In this essay on the gestation, articulations and manipulations of student politics in 1960s Congo, Pedro Monaville explores the ways in which one particular massacre on a campus in Kinshasa ignited protracted protests and responses from the state that echo to this day in the physical and intellectual decay of the country’s tertiary institutions.
On 4 June 1969, soldiers opened fire on a student demonstration in Kinshasa, killing tens of marchers. The exact number of casualties – estimations vary between less than 10 and more than 100 victims – is impossible to establish. After the killing, the army seized the corpses of the dead students and buried them anonymously in a mass grave. These bodies could testify of the scale of the massacre, and identified graves would have constituted material reminders of the event. However, the efforts to make the dead bodies disappear failed to bring closure to the massacre. The fourth of June remained an unfinished business. The struggle to complete the story of the massacre during the following couple of years – pitting the state against the student movement – ultimately transformed radically the face of Congolese universities.
Violence and legitimacy
“Personally, the moment I became revolted against Mobutu was 4 June 1969,” recalls J.B. Sondji, in an interview in Kinshasa. “On that date, all Congolese students were asked to participate in a peaceful demonstration. And we went and demonstrated. I was here on Rond-Point Victoire. And they fired. I was in the first rows of the demonstration… We had seen the soldiers who were there, but we thought: ‘there are just here to intimidate us.’ And then suddenly, they started to fire, and everybody yelled: ‘lie down.’ And I lay down. And then at the moment when… I noticed that one of my friends did not stand up. And I had blood on me. And then I saw that one of my friends was dead. And this… It was the first time I was seeing a dead body. And it changed me completely. And today, this image… It is as if it had happened yesterday.”
A local group of activists, the Kinshasa Student Circle (CEK), planned the demonstration of 4 June. The CEK’s leaders tried to keep their project secret. At Lovanium – the country’s most prestigious university, located on the outskirts of Kinshasa – they informed the vast majority of students only on the eve of the march, during an assembly on the so-called Red Square – the centre of student politics on the campus. A few hours later, still in the middle of the night, students began leaving their dormitories en masse. The turn-out was impressive. Nearly all of Lovanium’s 3,000 students participated in the march. Yet, almost none of them reached the city centre, and the Ministry of Education, where CEK had planned to end the demonstration.
When the authorities got wind of the CEK’s intentions, they decided to use any means possible to stop the demonstration before it reached the city centre. Soldiers unsuccessfully tried to use teargas to disperse the marchers. Students seized the canisters and threw them back at the soldiers. None among the students imagined that the government would opt for more violent means of repression to contain the march. However, as students advanced toward what is today called Yolo-Medical and then Rond-point Victoire in the populous Matonge district, the soldiers opened fire with live ammunition. Many students thought that soldiers were using blanks. Once it became obvious that this was not the case, the demonstration broke down. In the memories of many marchers, Rond-point Victoire marks the endpoint of the demonstration. Nevertheless, a few continued to march in the direction of the Ministry of Education and went as far as Kinshasa’s Central Station, where they met students from other schools. Soldiers assaulted female students, and finally opened fire one more time on the marchers. Scores of protesters were arrested and brutally handled in a military camp.
The Congolese government had already used unrestrained violence against its citizens many times during the 1960s. Nevertheless, the events of 4 June marked a departure from previous massacres. The spirit, if not the techniques of counterinsurgency, engineered through the help of the Belgian and US governments, and tested between 1963 and 1965 in rural areas conquered by the Simba and Mulele rebellions, was for the first time deployed in the urban space of the capital city. Quite unsurprisingly, Congolese and foreign observers directly associated the events of 1969 with the colonial police operation of January 1959 that had squashed an insurrectional movement in Kinshasa resulting in more than 100 deaths. Through the repression of the student movement in 1969, the Congolese government adopted a form of violence inescapably reminiscent of this brand of colonial management of “trouble”.
Using violence against unarmed students seriously jeopardised the postcolonial state’s legitimacy. Throughout the 1960s, student politics remained isolated from mainstream society. Students rarely received support off-campus. As one former student from the 1960s recalls, “every time Lovanium students denounced the regime through demonstrations, the public understood it as a manifestation of youth’s unbridled unruliness. People did not dare mixing with protesters …; on the contrary, they would run away in their houses, yelling: ‘Ba Etudiants ba bandi lisusu mobulu na bango’ (Students are starting to make trouble again).”
Regardless of their lack of success in attracting a following among Kinshasa’s uneducated urban masses – a failure that was repeated on 4 June 1969 – students were not legitimate targets of state violence in the public’s mind. They were seen as children in need of protection, as well as the emerging section of society through which the promises of “development” would be accomplished. Ordinary Congolese interpreted the 1969 massacre – the unrestrained use of violence against a vulnerable part of the national body – as totally illegitimate.
For the students the event marked a turning point. Pius Ngandu Kashama’s autobiographical novel, La mort faite homme, poetically articulates how the massacre came to define his own student generation. Their dead comrades, deprived of a proper burial, remained haunting presences in the consciousness of the 4 June marchers. Concurrently, Joseph Mobutu, the Congo’s president since 1966, and the man unanimously held responsible for the massacre, came to embody, in the eyes of many students, the figure of death after 1969. Mobutu remained in power for nearly 30 years after the massacre, and the memories attached to him are very complex. Nevertheless, 4 June 1969 is often remembered as a turning point in the history of his regime.
The antagonism between the state and the students at the end of the 1960s – dramatically manifested in the 1969 massacre – remained centred on issues directly related to the organisation of the higher education system. In spite of this, the conflict about the future of universities produced effects that were felt off-campuses. Indeed, in the process, certain forms of political expression disappeared and were replaced by a new political vocabulary. Lovanium was both the source of student contestation and at the same time provided the regime with a legitimising rhetoric.
Decolonising the university
The global protests of 1968 offered an interpretative context against which the Kinshasa demonstration was read and understood by the different actors, and many in the Congo paid a lot of attention to the French case in particular. The influence of Benoit Verhaegen – a Belgian professor of political science and the director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research (IRES) based at Lovanium – can also be easily traced . A self-proclaimed Marxist, Verhaegen offered students an entry to revolutionary ideas that lacked a vehicle in Kinshasa in the mid-1960s. Even though the Congolese student association officially opted for socialism in the early 1960s and some semi-clandestine Marxist reading groups existed on Congolese campuses, Marxism retained an exotic flavour, especially at the very Catholic Lovanium.
Verhaegen certainly played a role in the articulation of the student rhetoric at the university.
As one former student remembering Lovanium’s intellectual environment in the 1960s recalled, “researchers… were ordering books for the library from [the Parisian leftist editor] Maspero, [such as those of Frantz] Fanon. When we were reading these books in 1968, we did not even know that these people were dead. We thought they were still alive. And then, May 1968 happened of course… All those ideas… and Verhaegen’s conferences… and we were receiving a lot of guest speakers on campus. There was a real circulation of ideas that made certain things impossible for us to accept.”
Verhaegen strongly opposed Lovanium’s alienation from Congolese society. To a great extent, the university, created by Belgian Catholics in the mid-1950s, remained a foreign body in the independent Congo. The majority of professors were foreigners. Academic life and programmes mirrored the Belgian system. Academic authorities adopted elitism as their official religion, and a great number of students failed every year.
In 1964, on the occasion of Lovanium’s 10th anniversary, Verhaegen gave a talk during which he attacked the institution and condemned its inability to remake itself in the postcolonial context. This intervention influenced the General Assembly of Students at Lovanium (AGEL), which led an impressive, successful strike on the campus a few weeks later. Student leaders were in agreement with the Belgian professor that while the country needed a form of “authoritarian socialism”, universities had to be democratised. The strike succeeded in creating awareness and fostering unity across the campus. A great number of students took an oath and swore fidelity to the “revolution” and to the student movement. Nevertheless, the strike ended after one week, when AGEL believed it could obtain satisfaction through negotiations. This strategy ultimately failed, as professors and academic authorities allied to block most of the students’ claims.
The unsatisfied demands of AGEL resurfaced regularly in the following years, and the strike’s memory continued to fire the imaginations of successive student leaders. This greatly contributed to the antagonistic atmosphere at Lovanium, and activists on other campuses began to mobilise their peers on a similar basis. In 1967, Lovanium’s authorities expelled a few students after yet another strike, on the pretext of violent acts committed against security agents. The government ordered the Belgian Monsignor Gillon, Lovanium’s rector, to reintegrate the students. He was then forced to resign and Tharcisse Tshibangu, a Congolese, became the new rector. Students interpreted the event as a clear victory in their fight for the Africanisation of the university.
Others signs gave students some hope that they would find an ally in Mobutu’s regime. Mobutu’s sudden rediscovery of Lumumba particularly helped galvanise the student left. Mobutu had seized power with the support of Western governments. However, influenced by some former leaders of the Congolese Student Union (UGEC), he progressively oriented his political discourse towards nationalism in 1966–67. The regime’s new rhetoric legitimised protests against the enduring colonial nature of universities.
By 1968, the student movement’s political platform more clearly than ever centred on the issue of decolonisation. Most students were familiar with the main slogans: co-gestion, africanisation, démocratisation, and déconcentration. The movement’s main grievances only targeted power structures inside universities. Students were not opposing the state; on the contrary they tried to mobilise the government as an ally in their attempt to promote a reform of universities.
As polarising as Patrice Lumumba remained in Congolese society, students held him as a tutelary figure. The tacit alliance between Mobutu’s regime and the students was made possible by Lumumba’s rehabilitation as national hero. Their quarrel resulted from an incident that also related to Lumumba. On 4 January 1968, the government organised a ceremony to celebrate the memory of the first prime minister and martyr of independence. The government made the serious political mistake of inviting the then US vice president Hubert Humphrey to attend the ceremony. Student activists considered Humphrey’s presence an overt provocation. The anti-imperialist students not only opposed the US involvement in Vietnam, but even more so, they could not stand that a US official would attend this ceremony while his country was believed to be one of the main organisers of Lumumba’s assassination in 1961.
The UGEC leaders organised a protest on the day of the ceremony to denounce this hypocrisy, and the trust between student organisations and the government disappeared. Between January and March, several leaders were arrested and briefly detained in prison, and some were expelled from the university. The crisis ended with the dissolution of the UGEC by the government and the forced promotion on campuses of the JMPR, the youth branch of the ruling party. This rupture between the student movement and Mobutu was the first step that made 4 June conceivable.
In July 1968, Lovanium’s board of directors decided to create a working group in charge of reforming the university’s status, and putting an end to the continuous tensions on the campus. AGEL and PASCOL (the association of Congolese professors and assistants) refused to integrate the working group unless it received voting rights and included a majority of Congolese participants. The crisis intensified during the autumn, and in January 1969, anonymous pamphlets invited students to reject all dialogue with Lovanium’s authorities.
A demonstration was planned for the end of the month, which provoked a reaction from Mobutu. He called a national conference in Goma to discuss the reform of universities. The delegates at the conference, presided over by the minister of education, agreed on “co-responsibility” as the principle that should transform the governance of all institutions of higher education. This did not meet the demands of the most radical student groups – and especially of Lovanium’s delegation – but it was at least a first step in the democratisation of universities. However, the Lovanium authorities could not accept the principle of voting rights for students in all academic institutions and councils, which was at the core of the co-responsibility model. Once the conference was over, they sent a memorandum to the government making explicit that democratising universities would ultimately threaten the authority of the government: “The natural form of the nation’s organs risks then to be affected by the spirit of this reform, and one should be conscious of this risk.” On receiving the memorandum, Mobutu dismissed the minister of education and adjourned Goma’s decisions. This alienated the students from Kinshasa and pushed them to opt for direct confrontation with the regime through the organisation of a mass demonstration in the city.
Food, generational conflicts and violence
In addition to the increasing tensions between Mobutu’s government and the student movement, other issues explain the success of the march of June 1969. Many of the students who marched on 4 June cared more about the improvement of their daily life than about the “ideological slogans” of student groups. It was a certain idea of the student and a social status that was defended on 4 June when marchers asked for a revaluation of their living conditions. University students were a small elite. Most of them had studied in Catholic institutions, spending many years in boarding schools, separated from their families. Many of Lovanium’s students came from rural regions – particularly from the Jesuit high schools in Kwilu, Bas-Congo and Katanga – and once in Kinshasa, they were convinced that all their efforts and sacrifices had paid off and granted them access to the higher strata of society.
Food in particular embodied the work of social differentiation that students expected from their access to higher education. The postcolonial promises of development and of social mobility could be assessed through the quality of food offered on campuses. Complaints about food expressed students’ anger at the discrepancy they perceived between their real social status and the hopes they had invested in education. In 1964, the call for the strike issued by AGEL already asked both for a democratisation of the university and for better living conditions, which was expressed through a complaint about food: “We cannot accept any longer a diet that is nearly unworthy of dogs.” Mundanely, many students at Lovanium rode the university buses for their weekly visits to the cités, and used their food tickets – and negotiated their access to university dinners – to seduce the women they were meeting there.
The participation of students in the June demonstration also happened in a context of particularly tense relations between generations and of generalised revolt against authority figures. The writer Yoka Mudaba Lye’s fictional narrative of 4 June, published in his short story collection Le fossoyeur (The Gravedigger), about a gravedigger who happens to bury his own son, among the other victims of the demonstration, in a mass grave, encapsulates one dimension of the generational dynamics at play in the event – and the deceived hopes of social mobility invested in education. Remembering his Catholic education with Belgian missionaries and his access to colonial knowledge in the late 1950s, philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe wrote that he then became his “father’s father”. In 1969, the generational inversion was pushed even further: in Yoka’s story, not only is the son much more educated and politically conscious than his father, but it is up to the father to bury the son.
Memories of the generation that came of age in the 1960s abound with stories in which authority is contested, challenged, and inverted. Anecdotes about conflicts with and rebellions against figures of authority – fathers and uncles, priests, teachers – are often linked to memories of the troubled political context of the Congo in the aftermath of its violent decolonisation. Violence remained a prominent dimension of political life during the 1960s. It permeated social relations and figures prominently in stories about generational conflicts.
The student movement throughout the 1960s also used violence to be taken seriously. The threat of violence became a way to assert the students’ commitment and enforce their claims. Already in 1964, AGEL’s call for a strike ended with the following capitalised sentences: “TO WAIT ANY LONGER! NO! RESISTANCE AND VIOLENCE! YES.” On 21 May 1969, the CEK sent an ultimatum to the government, in which they expressed their “right and duty” to defend their interests “by all means necessary, including revolutionary violence, with the same determination as our comrades from Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Asia”. The fourth of June is remembered as a peaceful demonstration – a central point for the accession of the victims of the march to the status of martyrs. Nevertheless, as early as 1971, students re-inscribed violence in the narrative of that date: “students were forced to use violence to express their anger. Legitimate anger, anger created by the government. Through its silence in face of students’ fair demands, the government invited students to leave their classrooms and to invade the streets.”
The student movement’s rhetoric of violence ultimately served the narrative of the events of 4 June authored by Mobutu’s regime. The demonstration’s official discourse did not deny acts of violence. It worked instead, through a series of moves, to displace the responsibility of violence from the centre of power – Mobutu, the government, the army, “real” Congolese – to those outside – the students, the ‘politicians’, “fake” Congolese and “fake” students, communists and foreigners. The regime denounced an anti-Congolese coalition, composed of student leaders, politicians, and malevolent foreigners. Students were accused of “mimicking the Parisian month of May” and of being manipulated by foreign Maoist militants. On 7 June, when Congolese students at the University of Brussels decided to bring a letter protesting the recent killing to the Congolese ambassador – and were received by embassy employees armed with metal rods – once again, foreigners – “mostly students from Northern Africa, Latin America, and Europe” – were accused of having caused the trouble.
From the university campus to the military camp
Mobutu needed to remake 4 June into an insurrectionary and foreign movement. By the same token, capturing the generational dimension of the movement and replacing himself as the nation’s father allowed Mobutu to rewrite, appropriate and invert the students’ political rhetoric. Indeed, two years later, the regime totally transformed the national higher education system and offered a pyrrhic victory to the student movement.
The dead students’ symbolic capital allowed clandestine activists at Lovanium to maintain strong opposition to the regime on the campus after 4 June. Students continued to fuel Mobutu’s anger. On the occasion of the 1970 presidential elections, the only ballots against Mobutu’s candidacy in Kinshasa were cast at precincts around the university. More crucially, in May 1971, pamphlets and graffiti on university buildings insulted Mobutu’s recently deceased mother, publicly calling her a “whore” who did not deserve the national burial she had just received. So, when a commemoration of the killing was planned for 4 June that year at Lovanium, the tension between students and the regime was at its highest. After a mass and the spontaneous building of a memorial to the dead students, the army invaded the campus and arrested the Belgian priest who had led the commemoration. A group of students took Lovanium’s rector hostage for a few hours, asking for the release of the priest. The army intervened again. Mobutu decided to close the university and to draft all 3,000 students from Lovanium into the army. Most students were allowed to return to school after a few months of military service, even if they still had to wear their uniform and participate in military exercises. Fifteen student activists were condemned to life sentences in prison.
The higher education system was totally transformed. A national university was created, incorporating Lovanium and Kisangani, the two private universities, as well as Lubumbashi, previously the only public institution. The creation of this new entity, Université Nationale du Zaire (UNAZA), entailed many changes for academics, administrative employees and students. Departments and faculties were redistributed throughout the country: pedagogy and psychology in Kisangani; humanities and social sciences in Lubumbashi; medicine, engineering, sciences, and law in Kinshasa. The material, moral and political conditions of university life were strongly affected.
By 1971, Mobutu had fully adopted the student movement’s vocabulary and appropriated the themes of nationalism, Africanisation and decolonisation. When he claimed that military service would reform syphilis-ridden students, he did not diverge from the accusation published by radical student activists against the moral corruption of prostitution, dime novels and pornographic movies that they saw plaguing their peers. When he reformed the universities, he seemed to apply the slogans that students had proclaimed on 4 June before the army opened fire on them. Mobutu’s tour de force consisted of neutralising most of the political vocabulary that the student movement had used against him.
In several ways Mobutu’s nationalisation and reform brought concrete responses to claims long defended by student activists. To some observers, the reform constituted a decisive step in decolonising and democratising universities. Nevertheless, the democratisation supposedly brought by the reform – democratisation as massification – was irreconcilable with the democratisation asked for by the student movement – democratisation as co-management. For a French anthropologist who praised the reform, universities had to be authentically Congolese, which meant breaking with their traditional isolation from society. The particular status of students – their privileged access to state resources – therefore appeared as a legacy of colonialism. In this sense, the post-1971 decline of students’ living standard and more generally the deterioration of the material conditions of teaching was not only inevitable, but welcomed: “In a poor country, there is nothing shameful for the university in being poor. On the contrary, it must be poor, and it is an act of realism to maintain it in a state of poverty.”
The 1971 reform marked a real moment of turmoil for universities. It was a violent disruption of the institutions’ daily life. It displaced entire departments, libraries and laboratories from one part of the country to another. It politicised campuses and bracketed academic freedom. It undermined the student movement for years. More students were accepted every year, while less money was spent on education. The reform provoked a physical and intellectual decay in universities that has called their survival into question many times and to this day.
In an ironic twist, Mobutu nearly ended up applying the programme defined by a radical advocate of the student movement in 1971, for whom the Congolese universities and the research conducted inside them did not “serve the knowledge of real persons, real things, or real needs, but… the abstract speculation that creates a useful smokescreen for imperialism”. The remedy was therefore radical, and resembled the slogans uttered against bourgeois universities by many other students around the globe: “The university should be neither reformed, nor rethought, nor adapted. The university should simply be destroyed.”
* An earlier version of this essay was published in Samantha Christiansen and Zachary Scarlett (eds.), The Third World in the Global 1960s.
This story features in the Chronic (April 2016), an edition in which we explore the tensions between reform and revolution, and decolonisation and the neoliberal order in the academy, through the lens of history and via the alternate education paradigms based in indigenous knowledge systems, and also arising from South Africa’s radical anti-apartheid struggle.
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