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Heart of Darkness, II: A Book Review

The Congo in the toils of Belgium's King Leopold II. Detail from a cartoon by Edward Linley Sambourne in the British satirical weekly Punch (1906)

Stuart A Reid, The Lumumba Plot: The Secret History of the CIA and a Cold War Assassination (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2023), 618 pp.

My friend George Clay—born in Bloemfontein, a captain in the South African Army during World War II, later a leader in the anti-apartheid Torch Commando—was the first editor of the South African Liberal Party’s fortnightly Contact, which he co-founded with Patrick Duncan in 1956.

I joined the Liberal Party in Kimberley in 1957, when I was seventeen (a year too young officially to be a member, but they made an exception because it meant a 100 percent increase in local membership—Pat Barry being the only other member there). When I was transferred to Cape Town a year later by my employer, the Southern Life Association, an insurance company, I immediately sought out the small band of Cape Town Liberals (we used a capital L to distinguish ourselves from the merely well-intentioned) and soon found myself working with George in Contact’s office. At that time the Liberal Party was the only nonracial political party in the country. Contact put the slogan ““Forward to a South African patriotism based on non-racial democracy” on its cover, and it was from there that the concept of nonracialism, promulgated originally by the Citizen Group, of which I was also a member, got going. I flatter myself that I had something to do with that.

I was sorry George went off to become a war correspondent in the former Belgian Congo, reporting on the Congo civil war for the U.S. National Broadcasting Company network (NBC). Then, in 1964, when the Congolese force to which he was attached was ambushed by “Simba” Katanganese rebels, he was shot, reportedly by an Indian UN blue helmet—so-called “friendly fire."

There seems no way of knowing for sure who killed him. The Simbas were unspeakably vicious, and the Indians, who had taken quite a few casualties, were jumpy.

George was around forty when he died, one of the great good men I've known. His wife, Reggie, survived him. They'd been living in Nairobi.

What was going on in the Congo was very important for Africa, and hence for South Africa, which was no doubt why George had chosen to go there. Stuart Reid, a writer for Foreign Affairs magazine, has now painstakingly reconstructed what happened to the Congo in those crucial years.

It all revolved around a young autodidact named Patrice Lumumba, the independent Congo’s first duly elected prime minister, who was brutally murdered in the breakaway Congolese province Katanga by Belgian police and their Katangan helpers, having been kidnapped and brought there with the connivance of the CIA. The United Nations, which had a peacekeeping force of almost 20,000 men in the country, could have intervened to save his life, but its hapless secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld, somehow failed to do so.

Astonishingly, the Belgians ruled the Congo for a mere 75 years—just a single longish lifetime—between late 1884, when the thieves' kitchen of "the great powers" in Berlin assigned this vast region, over a third of a size bigger than Alaska, to Belgium's King Leopold II as his personal property, and June 1960, when his great-grandson King Baudouin I arrived to concede it nominal independence in line with the prevailing zeitgeist.

Baudouin arrived clad in an elegant tropical uniform, regal geegaws hanging from his neck, equipped with a ceremonial sword. Comically, on the route from the airport an onlooker, “dressed in a blazer and tie, leaped toward the car and snatched the king’s sword. He took off running, sabering the air triumphantly until he was tackled by police.”

The following day, Baudouin delivered a patronizing speech, saying: “The independence of the Congo represents the culmination of the work conceived by the genius of King Leopold II”—who, he claimed against a mountain of evidence to the contrary, had ruled “not as a conquerer but as a civilizer.”

Lumumba, who had been the legitimate first prime minister of the new state for only a matter of weeks, was a charismatic orator, and he quickly put the kibosh on this clutch of sanctimonious lies, pointing out that Congo's independence had actually been obtained through “a fight in which we spared no force, hardship, suffering, or blood.” He went on to say:

We have suffered contempt, insults, and blows morning, noon, and evening because we were Negroes. . . .

We have known that our lands were seized in the name of supposedly legal texts that recognized only the rights of the strongest.

We have known that the law was never the same for whites and blacks, accommodating for one, cruel and inhumane for the other. . . .

Who can forget, finally, the shootings in which so many of our brothers perished, or the dungeons where those who did not want to submit to the oppressive and exploitative regime were brutally thrown?

Thunderous applause and cries of “Uhuru!” followed. Lumumba’s words were broadcast over loudspeakers to the crowd gathered outside and transmitted by radio throughout the country. Since there was as yet no national anthem, a brass band played “Marching through Georgia.” Black Congolese troops under white Belgian officers goose-stepped down the main avenue.

Outraged, King Baudouin headed for the airport. His plane took off before midnight. “He thus never had to set foot on soil that was no longer his kingdom.”

The next day, the Force publique, an army created by the Belgians to suppress rebellions, mutinied, fed up with foul food, low pay, and Belgian discipline. The troops' commander, General Émile Janssens, summed up his view of their future to them on a blackboard in large letters at Force publique headquarters: “Before independence = After independence.” As far as the Belgian military was concerned, the change would be merely nominal!

The soldiers went on a rampage. Fighting broke out all over the country, whites fled, rapes were reported. One incident would be particularly fateful. A few days after his arrival in the country, the CIA’s new station chief, Larry Devlin, was taken prisoner by a band of roving soldiers. Stuart Reid tells the story:

In a room clouded with marijuana smoke, a tall soldier straddled a chair and removed his boot. "Kiss

my foot," he demanded.

When Devlin protested, the soldier presented a revolver. “Ever played Russian roulette,” he asked.

Devlin, sweating, shook his head. “Then I will do it for you,” the soldier said, pressing the barrel into Devlin’s head. “Shit,” Devlin said. Click. Nothing. Again, click. Again nothing. Devlin, under official cover as a U.S. consul, reminded the soldiers of diplomatic immunity. The only answer he got was three more clicks, as the hammer hit more empty chambers.

“Last chance, boss,” the soldier said. “Kiss this foot.” Click.

The room broke out in laughter. The gun was empty. “Congolese roulette,” the soldiers explained, offering him a swig of wine and a ride downtown.

Devlin would not forget this treatment when he presently received orders from Washington, said to be from President Eisenhower himself, to kill Lumumba, whom the Belgians had mendaciously branded a communist and blamed for the chaos that engulfed the country, actually brought about by their own misrule. Tragically, the Congo possessed no educated class capable of running a modern state. Until the 1940s, native Congolese were prohibited from studying for anything except Catholic priesthood.

One day, a vistor announced himself to Larry Devlin as “Sid from Paris.” He was Sidney Gottlieb, a Central Intelligence Agency specialist in poisons and biological weapons, and he brought Devlin a kit containing botulinum toxin, a gram of which was said to be enough to kill a million people, to use to murder Patrice Lumumba.

Devlin would never, however, do so. He allowed Lumumba to be murdered the old-fashioned way. Under the command of a Belgian police commissioner named Frans Verscheure, Congo's prime minister died in a hail of bullets, after being atrociously tortured. Devlin replaced him with his own protégé, Joseph Mobutu, the increasingly deranged dictator of the Congo (which Mobutu renamed Zaire) for the next thirty-two years.

The agony of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (as the country was again renamed after Mobutu died) continues. Civil war has claimed millions of lives there since the turn of the century. It may well claim millions more.


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