‘A Sept. 11 toll, every day, for 666 days,” headlined a June 25 article in a Johannesburg newspaper, The Star, on the five-year-old conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
How odd. The death of at least 3.3 million Africans — exceeding the numbers killed in either the Korean or Vietnam wars — seems comprehensible to the newspaper’s predominantly white readership only in terms of a catastrophe that has so profoundly affected the West.
After the Holocaust, the world said “never again.” And yet, less than a decade ago, the international community turned away from genocide in Rwanda. Now it seems willing to allow a replay in the Congo. To many in Africa, white as well as black, the West is prone to a sort of blindness when it comes to the fate of Africans.
Racism? Whites would prefer to think not. White South Africans have enthusiastically embraced reconciliation in the new South Africa, after all. But as black South Africans repeatedly point out, whites have shown no similar eagerness to accept responsibility for past wrongs and to make the necessary sacrifices. If it’s not simple racism, it’s something close.
This echoes a wider attitude toward Africa. The continent is too often dismissed as irrevocably doomed. The list is drearily familiar by now: venal leadership, corruption, savage tribalism, perpetual ethnic conflict, chronic disease, famine and underdevelopment. Africa is seen as a lost cause.
The reality is more complex. Yes, African politics are volatile and brutal. Yes, many of its leaders are corrupt. But that is only half the picture. The other half is a history of voracious interference by the “rich” Western world, unfair trading restrictions and a conviction that Africans are hopelessly incapable of running their own affairs. An entire African generation has grown up crippled by a lack of belief in itself or the continent.
African nations only began to taste independence in 1960, after centuries of colonial domination by European nations that exploited the region’s rich natural resources and brutalized its peoples. Arbitrary borderlines had been drawn on Africa’s map in the salons of Europe’s capitals, bearing no relation to facts on the ground and splitting indigenous ethnic entities.
Already under Belgian rule, the Congo suffered inter-ethnic interference. In Ituri, the mineral-rich northeastern province — currently the main theater of the conflict — the Hema minority was granted privileges over the majority Lendu. Hopes briefly surfaced for a clean slate when the country gained independence under its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. But he was deposed after only months in office by Mobutu Sese Seko — with the aid of Europe and the United States, which saw him as a Cold-War ally against the socialist-leaning Lumumba.
So began a 32-year period of dictatorship and plunder of the country, then called Zaire, and its people, as Mobutu siphoned off massive personal wealth. Competition between both parties to the Cold War over the Congo’s resources exacerbated the economic downturn and fueled internal tensions.
In 1994, the Congo inherited one more woe,when the genocidal civil war in neighboring Rwanda spilled over onto its territory. A large number of Rwanda’s majority Hutus, who had been responsible for the mass murder of minority Tutsis, fled to the Congo, to escape retribution. They then launched attacks on Rwanda, which in turn sent its forces into the Congo.
The fighting became chaotic as neighboring nations were drawn in, first to protect their interests or allies, then to seek plunder. In 1997, as the carnage mounted, the Mobutu regime fell to Laurent Kabila, at first seen as a reformer. When his short-lived political takeover ended in assassination, his son Joseph stepped in. He now presides over what threatens to become another genocide.
Besides a small French-led peacekeeping force, the world community has done little so far to stop the catastrophe. Is it because there are no weapons of mass destruction? Is the Congo too strategically unimportant? Or is it greed? The United Nations’ efforts have been ineffectual, and the United States, the world’s only superpower, has been reluctant to become involved in another African conflict since its ill-fated intervention in Somalia.
Although the United States now appears ready to intervene in the war-torn western African country of Liberia, American pundits argue that moving from there to the Congo would be foolhardy because the latter is simply too vast — the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River — for any intervention to be effective. Meanwhile, the region continues to be convulsed by the scramble for gold, copper and coltan, the last being essential in the mobile telephone and video game industries.
There are underlying causes of genocide, and Jews, in the light of our own trauma, may be able to do something to prevent another. The Holocaust was about more than mere prejudice. Two thousand years of antisemitism had never resulted in genocide. Although Jews had suffered persecution and even death, there had been no move to eradicate the people as a whole. On the contrary, the Christian church, which was largely responsible for the development of the anti-Jewish stereotype, needed to keep Jews alive as witnesses to the final truth of Christianity. What, then, turned Jew-hatred into murder?
Theorists of the Holocaust — such as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman and theologian Richard Rubenstein — argue that a primary catalyst is the modern mindset, a new form of rationalism that measures the value of everything, including human life, in terms of monetary profit and loss. Political elites arrogate to themselves god-like status, deciding who should live and who should die, leaving no appeal to human dignity. In the face of one of the modern world’s most intractable problems, population explosion, mass murder becomes just another tool of problem solving. Groups, defined as redundant, are disposed of or allowed to perish.
Hitler, such thinkers argue, was far from deranged. He set about logically fashioning the world according to his own racial model, acquiring the necessary additional territory, Lebensraum, by means of war. The “perfect,” “wholesome” society he envisaged demanded the extrusion of Jews or, indeed, anyone perceived as “unfit” for life. Jews, who had been economically productive, were defined as redundant and, eventually, murdered to make room for those deemed more worthy. The Holocaust required high technology and bureaucracy, but also a particular concurrence of historic events. Had any been missing, history would have taken a different course.
Can this theory explain genocide in Africa, which is neither technologically advanced nor modern in the Western sense of the word? I think it can, but it is genocide by exploitation and dereliction. Jews have no special responsibility for this, but we could, in light of our historic experience, spearhead a move for governments to intervene in the conflict in the Congo before it is too late. World Jewry could then lobby for the installation of a peacekeeping force in the region.
Once achieved, however, the reins need to be handed back to Africans who — with support that empowers rather than inhibits, and armed with plans to ensure sustainable development rather than handouts — can set the continent right. The battle for stable prosperity will be harder than the struggle for independence, and the idea of an African Renaissance and initiatives such as the New Partnership for African Development need support and encouragement.
If the present neglect continues, the result will be more than genocide. The future of the entire continent is at stake. If Africa is to be transformed, the Congo must be turned around first. It is geographically too central, too large and too naturally rich to be ignored. But Africa’s future has to be decided by Africans on African terms.
Skeptics may question the motives for President Bush’s visit to Africa last week. Hopefully it signals a new attitude, one which takes responsibility for the West’s share in the problem, compensates Africa for the riches robbed from it and gives Africans the trust they need. Otherwise, the continent faces a bleak future.
Jocelyn Hellig, a former professor of religious studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, is the author of “The Holocaust and Antisemitism: A Short History” (Oneworld).