D. Tödt: The Lumumba Generation. African Bourgeoisie and Colonial Distinction in the Belgian Congo

The Lumumba Generation. African Bourgeoisie and Colonial Distinction in the Belgian Congo

Tödt, Daniel
Africa in Global History
428 S.
€ 69,95
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Ismay Milford, Research Centre Global Dynamics, Universität Leipzig

Daniel Tödt’s history of elite formation in post-war Belgian Congo traces the making of the évolués – as an idea and as a generation of Congolese individuals – through press debates, legal reforms, and social clubs. Affirming that elite-making policy was a colonial attempt to maintain a racist social order, The Lumumba Generation shows that it was also an “empowerment strategy” (p. 25) for the évolués themselves, many of whom went on to occupy powerful positions in state and cultural institutions with independence in 1960.

The book’s eight core chapters chart a broadly chronological path, focusing on the period 1945–1960 and using moments of heightened tension or legal turning points, such as the introduction of the carte du mérite civique, as foci for each chapter. While those whose elite status was formally recognized amounted to fewer than 2,000 mainly mission-educated, male office workers (p. 287), groups with stakes in the debate ranged from political parties in Belgium to the Congolese women attending foyers sociaux in small towns. Through a nuanced analysis of rich, multiarchival source material, we see how colonial subjects in the Congo discussed and shaped the definition of évolué (p. 127), its formal recognition, and the privileges it granted. This was, Tödt concludes, “a history of disappointment”: the évolués “climbed to the top of the developmental ladder of civility, only to bump their heads against the glass ceiling of the colonial order” (p. 366).

The Lumumba Generation is a translated and updated edition of Elitenbildung und Dekolonisierung. Die Évolués in Belgisch-Kongo 1944–1960 (2018), which itself was based on Tödt’s 2015 PhD thesis. Historiography on African decolonization, as well as conceptual discussions relating to the global bourgeoisie and public sphere, have grown rapidly and shifted emphasis since 2015. That this book reads as a fresh and compelling contribution is testament not only to Tödt’s efforts to integrate recent scholarship but also to how pertinent the core research was and still is to ongoing scholarly debates. In this regard, four points can be mentioned.

First is the book’s conceptual framing around the global bourgeoisie. This framing allows Tödt to depart from worn narratives of colonial collaboration – a familiar theme in political histories of African and particularly Congolese decolonization – to locate the Congolese elite in a connected global social history. As Tödt notes, the global bourgeoisie has primarily been understood by way of Europe in the long nineteenth century. Extending our view to post-war Africa raises new questions: the role of religion in bourgeois culture appears less marginal; the extent to which European bourgeoisification relied on a colonial gaze is more evident. While elite-making policy was unusually formalized in the Congo, The Lumumba Generation challenges Congolese exceptionalism and invites further comparative work on Africa’s twentieth-century social history.

Second is Tödt’s skilful weaving together of legal and cultural histories – perhaps the book’s biggest achievement. Historians of decolonization have taken great interest in legal categories of colonial citizenship since Frederick Cooper’s 2014 intervention relating to French West Africa.1 In The Lumumba Generation_, we see how much these legal discussions grew from and were contingent upon the cultural realm. This is most striking in chapter 4, where Tödt uses interviews and novels, as well as newspapers and magazines, to explore how categorizing the évolué meant dealing with everything from the construction of housing estates to whether women’s clothing should feature typewriter motifs. Here, and throughout, Tödt foregrounds gender in his analysis and powerfully demonstrates that women were crucial actors in the making of the évolué (and the simultaneous invention of the Congolese housewife), even if few were granted legal privileges themselves.

Third is the book’s contribution to scholarship on print cultures and the public sphere. The publication Voix du Congolais serves as a thread throughout the book and a historical force in its own right when it “turned the évolués into a social fact” (p. 147) and influenced (with limits) the debate on the selection procedure for the carte du mérite civique and immatriculation (chapter 6). In this, Tödt’s work follows that of other scholars, including Emma Hunter, who have shown that newspapers operating under colonial constraints were nevertheless influential forums.2 Chapter 2 is a valuable insight into the buzzing social lives of newspaper work and the competitive business dimension of colonial press ecologies, from which a more critical reading of the public sphere could be developed in future work.

Fourth is Tödt’s success in bringing a wider range of actors and their voices into the history of African decolonization. Although the book’s title alludes to the position occupied by Patrice Lumumba in narratives of Congolese independence, its content moves far beyond the heroic names of anti-colonial politics. Chapter 8 tells a story of the growth of political parties from the landscape of associations that is to some extent familiar to historians of African decolonization. Through this closing episode, however, Tödt argues that the oft-cited tropes of Congolese decolonization – the speed of the process and the power vacuum it left – can be understood as a direct consequence of the elite-making policy. As he notes, there is still more to do to conceptualize the relationship between bourgeoisification and anti-colonial politics beyond biographical case studies: thinking through generation is an exciting way forward.

Throughout, the book is meticulously researched and referenced. The analysis is highly accessible yet never simplistic and the bibliography usefully brings together literature in French, English, and German, including work by Congolese historians. Alex Skinner’s translation is a smooth and very enjoyable read. Care has been taken in arriving at appropriate specialist and historical terms – translated both from the French source material and Tödt’s writing. It is unfortunate, in terms of editorial decisions, that the original French quotations could not be included, given the importance of the évolués’ own words to Tödt’s analysis.

In sum, The Lumumba Generation is a valuable addition to De Gruyter’s Africa in Global History series. While it opens up space for connections and comparisons, especially with generational elites elsewhere in the decolonizing world, Tödt’s book convincingly champions global historical analyses that are about the undeniable reach of debates rooted in a particular place, rather than about the physical mobility of actors.

1 Frederick Cooper: Citizenship between Empire and Nation. Remaking France and French Africa, 1945-1960, Princeton 2014.
2 Emma Hunter: Political Thought and the Public Sphere in Tanzania. Freedom, Democracy and Citizenship in the Era of Decolonization, Cambridge 2015.

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