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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

September 2010

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Written as a letters to an imaginary correspondent from his overseas postings, the author wrote a series of such “letters” from a dozen of his assignments abroad.  He pens this from an assignment to Lubumbashi, Zaire in 1976.  –Ed.


Letter from Lubumbashi

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The mechanics of obtaining the information and opinions contained in a Foreign Service report are usually left out of the report itself, if only because they vary little from post to post.  While not claiming that the working conditions Zaire today are markedly different from those obtaining in other Third World countries, discussion of them does provide further insight into the nature of Zaire as a country and a society.  Taking advantage, therefore, of the tradition of New Year’s musing, Consulate Lubumbashi submits this description of working conditions in Lubumbashi at the beginning of 1976.

Lubumbashi is Zaire’s second most important city as the center of the country’s major economic activity as well as the second largest urban region (the Copper Belt).   It is located at the furthermost fringe of the country, 2,000 kilometers from the capital.  It is where the airplanes turn around: the end of the line.

History and current politics combine to make Lubumbashi a passive dependency of the capital.  Lubumbashi (or rather the area it represents) produces copper, serves as a commercial and light industrial center, but otherwise minds its P’s and Qs.   It is a cautious city where the only overt   manifestation of political life are the apathetic marches of support for President Mobutu ordered by the Regional Commissioner at times of national crisis, and the ubiquitous song-and-dance groups extolling the virtue of the President and the Authentic Zairian Revolution.

The media is obsequious and the city lives by rumors. The population blames the central government for present economic difficulties but also recalls the chaos of the pre-Mobutu era. The students at the university are notable only for the cynicism with which they pursue the diploma that ensures entry into the new elite.

The Consulate sits rather complacently in the center of a large, landscaped plot.  Outside the Consulate windows the sun shines (most of the time) and the grass is regularly clipped. The Consulate’s nearest neighbors are the French Consul General, the zoo, and the Residence of the Regional Commissioner for Shaba (in other times, the Residence of the Vice Governor General of  Katanga and the President of the Republic of Katanga).   Not too far away is the city center with its air of a somnolent market town, somewhat dilapidated but still appearing neat and clean to visitors from the capital.  It is little changed from pre-independence days, and a faded sign on the city square still indicates the road to Jadotville.  Comparatively few white faces are seen in the city center during the day, and none at night.

The American Consulate in Lubumbashi was opened in the late 1940’s as a special interest post.  That special interest—minerals— remains and has become even more important with the creation of an independent country and other developments in world politics and economic trends.  American political and economic involvement in Zaire has created a vested USG interest in the country, and the Consulate is charged with traditional listening post responsibilities.

Lumbumbashi has a racially mixed population, particularly at the managerial, professional, and commercial level.  The government is, of course, composed solely of Zairian nationals, but, despite recent nationalization measures, the copper company and other relatively large firms still have significant numbers of foreign (mostly European) personnel.  A sizeable foreign group is at the University. Approximately 10,000 such expatriates  (Belgian 6,500; French 2,000; Italian 500; Greek 600; American 450) live and work in Shaba Region.

The American community in Shaba numbers approximately 450. Half are contract employees working at the new copper project at Tenke-Fungurume or the power project at Kolwezi.   The rest are mostly missionaries or Peace Corps Volunteers.  Less than 40 Americans live in Lumbumbashi itself.

The size of the American community is important because it largely through its own nationals that a foreign consulate in Lubumbashi gains its basic insights into Zairian life.   The Belgian Consulate General has the most extensive involvement because of its still very large community and the range of their activities and interests.  The Japanese Consul (who speaks no French, English or Swahili) is the most divorced from Zaire, and appears to act largely as a Lubumbashi reference point for Japanese transiting on route to or from the Japanese owned copper mine at Mushosi.  He occasionally appears, looking resigned and bewildered, at local government functions.   The real Japanese representative is the resident copper company manager. The Italian and Greek Consuls service communities which were once large and spread throughout the region.  As these communities have diminished, their Consuls’ contact with the Zairian local administration has dried up noticeably.

The American Consulate plays a special role in local life because of the massive involvement of the U.S. in Zaire since independence: championing the central government, opposing the secessionist regimes, and in particular supporting the current regime.  While sometimes blaming the U.S. for the decolonization and the resulting chaos, old time white residents also look to the Consulate for assistance and guidance, whether or not they are American citizens. (The American Consul in 1967 is widely credited with having saved the white community from massacre by uncontrolled mobs encouraged by a racist Governor.) Zairian officials and private individuals recognize the special Zairian-American relationship, with the latter sometimes-implying criticism of the USG for not using that influence to correct errors in current government policy.

Nevertheless, the dominant characteristic of the American Consulate in Lubumbashi is its isolation from Zairian life.   Zairian officials are generally pleasant, or at least courteous. They are also distant and refuse categorically to discuss anything but the weather or any specific item of business which might exist.  They do not initiate any contact with the Consulate except when specifically instructed to do so.

Private Zairians are not much more open, although some will permit conversation to wander into areas other than the weather.  Even they, however, will rarely discuss politics—internal or international.  Again, the prevailing atmosphere is one of caution.   Zairians are passive vis-a-vis foreigners in general and foreign consuls in particular.

One exception, to some degree, is the university faculty.  Zairian professors have had greater exposure to the outside world.  They are relatively open with their non-Zairian professional colleagues but they, too, remain reserved with foreign officials such as consular officials. One has the impression they would like to expand personal relations but feel nervous about doing so.

There are points of contact with Zairians but they never seem to expand into a network of relationships.  Each and every contact with a Zairian has to be separately initiated, and each initiative appears to start again from scratch.  One reason for the apparent failure of initial contacts to breed on-going and expanding relations is the Zairian apathy towards social relationships with foreigners.   Zairian officials in particular appear to have a “policy” on social relations with foreign consuls.   Invitations extended to such officials for an event with a purpose. e.g. a visit to Lubumbashi of an official, a national holiday, are usually accepted.   Invitations extended without a specific purpose, the classic diplomatic technique for expanding relations with local citizens, make Zairian officials nervous.  While they may accept the first time, they will usually decline thereafter unless the invitation is clearly tied to an “event.” Return invitations are very rare.

Of course, one should remember that senior local officials are, in a way, themselves foreigners, posted to Shaba in accordance with the central government policy of assigning officials out of their areas.  They, too, are therefore strangers who do not speak the local language and who are viewed with some distrust as outsiders.

Much of what Consulate officers learn about Zairian life comes from second hand sources—the resident private foreign community.

Resident private foreigners have a much wider range of relationships with Zairians.  As mentioned above, foreign professors at the University often have excellent professional ties, which extend into social and personal relationships.  The best contacts, however, clearly belong to the “old settlers.”  A classic ‘love-hate’ relationship exists between Zairians and the “colons.”  Many of the remaining settlers have business ties with Zairians and Zairian officials who will barely exchange a word with a foreign consul will wander off for a beer or coffee with a long-time Greek or Italian or Belgian resident and promptly begin to regale him with all the gossip of the Regional Commissioner’s latest property acquisition or instructions from Kinshasa.

These resident foreigners, in turn, are open and informative with the Consulate, but their information is padded with rumors, embroidered with opinions, prejudices and cynicism, and often colored by bitterness.

Public information is practically non-existent in Shaba.  The newspapers are laughable, the TV and radio without any credibility. Rumors abound and, given the almost complete lack of means for confirming or rejecting them, continue to circulate for relatively long periods of time. While little is believed, almost anything is worth listening to and repeating. The most authoritative type is that preceded by the remark “my brother (cousin, partner, best friend, boss, etc.) just returned from Kinshasa and heard from a close friend that....”

The Consulate’s relationship with Shaba’s other “government” – the government-owned copper company Gecamines—is much better. Despite an active program of Zairianization of its professional and managerial ranks, expatriate personnel still largely run Gecamines. Mostly Belgian, although there is the odd Frenchman, American, Czech, etc., at the senior level, they are very open to personal and professional contacts with foreign government representatives. There have been government efforts to limit this sort of contact within the past year. Early last year, for instance, instructions came from Kinshasa that requests for information, e.g. from Consuls, were to be approved by the Managing Director (a Zairian national) before they could be answered. Shortly afterwards, Kinshasa prohibited all visits to mining sites and installations without  prior approval by the Minister of Internal Affairs. This prohibition applies to Consuls resident in Shaba.

Despite these restrictions, senior Gecamines personnel remain open to contacts with consular officers, at least partially because the Zairian Managing Director of Gecamines is himself open to social contact with foreigners and does not appear very diligent in enforcing Kinshasa’s edicts in this sphere. Nevertheless, much of the Consulate’s hard information on Gecamines’ operations during the past year has come from “defectors”— senior expatriate employees about to resign or be fired.

As a result of this typical relationship with the old colonial class, the Consulate’s monitoring of the copper industry is relatively good.  But elsewhere in local society, the Consulate awaits developments and is rarely aware in advance of events. One excellent example was the reign of terror imposed on Lubumbashi Zairian citizens in the spring of 1975 by a band of special security agents from Kinshasa. These agents carefully avoided all whites while energetically and indiscriminately harassing Zairians. The reign of terror was in operation for almost two weeks before the Consulate (and other foreigners) wore aware of it.  The Consulate does eventually learn of developments but does so only over a period of time as rumors become more insistent and more detailed, as second-and third-hand reports begin to fit together. During such a period, Consulate personnel will be meeting local officials at formal events or in scheduled appointments to deal with specific business, but no mention of ongoing events will be made.  For instance, during the week of December 23-27, 1973 tension and fire-fights at the Angolan-Zairian border at Dilolo caused the Zairian government to airlift almost 300 soldiers from Lubumbashi to Dilolo by Zairian Air Force C-130s brought in for the purpose.  No Zairian official mentioned this airlift, which went on for three days and the Consulate was not aware of it until an American citizen working for Air Zaire told us about it on Friday, December 27.  Rumors of the border situation continue to circulate in Lumbumbashi but not one Zairian official will make the least reference nor will they respond to inquiries.   Officially, the subject does not exist.

In fact, no problems exist officially insofar as the American Consulate is concerned.  It is very frustrating.

Nevertheless, problems do exist and we do eventually become aware of them.   The Consulate is particularly concerned with Shaba’s and Zaire’s economic situation.   Economic problems are many and serious and revolve around the copper industry whose continued health is vital to the country.   Economic and commercial developments over the past two years have been extremely adverse and pose very serious threats to the continued viability of the present government’s policies and international role if not to the continued existence of the regime itself.

The Consulate can and does monitor these trends and finds local developments consistently deteriorating.  Life is increasingly hard for the average Zairian under the repercussions from outside developments and central government policies.   In fact, the Consulate is unable to find a single bright spot in the local scene. All is gloom and stagnation, a perspective aggravated by isolation from the broader scene.

As a result, the Consulate’s selective view of developments resembles that of the engine room crew of a large ship.  We sit and watch the machinery go round and round and worry about its ability to continue, threatened as it is by lack of maintenance, spare parts, lubrication, and skilled operators.  At the same time, no word comes from the bridge.   Is the captain aware of the engine room’s problems?  Where is the ship heading? Occasionally the bridge relays vague sai1ing instructions and weather descriptions, but then silence, except for a sort of continuous political Muzak, descends again upon the engine room crew.blue star


imageEd Marks served more than 40 years in the U. S. Foreign Service, including an assignment as ambassador to Guinea-Bissau. He graduated from Michigan and Oklahoma universities and attended the National War College. Retiring in 1995, he subsequently served on detail to the U. S. Pacific Command. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College and a member of the American Diplomacy board.

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