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By Dominique Malaquais
Artwork by Kakudji

[1] Tell it to the World

April 1st 1974.1 Before a room packed with reporters, President Mobutu Sese Seko’s Press Secretary, Bula Mandungu, makes an announcement: on September 25th, the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship will take place in Zaire. In the heart of Kinshasa, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman will face off in ‘The Match of the Century’.

It is a superb coup. Initially, the plan had been to hold the bout in New York City. But Kinshasa has beat the Big Apple to the punch, upstaged the most famous city in the world and London as well, which had also been in the running to host the match. Never has such a massive sports event been held on the African continent. Never will so many eyes have been trained on Africa at the same time. The sponsors of the match have arranged for 357 giant screens to be arrayed around the globe, each of which will serve as a platform for a closed-circuit projection of the fight; over two million people will be watching the match live on these screens – each of them a paying viewer. The amount of money involved is staggering for the 1970s. Ali and Foreman will both receive five million dollars. The purse will be paid out by Zaire. Mobutu ensures that everyone is aware of this. Countless communiqués to this effect appear in Elima, the official evening newspaper of his political party – the country’s only party: MPR (Mouvement Populaire pour la Révolution).

Stateside, the man in charge is no ordinary character. He is Don King. Today, King’s is a household name; at the time, he is little known. He has, however, something of a dubious reputation. A murder rap put him behind bars for a few years and rumour has it that he has ties with the Italian Mafia. He is also notoriously in debt to a cast of unsavoury individuals.

None of this is simple, none of it straightforward. The U.S. has just begun extracting itself from the filth of segregation and the country remains intensely racist. For King, in this context, raising funds for the match has proven a high-wire act: it is simply amazing that he has managed. In Zaire, nothing is easy or straightforward either. In 1960, the Belgian colonial regime was finally ousted. It left the country in shreds. A year later, Patrice Lumumba, the man who led the country to independence, is murdered by Belgian soldiers with the active help of the United States, following a coup d’état by Mobutu, then at the helm of the army. Aided and abetted by the world’s richest nation and by the ex-coloniser, the country heads full-tilt into anarchy. In 1965, following a second coup actively supported by Washington, Mobutu takes over once and for all. He will remain in power, ruling with an iron fist, until 1997.

Like Don King, Mobutu is given to high-wire acts. He has an uncanny ability to mix and match the most extraordinary positions. Behind him, through much of his reign, lurk Washington and Paris, both of which see in him a rampart against Communism (or what passes for such) and a means of imposing order – their order – in the immensely lucrative business of raping the region of its mineral wealth. He works hand in hand with the ‘West,’ yet simultaneously draws inspiration from Maoist China and lends his support to anti-‘Western’ insurrection movements in Angola, Chad and Sudan. While the U.S. and France are busy celebrating their dear friend’s capitalist spirit, in 1966 he nationalises dozens of companies, among which are some of the country’s most lucrative enterprises, such as diamond and copper mines in the Katanga region. In doing so, Mobutu deploys a more or less ‘socialist’ (or ‘socializing’) rhetoric, but in fact the move had one purpose only: to put money in the bank accounts of the small, local nomenklatura that has come to surround him and to line the pockets of his associates in the ‘West’. Western Europe and the U.S. make out like bandits and Mobutu shortly emerges as one of the wealthiest men on the planet.

Throughout, the Zairian leader shows a remarkable ability to juggle with the ideas, slogans and needs of multiple, often opposed, parties, from whom he manages to obtain just about everything he wants. To do so, he develops two strategies, both of which need to be taken into consideration when addressing the Ali-Foreman match.To the first of these strategies he gives the name ‘Recours à l’authenticité’ (recourse to authenticity) or, in other contexts, simply ‘Mobutisme’.2

Mobutisme, he explains, is a return to the country’s roots. The people must seek strength and direction in their ancestral past. In order to build a nation that is authentically theirs, they must look not to concepts imported from Europe, but to ideas and traditions of their forefathers.3 With this in mind, Mobutu changes the country’s name – Congo becomes Zaire – and many cities are renamed as well  (Léopoldville, for example, becomes Kinshasa); and, on January 5th 1972, Mobutu orders all citizens to abandon their European (Christian) names for names that he insists must be ‘authentically African’. To refuse – to continue to go by the name Paul, or Anne or Jean – is to run a real danger: a stiff fine and prison sentence, or worse. Mobutu himself – whose nom de baptême is Joseph Désiré – changes appellations: he becomes Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga. ‘Sese Seko,’ in Lingala, signifies ‘which knows no end / that which will never cease being’; ‘Banga’ means ‘fear’. The message is clear.

In the beginning of his reign, in the second half of the 1960s and the very early 1970s, Mobutu is quite popular in the country. In part, this is due to Zaire’s economic success.4 Between 1967 and 1970, economic growth is in the 10% range and, thereafter, until 1973–74 it stands at about 5%. These numbers are largely a result of the high price of copper on the world market: the Vietnam war is in full swing and there is strong demand for the red metal by weapons manufacturers. Also significant is a massive currency devaluation, which, in thorough contradiction to his party’s rhetoric, Mobutu imposes in order to make Zairian exports affordable for his ‘Western’ partners. The economic windfall does not last, though.

On November 30th, 1973, Mobutu introduces the second of the two strategies that mark the first decade of his reign: ‘Zairianisation’. The latter calls for an expropriation of small and mid-sized businesses belonging to foreigners – European, Asian and West African businesspeople, whose shops and small factories are turned over to members of the Mobutu clan. The result is disastrous. Most of the new owners have no financial experience, and a year later all of the expropriated businesses are nationalised. This move the government refers to as ‘la radicalisation’; there is, however, nothing radical about it: the new owners stay in charge, but under government supervision. Graft on a massive scale ensues and the economy goes into a tailspin from which it will never recover.

This tailspin is accelerated by a series of gargantuan construction and mise-en-valeur projects, each more useless than the last, among which are the creation of huge presidential parks and architectural sites. A case in point is the presidential domain of Mount Ngaliema, a sprawling marble palace overlooking Kinshasa designed by Fernand Tala-Ngai (1938–2006).5 The Ali-Foreman match belongs to this series of projects. It is in this context, quite specifically, that it must be considered.

The economy is falling apart and the Zairian people are beginning to feel the effects of this cruelly. Mobutu, meanwhile, is getting more and more caught up in the ‘authenticity’ strategy that he has developed. The president, he has taken to stating, is akin to a ‘traditional leader.’ From whole cloth, he creates the concept of a ‘national chief,’ whose power knows no limits and whose role is to act as a ‘father’ (or, in still another iteration, a ‘guide’) for his people – a simultaneously severe and benevolent patriarch. Mobutu is less and less open to criticism – of any kind. As the economic situation worsens, he relies increasingly on the police, the army and a panoply of secret service outfits to silence a population becoming more and more hostile to his rule. 1974, the year of the fight, marks the beginning of the end: at this point, the downhill slide has become irreversible.

[2] In the Arena

The stadium where the Ali-Foreman match is to take place is the very incarnation of the débâcle now under way. Its name is Stade du 20 Mai. This, however, has not always been the case.

Initially, the arena was called Stade du Roi Beaudoin, after King Beaudoin I of Belgium. It was built even as Belgium was losing its hold on Congo – as a manner of last hurrah by the embattled coloniser. This was in 1952, a few years before the coming of independence. Beaudoin – a young man – has just acceded to the throne following the abdication of his father, Leopold III.  Following World War II, in the face of the ‘great powers’, Belgium is nothing – nothing but a vast empire, which the young monarch cannot fathom losing, this despite the fact that, since the 1940s, Congo has been the site of a deeply engaged independence movement and despite the fact that, across Africa, the colonial era is clearly coming to an end. Beaudoin will have none of it. He launches a colony-wide construction campaign, commissioning thoroughly useless structures in cities across Congo. Among these is a spanking new stadium for Léopoldville – Léopoldville, which, as we have seen, is soon to become Kinshasa. Naturally, he names the new stadium after himself.

In 1955, Beaudoin travels to Congo. A sumptuous celebration is organised to herald his arrival. It is meant to be a crowning moment for Belgian colonisation. It takes place in the stadium, before a crowd of 70 000 people. The event is immortalised in countless photographs seen around the globe. They are the last of an era: never again will the world press dare sing the praises of Belgian colonialism. Congo is about to explode, and the stadium is going to play an important role in this.

The first, concrete signs that the end is coming occur a little less than two years later, on June 16th 1957, at an ordinary football match being played in the stadium. An unfortunate call by a referee causes a fight to break out between African and European members of the public. Things get out of hand and a few white folks’ cars are set on fire. Anywhere else, this would hardly be an issue, but in Congo it is something new: never has resentment for the colonial invader been expressed quite as publicly. The Belgian establishment is shocked and responds violently. In retrospect, the clash can be seen as fundamental: it marks quite clearly the beginning of the end.

A second, related event, also at the stadium, proves to be the nail in the coffin. It takes place in 1959 – on January 4th. A football match again – a championship meet between the team of record in Léopoldville, Vita Club, and a little-known military crew called Mikado. Against all expectations, Mikado wins, 3 goals to 1, and walks away with the championship title. The atmosphere is tense as tens of thousands of fans stream out of the stadium. Outside, the anger of the Vita supporters meets another wave of anger: the Belgian authorities have just banned a meeting of ABAKO, the most visible nationalist party in the capital. In the violently unequal social context of late 1950s Léopoldville, frustration from inside and outside the stadium become one. It is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

All hell breaks loose. Three days of riots ensue, in the course of which colonial monuments, schools and religious establishments are sacked. The Belgian government sends in the army. Predictably, the result is a bloodbath:  42 dead and 250 wounded, all of them Congolese. ABAKO is dissolved. But it is too late. Nine days later, Beaudoin is forced to announce that Belgium is leaving Congo. Officially, the colonial era comes to an end six months later, on June 30th, 1960.

Clearly, this stadium where Ali and Foreman are to meet in 1974 is no ordinary place. Mobutu is eminently aware of this, and has been for some time. Two years after the coup that put an end to the career – and the life – of Patrice Lumumba, The Guide gave a new name to the arena: Stade du 20 Mai. The name refers to May 20th 1967, the day on which Mobutu published the N’Sele Manifesto – his party’s charter, on the basis of which he went on to govern Zaire for the following two decades.

Freshly renamed, the stadium emerges as a key site for the first part of the Mobutu era: a gigantic theatre which Mobutu uses to stage events around himself – rallies, military parades and the like, in front of captive crowds of tens of thousands of men, women and children. Well aware of its symbolic heft and of the political uses to which architecture can be put, in the run-up to the Ali-Foreman match Mobutu instrumentalises the stadium to ensure that everyone understands the extent of his power – to underscore why it is that he has chosen to include the word ‘Banga’ in his newly-minted, Zairianised name.

1973, as previously noted, marked the final year of the Zairian economic boom; by 1974, the downward spiral had begun. By all accounts, you could feel it on the street. Thefts and armed robbery were becoming common. A few Europeans had ended up on the wrong side of a knuckle or knife. The match was coming up and Mobutu wanted nothing that might mar the great moment he was planning. To this end, he came up with a plan that would make the stadium the centre of terrifying rumours. Norman Mailer, one of the great writers on boxing and the author of a book on the Ali-Foreman fight, offers the following on the subject:

Late last Spring, the crime wave grew so intense that thieves were posing as policemen. The wives of Americans were getting raped. A nightmare for Mobutu if foreigners should arrive for the fight and get mugged en masse. So his police round up in a hurry three hundred of the worst criminals they can find and lock them up in some of the holding rooms under the stadium.  Then fifty of the three hundred were killed. For all we know, some of them could have been shot in the dressing rooms of the fighters. The key to the execution was that it took place at random … [T]hey just eliminated the nearest fifty. The random destruction was more desirable. Fear among the criminal population would then go deeper. Good connections with the police are worthless in such an unstructured situation. For much the same reason the other two hundred and fifty criminals were let go. So they could tell their friends of the massacre. The crime rate for this brief period is down. Mobutism.6

The extraordinary thing, in all of this, is that no one has ever been able to establish beyond a doubt that these executions took place – or even that there was, in fact, a warren of cells under the stadium. Mobutu was a master of the art of manipulating rumour. It is quite possible (though again there is no proof one way or the other) that he created an architectural rumour and that this rumour functioned (most effectively) on two levels: on the imaginary of foreigners coming to Kinshasa for the fight and on the imaginary of the local population, who, already, were having to face on a daily basis the terror inflicted by Mobutu’s police, army and secret services. Indeed, it seems, talk of blood at the stadium went even further than Mailer might have been aware and, with this, Mobutu’s manipulation of rumour. The Guide, playwright Mbala Nkanga7 notes, was notoriously interested in witchcraft. With this in mind, many Kinois saw a double symbolism in the bloodbath said to be taking place at the stadium. There were the surface explanations – Mobutu’s determination to bring crime to heel, official worry that fear would keep foreign viewers away; and then there was the ‘true’ (or in any event the more fundamental) reason: the executions were in fact sacrifices performed at Mobutu’s behest to ensure that the event would be a success. According to radio trottoir – the story on the street – the blood of throats slit was sprinkled at strategic points around the ring. When, a few weeks later (as we shall see), the bout had to be postponed, rumours abounded of fresh blood spilt and sprinkled; Mobutu, it was said, was increasingly concerned that the fight would not come off at all.

The image is, to say the very least, striking… Outside, for the whole world to see, was a spanking new stadium (Mobutu, as the press reported daily, had had the entire structure refurbished by engineers brought in from across the world). Inside, hidden from view, as in a monster’s inner sanctum, was a place where bodies were being butchered. And hidden still further, visible only to those blessed with ‘second sight’ – ndoki, seers – blood drunk by the earth all about the ring where the boxers were to meet. If the goal was to cause a scare, the ploy (rumour or not) was wildly successful: twenty-five years after the fact, in a documentary on the fight, Mailer and others were still talking about the bloodletting.8

[3] Kin La Belle

The stadium was not the only structure that Mobutu refurbished in preparation for the fight. He also had the city’s two fanciest hotels – the Memling and the Intercontinental – upgraded, as well as the public transport system for getting around the nicer parts of town. On August 7th, Elima reported:

As of this moment, Kinshasa is ready and able to feed over 12 000 people three times a day. The Zairian capital can lodge over 9 000 foreigners… The commission handling preparations for the match has acquired 105 buses, each with 80 seats, 100 12-seat minibuses and 100 Kombis for the press. At last count, there are also 2 500 taxis…

In the stadium itself, Mobutu had had five hundred telephone lines installed, built darkrooms so photos could be developed on site and erected towering light pylons, to ensure that news footage and documentaries could be filmed unhindered. All of this was explained in painstaking detail in the columns of Elima – this and the fact that The Guide had decided, on the occasion of the match, to bring colour TV to Zaire – no small feat when one consider that elsewhere in Central Africa (in Cameroon, for instance) TV only made its way onto the scene in the early 1980s.9

Why all of this spending? Why did Mobutu decide that he had to host the Fight of the Century in Kinshasa? The answer is in part economic: The Guide was bent on attracting foreign investors. Above all, however, the decision was political. For Mobutu, this was first and foremost an image-building project – Zaire’s image, of course, but also (and first and foremost) his own image. It was an exercise in monument construction: in erecting a monument to his own power and persona.

Here, we find again the remarkable ability that Mobutu had to juggle with ideas at first glance wholly unrelated, or altogether contradictory. On the one hand, and this is very clear from the official press, Mobutu was intent on presenting his country as the incarnation of – the very window onto – a modern Africa. References to ‘modernité’ appear over and over again in newspapers of the day, along with the statement, oft repeated, that Zaire would be able to welcome its American visitors ‘as if they were in their own country.’ At the very same time, in what would appear to be a thorough contradiction, the official press, the radio and posters placarded across the city were full of references to ‘authenticity’. In Elima in February 1974, one could read the following:

We plan to make our country into a paradise on earth, a ‘natural nature,’ as the President puts it, where humankind can come face to face with all things wild – the very wilderness that the human race has learned to destroy in the name of industrial civilization.

Self-evidently, a contradiction is at hand, here – claims of ‘modernity’ vs. ‘authenticity’, celebrations of the city as a space equipped with all the comforts of ‘Western’ urban enclaves vs. indictments of ‘industrial civilization’. Precisely the same kinds of ‘contradictions’ attended Mobutu’s expropriation and nationalisation of foreign businesses in ’73 and his simultaneous dependence for survival on the active help of capitalist governments and their armed minions – capitalist entities that he privately wined and dined and, for local consumption, publicly excoriated, accusing them (quite rightly, one might add, but in what were no more than rhetorical flourishes) of robbing his country and continent blind.

In the context of the Ali-Foreman fight, The Guide managed with brio to reconcile such contradictions. This he set about doing in a very original way. He aligned himself with the discourse of one man: Muhammad Ali.

Ali, of course, is more – much more – than ‘just’ a boxer. He is a man of honour and considerable courage. In 1968, he sees his heavyweight champion of the world title revoked after he refuses to fight in the Vietnam War. ‘No Vietcong,’ he famously states, ‘ever called me a nigger.’ At Malcolm X’s side, he takes a very public stand against racism in the U.S. and, for this, is violently attacked by much of White America. Still more trouble and violence come his way as a result of his conversion to the Muslim faith and his embrace of the Nation of Islam.

Mobutu, whose popularity (like the Zairian economy) is in a tailspin, decides to pattern himself on Ali. He uses the official press to suggest parallels between his vision of the world and Ali’s – Ali, who, because of the positions he has espoused in the U.S., has become a hero in the eyes of many Zairians and across Africa more generally. On February 12th, 1974, Elima prints the following:

We [meaning, of course, ‘I, Mobutu’] are determined to reverse, by all means possible…the domination and the exploitation of the Black man, on the very soil of his ancestors, by White foreigners.

A day later, the same newspaper reminds its readers that Ali defends similar ideas:

For the oppressed of the world, Ali is not just a boxer: he is the defender of all Black people. Always in the service of his Black brothers, this great boxer is the idol of the oppressed. In him, Black Americans see a saviour; thanks to him, they know, at times, moments of joy. For this reason, Ali is friend to all peoples dedicated to justice, to all who would see racial segregation disappear for all time from the face of the earth.

And, again, a few days later:

Muhammad Ali is known as the great defender of the Black race. He is among those who do not hesitate to condemn racial segregation and who hope to see it disappear forever in the very near future. To make it so, he does not hesitate to help his brothers…hostile (as he is) to White people.

As we too are great defenders of the Black race and powerful enemies of racism, it is only natural that we should be a centre of attention, a magnet for Muhammad Ali… The Guide has once again (as he always does) acted in an eloquently powerful way…

On August 9th, Elima says of Ali that ‘he is the greatest because his personality, his admirable will and his conviction can make miracles come to pass.’ The words are virtually identical to those used to describe The Guide in the written press and on the country’s official radio station, La Voix du Zaïre. They are followed, on September 15th in Elima, by still another parallel drawn between Ali and Mobutu:

This super-championship…is a triumph without precedent for Zaire. Thanks to this grandiose event, hundreds of millions of people across the planet will discover a young state determined to progress. A state that, like Muhammad Ali, will continue to surprise…all nations.

Foreman, in contradistinction, is used by the Mobutu machine as a scarecrow – a straw man set up to assist in building up the president’s stature. The official press deploys an image of Ali’s opponent that takes its lead from key sectors of the African-American press. In 1968, the year Ali is divested of his title because of his refusal to fight in Vietnam, Foreman wins a medal – a gold medal, at the Mexico City Olympics. Many remember the ’68 Olympics for the grand gesture that shocked the White world: Tommie Smith and John Carlos, on the winners’ podium, raising gloved fists in the name of Black Power, drawing the world’s attention to the extreme racism still throttling the U.S. at the time. At these same Olympics, Foreman had a rather different gesture:  he waved a little American flag in celebration of his victory. Neither the Panthers nor the Black Power Movement forgave him.

Echoes of the foregoing appear in the official Zairian press in 1974. Readers are reminded that between Mobutu, ‘defender of all Black peoples’ and Foreman, apologist for White America, there is a chasm. The point is underscored by an interview that Elima reprints, in which Foreman celebrates the American dream, noting that he grew up in abject poverty, was a vandal wanted by the police, and that, thanks to the U.S. government Job Corps, he discovered his passion – boxing – and, in the process, the path to righteousness. ‘So let no one criticize the United States to my face,’ he is quoted as saying.

The situation is properly fascinating. With every passing day, in the official press, one can follow the process: a more and more effective instrumentalisation of Foreman by the Mobutu regime to political ends. Early on, most bets are on Foreman. He is younger than Ali, he is the reigning champion and has just managed to knock out Ken Norton – a giant of a man – in a fight that lasted less than a minute. Foreman is expected to win, but as the day of the fight approaches, there is more and more talk about Ali triumphing as a result of his ‘moral courage’. As fight night approaches, there is more and more talk of parallels between this courage and that attributed to another ‘fighter’ – Mobutu Sese Seko. The sentence is worth repeating, used as it is, in virtually the same form, to describe both men:

He is the greatest because his personality, his admirable will and his conviction can make miracles come to pass.

No little irony here…Mobutu is celebrated by his own press for what allegedly differentiates him from Foreman and likens him to Ali, when, in fact – great friend to the CIA and hosted in great pomp at the White House in 1973 – it is indisputably with Foreman, and not with Ali, that he has the most in common.

Mobutu’s ‘authenticity’ politics have a lot to do with all of this. Unlike Foreman, who as the countdown to fight-night begins is depicted in the Zairian press over and over again as the White man’s man (Ali himself gets involved, accusing Foreman of being a Belgian), his opponent is described as being ‘at home in Africa’. ‘Here in my city of Kinshasa,’ Ali tells the press, ‘all of my Zairian brothers – there will be thousands of them at the fight – will help me win back my title.’ Elima goes so far as to announce that he plans to settle in Zaire, to make it his home.

To reinforce this image – and its link to the image that Mobutu is busy building of himself – the press turns to an interesting use of photography. Every Sunday, Elima – quite a large-format publication – dedicates an entire page to the photograph of a famous person: a sports figure, a musician or (naturally) a picture of The Guide himself. On September 9th – a Monday, exceptionally – not one but two full-page photos appear. They are of Ali and Foreman. Foreman is photographed from the back. He looks over his right shoulder, straight into the camera. The background is dark. It is a fairly typical pose for the newspaper: people are commonly shown either against a neutral, dark background or in such a way as to underscore an interest in things deemed modern – an ‘American’ look, if possible, such as is seen in many portraits by the Kinois photographer Depara.10

Foreman, thus, appears in his official press photo against a neutral background, back to the camera. For Ali, the situation is radically different. ‘The People’s Champion’ – so Ali was known, as opposed to Foreman, ‘The World Champion’ – appears straight on, head and torso facing the camera directly, surrounded by works of African art that have been chosen, quite explicitly, to reference ideas of ‘authenticity’: a Tsaye mask from lower Zaire, a Kuba mask from the Kasai region and a Luba sculpture. The image is eloquent: the only other person whom one sees in the official press accompanied by African objects presented as ‘authentic’ is Mobutu, who almost always appears with a carved cane intended to underscore his invented identity as a ‘traditional’ chief and patriarch. Surrounded by masks and sculptures, Ali is theatricalised, mis en scène in a staging of the links Mobutu means to create between himself and Ali, via references to wholly invented notions of ‘authenticity’.

This image of Ali surrounded by works of African art has a very particular origin. It belongs to a highly specific context, a fascinating chapter of Mobutu’s reign which attracts rather less attention than it merits. The Zairian president was the first African leader to officially raise the question of repatriation – the first to demand that ritual objects pillaged during the colonial era be returned to Africa. He did so in a speech delivered before the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1974 – a speech that was the subject of much commentary in the press and on the radio in Kinshasa.11 Throughout 1974, the year of the fight, articles appear in the Zairian press on a national museum planned by Mobutu, in which he intends to exhibit the works he wants repatriated – a museum that is to be the embodiment of the ‘authenticity’ he claims for his regime. During this same period, he launches an acquisition campaign in which objects (ritual and otherwise) are bought in villages throughout the country, to be placed in the museum before European and American collectors can spirit them away.

The Ali we see portrayed in the official press is presented, thus, not merely as an ally of Mobutu, but also (and more importantly) as the very incarnation of Mobutu’s politics of ‘authenticity’ – an Ali who, according to Elima, refers to Zaire as ‘the land of his ancestors,’ whereas (dixit Ali) Foreman ‘will always feel like a foreigner here’. On both the Zairian and the American side, much is made of this trope – this constructed ‘return to the homeland’. Suddenly, weeks before the fight, everyone is singing the song of ‘authenticity’. Mobutu presents Ali’s alleged ‘return’ as a gift that he, the president, is giving to his people. Posters plastered all over the city say so in so many words. Don King picks up on the idea and uses it to clothe an economic move in ethical garb. King is not a Black Power figure. He is (and will remain throughout his career) a businessman, a cheerleader for the ‘American dream’; the defence of African-American rights is not at the top of his list. But he has a fight to sell, and he wants to sell it to one public in particular: the emergent Black bourgeoisie in early 1970s North America. To do this, he launches a publicity campaign that plays on precisely the same kinds of tropes as Mobutu’s ‘authenticity’ campaign – the same feigned interest in origins and in protecting Africans from White greed. Hence the campaign’s slogan, seen in posters designed for the occasion: ‘From Slaveship to Championship’. Thanks to King, the poster suggests, African America is returning to its roots, reclaiming the place its people occupied before they were enslaved by Europe and North America. King is appropriating the rhetoric of movements such as the Nation of Islam, to which Ali belongs, in order to give a completely fictitious content – a Mobutuesque authenticity – to an enterprise whose sole reason for being is pecuniary and several of whose backers (beginning with the World Boxing Federation) are both White and (at best) thoroughly uninterested in the fate of African America.12

The ‘slaveship to championship’ poster centres on the fight, but it also references another aspect of the event organized by King: a brilliant move that turns the endeavour into much more than a boxing match. Around the fight, King has built up a remarkable music festival. Over twelve bands are coming from the States to Kin, among which are some of the biggest acts around. All will appear at the stadium in the days preceding the match. James Brown, the King of Soul, will be there, B.B. King, the Pointer Sisters, Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela – two heroes of the battle against apartheid, both of whom, at the time, are living in exile. All agree: this is an event like nothing anyone has ever managed to pull off before.  Whatever one thinks of Don King, honour is due: in an America that is still, at this time, profoundly racist, whose body politic and social fabric are falling apart under the pressure of the Vietnam War – a war in which hundreds of thousands of young Black men are being deployed as so much cannon fodder – King has managed a miracle. That, in the process and in mounting the fight in the first place, as sociologist Bennetta Jules-Rosette underscores, he (like Mobutu and the White backers associated with both men) is actively putting to use, for his own benefit, racist preconceptions of the Black body makes all of this quite complicated.13 Nothing, in the fight-cum-music festival that will come to be known as the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ is simple.

On the Zairian side, the music festival is appropriated by Mobutu in the name, as ever, of ‘authenticity.’ Hence Elima, which has this to say on the subject:

The public will discover still another marvel. A grand musical festival which the president of the republic, [G]eneral Mobutu, wishes to give as a gift to all of those fighting at his side in Zaire and across the African continent. The greatest names in Zairian music will join hands with the greatest American voices: it will be like nothing the world has ever known.

U.S. acts invited to take part by King also play the ‘authenticity’ card, reinventing ‘tradition’ as they go. In the American musicians’ entourage, women and men, Black and White, are seen sporting cloths emblazoned with Mobutu’s effigy, convinced that, in so doing, they are becoming one with their host country. Elima is delighted:

This year, we see authenticity triumph as Black stars gather in Zaire for a music festival unlike any seen before – the ‘festival of the century’.

‘It will be a great festival of Negro arts,’ the official newspaper intones, in a hyperbolic reference to the Féstival des Arts Nègres organized by Léopold Sédar Senghor ten years earlier in Dakar.

This gathering of Black American artists is not a simple festival. It is a festival that will allow our brothers [‘nos frères de race’] to relive the realities of Africa after three hundred years of exile.

Mobutu, as the foregoing suggests, is singing the same song as Don King: ‘from slaveship to championship’. Both men are constructing self-portraits that speak of them as rendering a crucial service to a vast portion of humankind.

Present at the festival also, though they are given a far less prominent place than their brethren from the U.S., are key Zairian musicians. Among them are bands such as OK Jazz, the Stukas Boys, Zaiko Langa Langa, Tabu Ley Rochereau and Afrisa Orchestra, all of which, some against their will, in the 1970s and 80s, were actively instrumentalised by Mobutu, who used them, when needed, as griots for his reign. The situation is ubuesque. Many of the American musicians, as previously mentioned, are seen in Kinshasa’s swanky hotel lobbies wearing what they take to be typical ‘African’ garb (dresses, dashikis and assorted abacosts adorned with Mobutu’s face). Meanwhile, on stage as on their album covers, many of the Zairian musicians pattern their look on what they perceive as a typical ‘American’ look – this even as they are being presented by Mobutu’s publicity apparatus as incarnations of ‘authenticity’.

Other events are planned around the fight and the music festival, all of which are advertised in the same ‘authenticity’ register:

Alongside the [music] festival [Elima reports] there will be a strong participation from cultural groups, who will be arrayed around the city. They will show that this population of ours, which sings and dances, is very welcoming and is happy to collaborate with anyone…as long as its authenticity is respected.

Still another event planned is an art exhibition at the Parc de la Révolution, where painters, potters and sculptors will show their work. The artists selected are all friends of the regime. The star is Liyolo, a sculptor whose œuvre centres on the Mobutist ‘revolution’ and the peace and prosperity that The Guide claims are his primary goals. This type of work – a largely derivative and uninspired mix of Euro-American modernist sources – is explicitly what Mobutu wants to show, mostly for foreign consumption. Little, if anything, else is given room to appear:

Freedom of expression and authenticity will be fundamental themes in the exhibition [the press states]. To avoid any deviations from these lofty goals, however, it has been decided that, throughout the show, all other exhibition venues and all crafts markets where artwork is sold will be closed. This will ensure that all eyes are on the exhibit at Parc de la Révolution.

All of these events – and others still, including a conference on African-American literature and a show at the Intercontinental Hotel of works by another artist-griot of the Mobutu regime, Nkusu Felelo – are intended to take place at the same time, so as to create a massive synergy: a mega festival in celebration of Mobutist Zaire.

But things do not go to plan. The schedule is thrown out of whack a few days before the fight. While training, Foreman has an accident and suffers a bad cut to his eyebrow. The fight has to be put off by six weeks. It will take place, in the end, on October 30th. This complicates matters seriously, but at the same time makes things more interesting – or in any event opens them up to the unexpected. Initially, Mobutu panics. He is certain that his mega festival is going to collapse and, to avert this, grounds all flights: no one can leave the country. This prompts some hysteria among American guests, but eventually things calm down. The foreign press leaves and returns six weeks later. Many foreign musicians leave as well, but some stay. People in Kin at the time report extraordinary jam sessions and impromptu collaborations between Zairian and U.S. musicians, most of which we have traces of today only in oral accounts.14 Ali and Foreman are not amused, but remain and continue to train.

When finally the day comes, the atmosphere in the city is electric. I will not, here, describe the match – most readers likely have a sense of how it unfolded – except to underscore a tactic deployed by Ali: a change of strategy mid-match that had a decisive effect. As the bout progresses, Ali realises that he cannot beat Foreman through use of strength. The younger man is physically much stronger. And so Ali throws himself against the ropes and lets Foreman exhaust himself pummelling his older opponent nonstop. When Ali can, he returns punches, but at his own rhythm, and using the give of the ropes to absorb the violence of Foreman’s hits. Ali is deploying his now-famous ‘rope-a-dope’ trick.

This lasts for several rounds. Ali takes a drubbing, but as Foreman hits and hits, his body tires and his movements become heavier and slower. Ali, meanwhile, stays on the ropes, but begins hitting back more often and faster – faster and faster and faster.

Finally, the moment comes when Ali senses that Foreman is nearing the end of his tether. At this point he comes off the ropes and turns the situation around, forcing Foreman into the position he himself has occupied for most of the fight. Foreman, exhausted, had not seen this coming.

Mailer picks up the story:

What a dislocation [for Foreman]:  the axes of his existence were reversed! He was the man on the ropes! Then a big projectile exactly the size of a fist in a glove drove into the middle of Foreman’s mind, the best punch of that startled night, the blow Ali saved for a career. Foreman’s arms flew out to the side like a man with a parachute jumping out of a plane, and in this doubled-over position he tried to wander out to the center of the ring. All the while his eyes were on Ali… Vertigo took George Foreman … [E]yes on Muhammad Ali all the way, he started to tumble and topple and fall… He went over like a six-foot sixty-year-old butler who has just heard tragic news… [D]own came the Champion in sections and Ali revolved with him in a close circle, hand primed to hit him one more time, and never the need, a wholly intimate escort to the floor.15

A whole body of symbolism is at play here. Foreman, the man they say is the White man’s man, the man everyone thought would win the fight, crumbles to the ground, felled by the man whom the press has dubbed ‘the Black man’s hope’. One would be hard put not to see – and most do see – in this moment a metaphor of Africa: Africa who, backed up against the ropes of history, battles the Leviathan – the ‘West’ – who would have the continent crumble, but instead finds itself face to face with Africa’s fierce refusal to give in.

The next day, Mobutu welcomes Ali in his private residence. He will see Foreman too, but only the day after that. It is with Ali first that he exhibits himself, he, Mobutu the winner, alongside Ali the winner, Mobutu the self-proclaimed hero who has brought to his people and to the world a festival that none will forget. He, Mobutu, who, in this year – 1974 – proclaims himself the sole leader of a single party leading one people, undivided, into the future and into history. Into a reign that he holds will last one hundred years.

This piece features in the Chimurenga Magazine 14: Everyone Has Their Indian (April 2009). To purchase as a PDF head to our online shop.

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