Zaire Table of Contents
After the 1884-85 Conference of Berlin gave undisputed sovereignty of the region of modern Zaire to Léopold II, king of Belgium, the first order of business was to structure the area's economy to suit Belgian needs. The goal was to make an economically viable and self-sustaining entity out of the Congo Free State, as Zaire was then known (see The Colonial State , ch. 1). In 1908 the Belgian parliament voted to remove the region from direct control of the king, make it a colony, and rename it the Belgian Congo. The Belgian government wanted to avoid subsidizing the administration of the new colony while at the same time reaping whatever profits might eventually be generated by the country. Therefore, the colony itself was to be responsible for financing its administration and security.
Although exploitation of the country's mineral and agricultural wealth was substantial during the colonial period, economic development bore little direct relationship to the needs of the indigenous population. The production of cash crops for export was stressed at the expense of the production of food crops. Moreover, monetary benefits accrued almost entirely to non-Congolese, the foreign shareholders of the industrial and agricultural companies that constituted the modern sector, and the colonial state, which had holdings in many of the companies.
The colonial government's major aim was to encourage foreign investment in the Belgian Congo to develop agricultural commodities for export, to exploit the country's mineral resources for the same purpose, and to establish a transportation infrastructure to facilitate the export of goods. The colonial state concerned itself very little with such basic social needs as health care or education, which were provided by religious missions and to some extent by the large concessionaire companies. Policies designed to promote state economic objectives emphasized measures to ensure adequate supplies of labor at low wages. Among such measures were the use of forced recruitment and restrictions on the establishment of foreign commercial trading activities, which would have encouraged the farm population to produce surpluses for sale rather than take low-paying work on plantations and in mines. Colonial authorities obtained through coercion the indigenous labor necessary to perform public works and private investment projects. A decree of 1917, for example, required African peasants to devote sixty days a year to agricultural work, and mandated penal sanctions for disobedience.
By offering exceedingly generous terms, the Belgian government induced major foreign financial groups to invest in its colony. The colonial state itself laid claim to a significant share in the ownership of corporations in the extractive and transportation sectors. In 1906 the General Holding Company of Belgium (Société Générale de Belgique--SGB), a powerful Belgian trust, formed the Upper Katanga Mining Union (Union Minière du Haut-Katanga--UMHK), the International Forest and Mining Company (Société Internationale Forestière et Minière--Forminière), and the Bas-Congo to Katanga Railroad Company (Compagnie du Chemin de Fer du Bas-Congo au Katanga--BCK). A majority shareholder in the UMHK and Forminère, the colonial state could potentially have run both companies. State capitalism did not extend to active involvement in company affairs, however; the colonial administration merely collected its dividends.
SGB was given mineral rights to already-prospected ore deposits in Katanga Province (now Shaba Region) and a ninety-nine year monopoly on any mineral deposits it could identify within a sixyear period on a tract of 140 million hectares. BCK was given mineral rights to 21 million hectares in the area along the two main rail lines from Matadi to Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) and from Port Francqui (now Ilebo) to the mining centers in Katanga and also was permitted to run the railroad with indigenous labor provided by the colonial state. By the 1920s, the rich mineral base was being exploited, and SGB had consolidated its control over the three companies that dominated the colony's economy.
After World War II, government recognition of growing social discontent among the African population led to support for wage increases and to promoting the development of an indigenous middle class. Import-substitution (see Glossary) industries were established to meet the growing demand for consumer goods. The colonial administration encouraged corporations and missions to expand social services and to construct hospitals and educational facilities for the Congolese. These reforms, however, were largely unsuccessful; at independence the economy was still primarily export-led, that is, geared toward the export of raw materials, and expatriates held most of the managerial and technical positions.
Data as of December 1993
Zaire Table of Contents