle and the bush, tolerated at best by their physical environment, leading a precarious life on what one might call the fringe of nature. Surface and underground wealth were unknown and unexploited. Belgian colonization aimed at tapping these unexploited resources, at occupying unused land, at filling voids.
The concern for native rights can be traced through Congo legislation from the very beginning. Thus an Order by the Administrator General dated July 1, 1885--the very day the Congo Free State was proclaimed--specifies that "no one may dispossess natives of the land they occupy" and that "vacant land should be considered as belonging to the State." The Civil Code, Book 2, Section 12, is more general as well as more explicit: "All ownerless property belongs to the State, subject to customary rights of natives being reserved." According to a Decree of September 14, 1886, "Territory occupied by natives under the authority of their chiefs continues to be governed by local customs and practices." The Decree of May 21, 1935, states that no land may be granted to non-natives except after an investigation aimed at "establishing vacancy and assessing any rights which natives may claim regarding the land concerned"--such as hunting rights and rights of way. According to the Mining Law, natives may continue exploiting their mines under the conditions prevailing at the time the law came into force. The same applies to gathering of produce or such undertakings as salt works. For instance, where natives used to cut palm nuts in a wild grove for their domestic needs, or where by their primitive methods they gained, say, a ton of salt a year from some salt springs, the state could grant a concession for exploitation of the palm grove or the salt springs only subject to reserving the customary rights of the natives. In such cases they were supplied free of charge with all the palm oil they needed or were given their ton of salt ready packaged.
This was the rule which prevailed throughout the turbulent history of the Congo Free State. All the extensive concessions of land granted by the state to private corporations--concessions which became the subject of severe criticism--referred exclusively to vacant land, and were made subject to the reserved rights of natives.
In fact, though, criticism was amply deserved. It would be useless to deny that under the Free State natives suffered grievous wrongs; but they were abuses of existing laws. A rubber concessionnaire, for instance, was entitled to employ only gatherers who agreed to work for freely negotiated wages; in practice, however, natives only too often were put to forced labor. Again, the head tax owed to the state was (in the absence of currency) figured in working days, and working days were translated into weights of dry rubber; but in practice calculations were often forgotten and rubber deliveries became an arbitrary and exorbitant tribute exacted from the people. Endless discussion followed between philanthropists who denounced abusive practices and jurists who upheld the written law. The state was no doubt to blame for failing to exercise proper supervision. It is a question, however, whether the same abuses could not have been committed as well under a free-enterprise system.
Similar principles prevailed in the political field. The existing native political structure was allowed to stand. No native chief was deprived of his authority. It is stated in the preamble of the Decree on Native Areas that the Decree "does not intervene in the internal life of native communities, where tribal custom remains sovereign." Native custom recognized no authority higher than the tribal level. In the years between 1880 and 1885, before the Congo Free State was founded, some thought was given by King Leopold to establishing a "Confederation of Free Natives" --that is, a Federal Authority above the tribal chiefs. When the state came into existence, it did not supersede any existing authority; it simply filled a political void.
This is a long way from the concepts which prevailed at the time the New World was conquered. Then conquered territories were considered as chattels of the mother country to be exploited by it for its own profit. The supremacy of European over native interest was never questioned. If the aborigines resisted, war resulted; and in more than one case the natives were wiped out. A new European society was born upon the ruins of Indian societies. And when the American colonies rose in rebellion against the European mother countries, it was not the conquered Indians but the conquering whites who gained their freedom. The exception was in Haiti, where by an ironic reversal of things the white colonizers who had exterminated the Indians were in turn exterminated by the slaves they had imported from Africa.
So far as American natives were concerned, the revolution staged by the colonials against the motherland did not put an end to the "colonial régime;" the natives simply changed masters. The process of gradual conquest of Indian lands continued, and in the jungles of the Upper Amazon and Upper Orinoco it has not yet been completed even today. In the United States, the colonial problem was settled in two successive stages. The first ended--for the colonists--with their victory over the motherland in the American Revolution. The second ended a century later --for the Indians--with the capture of Sitting Bull, which put a close to the Indian Wars and marked the final triumph of the immigrants over the original population.
For a citizen of a European colonial nation it is rather irritating to find how much ignorance of fact and confusion of ideas are displayed about the so-called "colonial system." Among those who condemn it a priori are some who were, and still are, the main beneficiaries of colonial rule. Thus we find that Latin America is "against" Belgian rule in the Congo because the Spaniards of America, the very heirs of the conquistadores, rose against Spain. Guatemala and Ecuador vote "against" the colonial Powers in the General Assembly of the United Nations because they believe that by casting a "pro-colonial" vote they would be false to their own history.
Of course, the fact that the original inhabitants of America were subject to abuses by the white man in the past would not justify the Belgians if they inflicted similar abuses on the people of the Congo today. But then we do not look for excuses. Americans today are the first to condemn the wrongs inflicted by their ancestors and make every effort to repair them in so far as it is still possible. Times have changed since the days of slavery and the Indian Wars. But do Americans really believe that in Europe times have not changed as well? Do they think that we still hold to doctrines and practices of two centuries ago? An Australian representative in the United Nations once very pointedly remarked that at the time abuses were prevalent in the colonies, the people at home were treated hardly any better by the governing classes. Today the people make the laws. The people of Asia and America do not have a monopoly of human feelings. Parliaments and public opinion in London, Paris or Brussels are not less concerned about native rights than parliaments and public opinion in Washington or New Delhi or in Monrovia or Addis Ababa.
The attitude of most members of the United Nations toward the colonial problem could hardly be summed up better than in a phrase used by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in addressing the General Assembly: "The colonial system is obsolete and should be done away with as soon as possible." This saying was warmly applauded and is often quoted. Applied to my country, it might be translated: "Belgium's authority over the Congo is outdated and should be put an end to as soon as possible."
I like to believe that this is not what Secretary Dulles intended, and indeed his statement is open to a less injurious interpretation since it holds at least two ambiguities. If by "the colonial system" he means "exploitation of the colony for the profit of the mother country," everybody agrees that this is definitely to be condemned. But since that sort of régime is ended, it no longer needs to be put an end to. Present colonial systems have nothing in common with those of the eighteenth or even the nineteenth century. I use the plural, for there are nearly as many colonial systems as there are colonies. The colonial system of Papua applied to Malta would certainly be outdated, just as the colonial system of Malta applied to Papua would certainly be premature and would carry that colony back very rapidly into total barbarism.
In the same way the Colonial Powers could subscribe to the Dulles formula if "as soon as possible" means "as soon as the colonial peoples are able to govern themselves along the lines of civilized democracy." But that is not the way the phrase is understood by a large number of U.N. members, mainly Asian nations who themselves have become independent only recently. They take the words "as soon as possible" as meaning "the soonest moment will be the best." Perhaps in their ignorance about the specific conditions in each colony, and with their tendency to identify those conditions with the conditions in their own country, they believe that all colonies have the ability to provide themselves with excellent governments. Alternatively, they may consider independence so much the highest achievement that any national government, however bad, is preferable to any foreign government however good it may be. Mr. Krishna Menon, for one, seems to hold the opinion that the special virtue which resides in independence can of itself make everything right. He said recently that if natives who are still in a primitive state reject necessary measures, it is because these measures are enacted by a foreign authority. "People," he said, "are such that they do not appreciate good things when they are imposed upon them; but they will adopt them spontaneously if left free to choose."
However that may be, it is the fact of colonialism as such which the majority of the General Assembly condemns: the mere fact of control by a foreign authority. Or should the word "foreign" perhaps be replaced by "European?" For if the foreign authority happens to be a colored people, nobody dreams of condemning this form of colonialism. The domination of the Javanese over the Dayaks of Borneo, or of the Burmans over the Karens and the Shans, or of the Ethiopians over Bantu tribes, or of the American Negroes over the autochthonous tribes of Liberia, does not seem to find disfavor in the eyes of many anti-colonialists.
The anti-colonialism of the Asians, of the Moslem Powers and of the Soviet bloc we find understandable enough. Less explicable, however, is the anti-colonialism of Anglo-Saxon Americans and of Latin Americans.
We believe in the civilizing mission of the West. We think our Western Christian culture is superior to the native culture of Africa and that to have planted it there was good in itself and for it to disappear would be bad in itself. We believe that, if emancipation jeopardized the existence of Western civilization in Africa, that would not represent progress but the reverse. If we were not so convinced we should have no justification for being in Africa.
But an Indian does not believe in the superiority of Western civilization. On the contrary, he is convinced of the superiority of his own civilization. He feels, moreover, that Western influence in his country has been an evil in itself, and from his point of view he may be right. He therefore doubts the superiority of Western culture over Bantu culture. He does not believe that the West has a civilizing mission. He understandably rejects for Africa the civilization which he also rejects for himself. If therefore emancipation would bring the natives back to the culture of their ancestors that does not strike him as something terrible; quite the opposite. The misunderstanding between him and us is irreconcilable.
The American anti-colonial attitude, on the other hand, would seem to be justified only if the flowering of European culture in Africa were not going to wither away as a result of our departure. Everyone who knows the Congo--all the Congo, not just the large towns--is convinced that Belgian rule there is indispensable, and that the end of it would be the end of all that we have built up during three-quarters of a century.
These explanations are necessary for an understanding of the Belgian attitude toward political progress. We do not believe that the extension of the right to vote is an end in itself; we consider political progress to be a means to an end, the end being social, cultural and economic progress. If it is correct to say, "Good government is no substitute for self-government," it is equally correct to say, "Self-government is no substitute for good government."
If we were to grant political rights in the Congo today, we would have the choice between a competent but restricted electorate and a general but incompetent electorate. Restricting the suffrage to the enlightened would mean handing over power to the European minority, with the risk that it might be used against the interests of the native masses. On the other hand, primitive tribesmen are obviously incapable of recognizing the common good. Extending the suffrage to them could only mean establishing a caricature of democracy and might endanger the future of civilization in Africa.
Such being the situation, nobody in the Congo has been given the right to vote, neither white nor black. Councils are advisory and their members are appointed. The metropolitan authority holds the balance between the divergent interests of the Europeans, the "evolved" natives and the tribal masses. This solution avoids political friction. The natives prefer it to the domination of the local European minority, because it grants no privilege to the white minority, implies no discrimination and does not set a precedent for the future. The Europeans submit to it, though with more and more reluctance; many of them have settled in the country for good and demand that they be allowed to have a part in governing it. They nevertheless realize the threat which they would face if the right to vote were extended to more and more strata of natives. The system is far from ideal, but it works. In order to make it acceptable, the Administration strives to make the Councils steadily more representative. And since the Councils are merely advisory, they for their part tend to be moderate, knowing that proposals of an extreme nature would inevitably be rejected; and in practice the Administration almost always does follow their advice.
The French and British systems are different. The French have tried to find a solution by establishing dual electoral colleges, one French, the other native; the English, by multi-racial councils in which each race is represented by a given number of members or by qualified suffrage. Both systems are unsatisfactory in that they emphasize the inequality of status and create racial rivalries.
It is noteworthy that native representatives in Congo councils have insisted on continuing government officials in ex officio capacities. It seems to prove their confidence that the Administration acts as a fair arbiter. Indeed, it may well be that equality in the lack of political privileges has been a contributing factor to the Congo's peaceful development.
We are convinced, besides, that political advancement will best be promoted by working for economic and social progress, without which political rights would remain a delusion. By promoting such progress we are forging the weapons with which the natives will conquer their political freedom, if we do not have the wisdom to grant it gracefully when the time is ripe.
The absence of a color bar works powerfully in favor of economic progress for the natives. They are not excluded from any profession. On the other hand, we are being taken to task for inequality of wages, for violating the principle of "same work, same pay" which we allegedly qualify by adding "taking into account the different standards of living of Negroes and whites." It is true that on the whole native wages are too low. It is also true that for nearly the same work the natives receive wages far below the wages of the whites. In order to discuss this problem dispassionately and without bias some historical facts must be borne in mind.
First of all, it has to be remembered that we literally started from scratch in the Congo. Economic equipment was nonexistent; previous generations had left no capital; current resources were nil; technique was totally absent. In all the vast country there was not one mile of road, not a single wheel, not one stone building, not one literate native. There were neither draft nor pack animals. The only known means of transportation were the dugout canoe on the rivers, and everywhere else the human beast of burden. The country simply could not afford to pay for building roads, harbors and a minimum of basic equipment at wage rates even remotely comparable to those of civilized countries. There was not, as in the early days of the Soviet Union, a choice between consumer goods and industrial equipment; the choice was between rudimentary industrial equipment at low wages or no industrial equipment and no wages at all.
The first workers who went into the service of the whites had an extremely low standard of living. Moreover, the European peace had relieved them from their most absorbing traditional occupation: armed protection of their working women. They had time on their hands. A job which secured them their daily meat, white protection for themselves and their families, and better lodgings than their huts seemed an acceptable exchange for some of their leisure. If, in addition, they were offered textiles and glassware, which they valued highly and were unable to produce themselves, their very modest wages became an appreciable net gain to them. Recruits by the chiefs for military service were slaves who thus escaped from bondage. Similarly, the majority of those who volunteered for labor did not take jobs so much to earn money as to free themselves from the heavier forced labor which was demanded of them in the village, to escape from the persecution of the tribal chief, from the accusations of the magician, from the menace of powerful enemies. A little work was not too high a price to pay for security--even had no salary been attached. Thus labor's demands were cheap.
On the other hand, employers could hardly afford to offer generous wages. All enterprises were "marginal," and one had better admit that many of them still are today. On account of the light traffic, railway rates would be considered prohibitive in an industrialized country; and distances from world markets are long. Katanga copper is carried 1,200 miles to the nearest port, and copper has no local market. Transport rates thus increase considerably the cost of imports and reduce the worth of exports. Dams for hydroelectric plants are built with concrete which sells at a higher price than flour. Skilled European labor costs at least three times as much as it does in Europe and the output of semi-skilled native labor is very low.
These circumstances explain, even though they do not entirely justify, the low native wages. Even today employers tend to link any increase in wages to an increase in output. This would be justified if the initial wage had been freely and normally negotiated, but such was not the case. The initial wage guaranteed the worker a higher standard of living than he had known in his native village; but it would not have allowed him to live and raise a family according to the standards of a civilized society. It is therefore imperative that wages rise faster than the output of labor, and that is what is happening today. Many employers no doubt could raise wages still further without risking bankruptcy, but many businesses were built (doubtless unwisely) on the level of wages in force at the time they started and would collapse if they suddenly had to face substantial wage increases. In the interest of the workers themselves it therefore is necessary to envisage a period of gradual adjustment.
As to the equalization of black and white wages in accordance with the principle of "same work, same pay," that presents one of the most difficult problems facing Africa. Careful study shows that there is no perfect solution. Wages can be levelled up or they can be levelled down: those of the Negroes can be raised or those of the whites can be reduced. Levelling down by reducing the wages of the whites would have just one effect: whites would no longer come to Africa. They are urgently needed and the conditions of life there are such that they can be attracted only by the offer of a higher standard of living or higher pay than they would enjoy in their own country. Africa cannot offer them all the facilities that life offers in Europe; one must make up for what is lacking with higher pay and the possibility of saving for an easier future. On the other hand, raising the average wages of the Negroes to the level of European wages would be charging a country with an average income of $50 with the same burdens carried by a country with an average income of $500--quite obviously an impossibility.
The only justification for the higher wages paid to white people lies in the fact that they are indispensable specialists. One could preserve this qualification for them artificially by establishing a color bar, that is, by excluding the natives from qualified jobs. The Belgian Government has always refused to do this. All professions are open to the natives. A number of jobs which were formerly filled by whites--though without being reserved for them--are filled by natives today. They do not receive the wages which were enjoyed by the whites, and that is normal. Progressive Africanization is the only solution. By reducing the ratio of high-wage whites to low-wage natives, savings on the white payroll may be applied to raising the average native pay without increasing the total payroll to an uneconomic level.
This explains the Belgian attitude toward European immigration into the Congo. We aim at attracting only selected immigrants who can fulfill functions which the natives still cannot. Immigrants who would not be able to resist native competition are discouraged from coming. But under these conditions, functions which the natives can perform just as well as the whites ought no longer to enjoy preferential treatment.
What is to become of the whites ousted in this process? In general, they will be entrusted with higher functions. A skilled worker, for instance, will be promoted to foreman or instructor. If he is unfit for promotion, he will go on drawing his current wage, but there will be no further recruiting of labor from Europe for any jobs for which there are African candidates. This is not a wholly satisfactory solution since it perpetuates inequality. However, the situation is eased somewhat by the fact that even today most Europeans do not settle for good in Africa and that immigration remains controlled. If Africanization were carried through in one big operation, in large sections, all the whites in such and such a category being simultaneously replaced by Negroes, the inequality in pay would be less noticeable, for Negroes and whites would not be performing the same work at the same time. But that is not how things work. It is a gradual shift, and Negroes and whites find themselves working at the same time on the same jobs.
How is one to make the first black doctor agree to receive a lower salary than that which his European colleague gets in a neighboring hospital, when both have the same qualifications? And yet it is precisely because the country is too poor to be able to afford white doctors in large quantities that it is necessary to supply it with a native medical corps. Adoption of the solution which seems fair and right, the invariable application of the "same work, same pay" principle, would lead Africa into a dead-end road. The formula of "expatriation pay" for white immigrants has been tried. It is easier to apply in a country under a native government, like the Gold Coast, where officials are not suspected of delaying the process of Africanization, than in a colony where the administration may be suspected of holding on to useless whites out of a sense of racial solidarity. The French have gone very far--probably too far--with full assimilation of local and French officials. This makes it impossible to increase the staff to desirable levels without imposing a load which with its present poverty Africa is unable to carry. It is only by increasing national income that the difference between white and black wages can gradually be reduced. The immigrants will be less exacting once colonial life has fewer hazards and inconveniences than it has today; and the increase in average income will be accompanied automatically by an improvement in average wages.
But then, one may ask, why does not the Administration set out resolutely on the road to Africanization by preparing a selected native "élite" to undertake public duties? Why has it not sent natives to the universities of Europe long ago? Is it because it deliberately wishes to keep the natives in subordinate positions that it excludes them from higher education? Unfortunately, statements by certain Europeans from time to time tend to confirm this interpretation. They want their cook to make a good soup and not to write letters. They praise the Administration for its "policy" of limiting its efforts to primary instruction and to teaching handicrafts.
That is not in fact the policy of the Administration. It aims at endowing the country with a complete educational system, in all grades, as perfect as the limited resources available will permit. Opinions as to how this can best be done differ. Some believe that the best approach will be to divide all available resources among all the branches of education--primary, middle and advanced. Others believe that it would be better to begin at the bottom and to start by organizing as broad a system of primary education as possible. The choice was before us, but it was impossible for us to do everything at once. In order for a few to be given a university training they had to be sent to Europe at a very young age indeed. It is difficult to foresee if a child of seven will be able to go successfully through a complete cycle of training up to the point of obtaining a university degree. If the chosen child does not succeed, all the money the colony has spent for his education will be lost and what is to become of the unsuccessful? If he succeeds, is there any assurance that he will let his compatriots benefit from the knowledge he has received? And will he not have lost all contact with native society after having spent 10 or 15 years in Europe? Will he not have been made into a black-skinned European, as much a stranger in Africa as the white man himself?
But that is not all: How many children must be deprived of the primary education which they might be given in order to achieve the hazardous result described? This is the issue. Sending one single child to Europe for a full training means having a thousand fewer children in primary schools in the Congo. During an interim period we can supply the colony with all the university élite which it needs--an élite selected at the end and not at the beginning of studies, whose education has not cost the colony anything and who can be sent back home if they prove unsatisfactory. But the mother country cannot make up for the primary training taken away from a thousand native children. We have preferred to give primary training to the mass of children right on the spot; to organize secondary education later, as soon as available resources allow; and to give the natives at home, in the Congo, the university to which they are entitled as soon as sufficient recruitment for it can be guaranteed.
The value of this program is open to discussion, but it has to be admitted, I think, that it is at least a defensible one, that it is not inspired by selfish motives. The Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi together have almost the same population as French West Africa. French West Africa has a thousand children and young people studying in France, while we have just a handful studying in Belgium. Very likely French West Africa spends as much for public education as we do. But we have ten times more children than they have in primary schools, where they learn reading, hygiene and some notions of less primitive agriculture. I sincerely believe that in 30 years' time we shall have in the Congo at least as many university graduates, at least as many high school graduates, and infinitely fewer illiterates than do our French neighbors in West Africa, even though the first university in the Congo opened its doors only last year.
Will 30 years of peaceful progress be given to us?
France and the Netherlands are blamed for not having prepared the élites of Indo-China and Indonesia for independence in good time. The chaos in which these countries are struggling today is charged to former colonialism. The French and the Dutch reply that they are not responsible for the Japanese invasion and that if at the end of the war they were not allowed to reëstablish their authority and finish the job they had undertaken, the Allies were partly responsible. We, in the Congo, cannot afford any mistakes. We know that we cannot maintain our position there by sheer force of arms. This demands that we establish in the Congo "government for the people" until the time is ripe for "government by the people." We must deserve the consent of the governed. Failing that, the association between Belgium and the Congo sooner or later will be broken.
But Africa is a ferment. The Gold Coast has an African Prime Minister; Nigeria is on the eve of self-government. Shocking violence troubles Kenya. The United Nations countenances all forms of nationalism, whether premature or not. Will not these various outside influences upset the Congo? There is danger of it, no doubt. We are no longer quite free to set the pace of progress according to reason only. Yet I am full of hope. When a visitor asked some Congo chiefs if they did not fear an extension of the Mau Mau movement, they replied, "No, because the reasons for Mau Mau do not exist here." Congolese who have travelled elsewhere in Africa find that, all in all, life at home is best.