By Tom Castle
Patrice Lumumba was murdered in 1961. The leader of Congo’s first post-colonial government lasted just weeks in office and was dead within months of his election. A Season in the Congo, playing an extended season at the Young Vic, is a joyous celebration of his life and a poignant record of his death.
It is a remarkable production that blends both traditional and modern African song and storytelling. In a notable reversal of London theatrical custom an all-black cast plays the Congolese roles as well as those of the UN, US, Belgian officials and soldiers. The white imperialists are signified by donning pig snouts and adopting British upper class accents.
Unfortunately the play could scarcely be more relevant or contemporary. In recent memory, Cote d’Ivoire and Mali have been invaded, Libya bombed to effect regime change, a counter-revolutionary coup organised in Egypt and Syria currently under imminent threat of bombardment.
This is the context of Lumumba’s rise and of his overthrow. At the end of the second world war the declining imperialist powers of Europe were grudgingly obliged to quit their colonial seizures in Africa. But the degree of imperial weakness was directly correlated to a stubborn military rapaciousness to cling on. While the US correctly judged that its firms could benefit from European decolonisation, by contrast the weakest European powers could not hope to maintain captive markets and raw materials without colonialism. The weakest, Portugal, only quit its colonies with the revolution in 1974.
Belgium was the colonial power in the Congo, under British patronage. They had introduced the practice of chopping off hands as punishment for workers who brought in an insufficient yield of rubber. In Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost he estimates that Belgian colonial rule was responsible for the deaths of 10 million Africans in the Congo. Belgium too was one of the weaker colonial powers, and its intention was that Congo’s independence would be mainly formal, not substantial.
It was Lumumba’s efforts to make Congo genuinely independent, including some benefit to the population from its vast mineral wealth while preserving the unity of the nation, which brought him into conflict with the imperialists; the CIA, the Belgian paratroopers, French intelligence and, as recently revealed, MI6.
It is clear from the play why Patrice Lumumba was a hero of the anti-colonial struggle and the movement for national liberation in Africa. His murder inflamed world opinion against colonialism, but was also a strong signal to all potentially radical African leaders about the risks of confronting imperialism.
At that time the joint imperialist intervention in the Congo was dressed up as support for the ‘right to self-determination’, of Katanga the richest province to secede and become their puppet. Now the flags of convenience are variously democracy, or human rights, or popular unrest. But the effect is the same, the re-conquest of Africa by the declining imperialist powers.
A Season in the Congo is an engaging, moving and inventive play, with great relevance in the current period.