The Democratic Republic of Congo is at a crossroads: Its next election, scheduled for the fall, could be the first open presidential race in 50 years.
One rising star and potential candidate is a man named Moïse Katumbi, business tycoon and former governor of mineral-rich Katanga, in the south of the country. Katumbi is a populous leader, a self-styled Robin Hood figure who hands out dollar bills to crowds and even has his own powerhouse soccer team. Katumbi has been called one of Congo’s most powerful and popular men.
Joseph Kabila, the DRC’s current leader, has been in office for 15 years since taking power when his father was assassinated. He won elections in 2006 and 2011 and is barred by the country’s constitution from seeking a third term.
Katumbi, who was once close with Kabila, broke from the ruling party in 2015 and has since urged the president to abide by the constitution and not seek re-election. Katumbi has already been nominated by seven opposition parties to be their presidential candidate in the elections expected in the fall.
Many observers believe this is Congo’s most interesting, and dangerous, political juncture in decades.
Less examined amid his rise to fame is his Jewish background.
Katumbi’s father was part of a wave of Sephardic Jews from the Aegean island of Rhodes who immigrated to Africa in the first half of the 20th century — Katumbi’s family story illustrates the complex threads of the Jewish Diaspora.
Sephardic Jews had settled on the island of Rhodes after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. For generations the community prospered.
But Rhodes came under the control of Italy in 1912. And by the 1930s discriminatory laws imposed by Mussolini’s regime spurred many of the Rhodesli Jews, as they are called, to seek better lives abroad.
These were cosmopolitan Jews — speaking a spattering of Hebrew, Ladino, Turkish, French, English and Italian — and many settled in European colonies in Central and South Africa and worked as traders.
In colonial Africa, the Rhodesli Jews were considered “white” — but they still maintained traditions separate from those of the few Ashkenazi Jews also in European colonies.
Among these Rhodesli Jews was Nissim Soriano, a young man nicknamed Nissim the Handsome.
In 1938 Nissim, along with his two sisters, settled in the Belgian colony of Congo, in the southern town of Kasenga and traded in fish on Lake Mweru.
Soriano befriended an influential local Bemba chief named Mwata Kazembe XIV Chinyanta Nakula. He eventually married the chief’s daughter and started his own family. In 1964, four years after Congo had won independence from the Belgians, his son Moïse Katumbi was born.
The next year the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko came to power, renamed the country Zaire and launched an “authenticity campaign” — purging the country of perceived Western influence and stripping European businessmen of their companies.
At the time of independence, the Belgian colony had a Jewish population of more than 2,000. But in the 1960s most left. Today the Jewish population numbers in the low hundreds. Most of the Rhodesli Jews left for Israel or South Africa.
“The few that stayed were ones that intermarried,” said David Gordon, author of “Nachituti’s Gift: Economy, Society and Environment in Central Africa.” “There were a number of these marriages, and these families had many children.”
Soriano stayed. He transferred his business to his Africa-born sons, who built their own business empires.
Katumbi continued in the footsteps of his father, trading in fish, but he also made huge profits subcontracting for mining companies. In 2007, he was elected governor of Katanga.
Katumbi could not be reached for comment, but today he seemingly has no connection to Judaism. (He recently tweeted his Easter wishes: “Christ’s sacrifice will save us all.”) But still, one political blogger, Kris Berwouts, predicted, “the fact that his father is Jewish” could “be used against him in some way.”
“To some extent they may recognize his Jewishness, but they also relate him to the ethnicity of the town he comes from, as Bemba,” Gordon said. “They recognize his mixed heritage.”
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum .