DR Congo’s impasse between an unplanned urbanisation of slum expansion and a dystopian dream world of Dubai-inspired gated compounds is on display at a show in Brussels – the former colonial master of what is now one of the world’s poorest countries.
The exhibition – by photographer Sammy Baloji and anthropologist Filip De Boeck – documents the current state of Kinshasa’s anarchic urban growth, juxtaposed with the past of ‘black-exclusion’ zones, and a future of private-investor luxury developments, sealed off from the capital and self-sufficient in water and electricity.
The show consists of photographs, a 70-minute documentary and a maquette of the last planned zone of Kinshasa. Tellingly, it is dated from the late 1960s/early 1970s and now gathers dust in a corridor of the municipal house in Nsele.
The future of African cities – and their rapid expansion – was a key theme of this year’s EU Development Days conference in Brussels.
The exhibition, at the Wiels gallery and titled: “Urban Now: City Life in Congo”, makes no direct mention of Belgium’s horrific colonisation of DR Congo, which saw between 8-13 million people die under King Leopold II’s rule from 1895 and 1908.
Adam Hochschild’s best-selling book, King Leopold’s Ghost, puts the figure at 10 million, through enforced slavery, neglect and atrocities.
Nor does it dwell on the disastrous 22-year military rule of President Joseph-Desire Mobutu, whose dictatorship oversaw mass plundering of state resources and human rights abuses, whilst Mobutu himself hired Concorde to fly from his personal palace in the jungle at Gbadolite.
DR Congo ranks as the 10th poorest country in the world, according to the 2015 United Nations Development Index. More than 3 million people have been displaced due to civil war since 2009.
Post-Mobutu (who temporarily changed the country’s name to Zaire) regional wars in 1997 and then 1998-2002 led to the deaths of another 4-5 million people.
The EU has given DR Congo some €100m in humanitarian assistance since 2014, including €37m in 2016 alone. Last year, it also gave €2m towards housing refugees from neighbouring Central African Republic in DR Congo.
Instead, the most telling single image in the exhibition shows the former headquarters of the country’s telecommunications ministry, a post-war modernist building from 1959.