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The Congo in literature/Die Kongo in die literatuur.

The year 2008 marks the hundredth anniversary of King Leopold II's relinquishment of his Crown colony on the equator in favour of the Belgian State. In modern Belgium there were hardly any celebrations of this centenary. This is not surprising as Belgium was a reluctant partner in a hastily arranged marriage of convenience in 1908. The colonial link was forged when Leopold II was granted sovereign rule over the Congo at the Conference of Berlin in 1885. From 1885 to 1908 the Congo remained the fiefdom of Leopold II, an acquisition named the Congo Free State. When the inhuman treatment of the Congolese population was revealed, mainly through the sustained efforts of Edmund Dene Morel, a British activist, and Roger Casement, the British Consul to the Congo, Leopold II was forced to hand over the Congo to the Belgian State. On 15 November 1908 the colony was renamed the Belgian Congo.

The Congo remained under Belgian rule until 30 June 1960. Initially the Belgian politicians and population were rather sceptical about their African colony but gradually they became fervent supporters of the colonial project. The infrastructure of the Congo was systematically developed and the Congolese population was integrated into the colonial system.

The years following the independence celebrations and the murder of Patrice Lumumba were marked by violent upheavals and political instability. In 1965 Mobutu Seso Seku assumed power in the Congolese state. He ruled the Congo until 1997, exploited it as his personal possession and brought it to the brink of economic meltdown. His government was overthrown by Laurent-Desire Kabila, who himself was killed in a failed coup. Kabila was succeeded by his son Joseph, who is still the head of the Congolese state. After the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 the political and military situations have deteriorated rapidly, especially in the Eastern Congo. The local people have been the victims of the perpetual ethnic, economic and political conflict.

The history of the Congo has been, since the beginning of the colonisation, a tragic and extremely violent one. Its abundant natural resources seem a curse rather than a blessing; foreign and neocolonial powers have ceaselessly been trying to grab a share of the profits. In November 2008 the fighting in Eastern Congo, as part of an ongoing war, is once again making headlines--the Congo does not seem to be any better off than in 1908.

The centenary of the Belgian colonisation provided an appropriate opportunity to take stock of the literary production of and about the Congo. The conference "Congo in literature/in de literatuur/dans la litterature" was hosted by Hasselt University in Belgium from 14 to 18 July 2008 with the aim of putting this corpus of literary works in the spotlight.

From a Flemish and Walloon perspective, Congo literature is not widely known and even less studied. Academic interest in Dutch or French literary texts on the Congo is almost non-existent in spite of the fact that the Congo played such an important role in twentieth century Belgian history. A comprehensive knowledge of Congo literature offers the opportunity of rediscovering as well as re-appraising the past. A critical analysis of the colonial presence of Belgium in the Congo from a postcolonial perspective is also urgently required. From a purely literary-historical perspective, it is appropriate to re-assess the Flemish and Walloon literature on the Congo. Texts critical of the colonial project deserve particular attention. Through their authentic nature and persuasive tone a valuable contribution to Flemish and Walloon literature is made.

Moreover, there is the literature emanating from the Congo itself. Literary texts are not only narrated and written in the various indigenous languages, but are also produced and published in French. Since the inception of the colonial enterprise French has been the medium of instruction in the educational system of the Congo. It still remains the language of choice for a large number of Congolese authors, even when they, as is quite often the case nowadays, write from abroad. The different perspectives, which can often be discerned when comparing expatriate Congolese writers and those living in the Congo, are intriguing, and alert the reader to the complexities of Congolese literature and its portrayal of the Congo.

However, Congo literature also displays a distinctly international flavour. Writers representing different countries and writing in a variety of languages have been fascinated by the Congo for quite some time. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness has established an almost global literary tradition. Heart of Darkness still resonates within various intertextual discourses, also in recent Afrikaans literature. The dystopian vision of a future South Africa that Eben Venter portrays in his novel Horrelpoot (Trencherman), acquires an additional apocalyptic dimension via references to Heart of Darkness. The novel Equatoria by Tom Dreyer is also indebted to Conrad and the Congo.

One of the objectives of the "Congo in literature/in de literatuur/dans la litterature" conference was to transcend language barriers by exploring the literature on the Congo written in different languages. Academics often only focus on texts written in their own language, but the study of Congo literature especially benefits from a comparative approach. A comparative analysis generates an intensive exchange of ideas and leads to new insights. The participants at the conference experienced this first hand.

The articles published in this special issue of Tydskrif vir Letterkunde devoted to Congo literature, are testimony to the wide range of authors, books and topics which were discussed at the "Congo in literature" conference. When reading these contributions, one is struck by the recurring references to particular books, writers, motifs and themes. A strong network of relationships is thus established. This illustrates not only how enriching a comparative approach to Congo literature can be, but also how much scope remains for further research.

15 November 2008

Luc Renders & Henriette Roos Luc Renders is Professor in the Languages Department of Hasselt University in Belgium and research fellow of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth. E-mail:

Henriette Roos is Professor in the Department of Afrikaans and Theory of Literature, University of South Africa, Pretoria. E-mail:

In 2008 was dit presies 100 jaar gelede dat koning Leopold II van Belgie onder groot internasionale druk verplig was om sy kroondomein op die ewenaar aan die Belgiese staat oor te dra. In Belgie het die honderdste herdenking van hierdie oorname feitlik geen aandag gekry nie. Dit is dalk begryplik, want Belgie was in 1908 in die koloniale situasie ingedwing. Die verbintenis met Afrika het egter reeds in 1885 begin toe op die konferensie van Berlyn die Kongo as privaatbesit aan Leopold II toegeken is. Die Kongo Vrystaat is gebore en Leopold II was tot 1908 die alleenheerser daar. Toe die onmenslike behandeling van die inheemse bevolking aan die lig gekom het, veral as gevolg van die volgehoue pogings van Edmund Dene Morel, 'n Britse aktivis en Roger Casement, die Britse Konsul, was Leopold II uiteindelik genoodsaak om op 15 November 1908 die Kongo aan die Belgiese staat oor te dra. Die Kongo Vrystaat het die Belgiese Kongo geword.

Tot 30 Junie 1960 is die Kongo bestuur as 'n Belgiese kolonie. Na die aanvanklike skeptisisme het entoesiasme geleidelik onder die Belgiese bevolking vir hierdie koloniale projek in die hart van Afrika toegeneem. Die infrastruktuur is stelselmatig uitgebou en die Kongolese bevolking is in die koloniale stelsel opgeneem.

Kort na die verkryging van onafhanklikheid en die moord op Patrice Lumumba het 'n tydperk van geweld en politieke onstabiliteit gevolg, waarna Mobutu Seso Seku die bewind in die Kongo oorgeneem het. Hy het die land tot in 1997 regeer, dit as 'n persoonlike besitting uitgebuit en daardeur die Kongo tot op die rand van 'n totale ekonomiese ineenstorting gedryf. Sy regering is deur Laurent-Desire Kabila omvergewerp, wat daarna self in 'n mislukte staatsgreep om die lewe gebring is. Kabila is deur sy seun Joseph opgevolg wat nog steeds die bewind voer. Na die volksmoord in Rwanda in 1994 het die toestand in veral die ooste van die Kongo versleg, en dit was die plaaslike bevolking wat die meeste onder die voortdurende gewapende konflik gely het.

Die geskiedenis van die Kongo sedert die begin van die kolonisasie is 'n uiters tragiese een. Die natuurlike rykdomme van die land is blykbaar eerder 'n vloek as 'n seen; buitelandse en neokoloniale magte poog sonder ophou om 'n aandeel in die winste te kry. Die gevegte wat bly opvlam, soos wat tans weer in die Oos-Kongo gebeur, veroorsaak dat die land in 2008, net soos dit 'n eeu gelede die geval was, steeds om die verkeerde redes in die nuus bly.

Die honderdste herdenking van die oorname van die Kongo deur Belgie het die geskikte geleentheid gebied om bestek op te neem van die literere produksie van en oor die Kongo. Die kongres "Congo in literature/in de literatuur/dans la litterature" is daarom van 14 tot 18 Julie 2008 by die Universiteit Hasselt in Belgie aangebied met die bedoeling om die literatuur oor en van die Kongo onder die soeklig te plaas. Vanuit 'n Vlaamse en Waalse invalshoek is Kongo-literatuur tot dusver weinig bekend en nog minder bestudeer. Die akademiese belangstelling in Nederlandstalige en Franstalige literere werke wat oor die Kongo verskyn het, is gering. Die Kongo het egter so 'n belangrike rol gespeel in die Belgiese geskiedenis van die twintigste eeu, dat 'n groter kennis van die Kongo-literatuur die moontlikheid bring van 'n herontdekking asook 'n herondersoek van die verlede. 'n Kritiese analise van die koloniale aanwesigheid van Belgie in die Kongo is vanuit 'n post-koloniale invalshoek meer as noodsaaklik. Ook vanuit 'n suiwer literer-historiese perspektief is dit tyd vir 'n herwaardering van die Vlaamse en Waalse Kongo-literatuur. Veral daardie werke wat krities staan teenoor die kolonisasie lewer deur hul outentisiteit en oortuigingskrag 'n belangrike bydrae tot hierdie nuwe blik op die verlede.

Daarnaas is daar natuurlik die literatuur van die Kongo self. Dis nie net mondeling oorgedra of geskryf in die verskillende inheemse tale van die Kongo nie, maar is ook in Frans gepubliseer. Frans was vanaf die begin van die kolonisasie die onderwystaal van die Kongo en is steeds by uitstek die literere medium van die Kongolese skrywers, ook as hulle, soos deesdae dikwels die geval is, vanuit die diaspora skryf. Die teenstrydige perspektiewe wat waargeneem kan word by Kongolese skrywers wat of van binne of van buite die land skryf, is uiters boeiend en ook noodsaaklik vir 'n beter begrip van die kompleksiteit van die Kongo-literatuur.

Maar die Kongo-literatuur is ook en miskien veral 'n internasionale literatuur. Skrywers wat verskillende lande en tale verteenwoordig, word lank reeds deur die Kongo geboei. Joseph Conrad se Heart of Darkness het 'n literere tradisie binne, maar ook veel verder as die Engelstalige wereld gevestig. Heart of Darkness word nog steeds intertekstueel ontgin, ook in die Afrikaanse letterkunde. Die somber toekomsbeeld van Suid-Afrika wat Eben Venter in sy roman Horrelpoot oproep, kry 'n bykomende apokaliptiese dimensie deur die verwysings na Heart of Darkness. Ook die roman Equatoria van Tom Dreyer is skatpligtig aan Conrad en aan die Kongo.

Dit was een van die doelstellings van die "Congo in literature / in de literatuur / dans la litterature" kongres om taalgrense te oorbrug deur kennis te neem van die wye taalspektrum van Kongo-literatuur. Navorsers word dikwels tot ondersoek in hulle eie taalgebied beperk en Kongo-literatuur vra juis om 'n meer komparatiewe benadering. Dat hierdeur 'n intensiewe gedagtewisseling moontlik word wat tot nuwe insigte kan lei, kon die deelnemers aan die kongres ervaar.

Die seleksie van referate wat in hierdie Kongo-temanommer van Tydskrif vir Letterkunde opgeneem is, gee 'n beeld van die verskeidenheid van onderwerpe wat op die kongres aangebied is. Wat by die lees van die artikels opval, is hoe daar eggo's van gelyksoortige boeke, skrywers, motiewe en temas in die verskillende beskrywings opklink. So ontstaan 'n hegte netwerk van relasies waardeur die artikels 'n sluitende geheel vorm. Dit toon aan hoe verrykend 'n komparatiewe benadering tot die Kongoliteratuur kan wees en hoeveel ruimte daar nog vir verdere navorsing is.

Luc Renders is Professor in die Tale Departement van Hasselt Universiteit in Belgie en navorsingsgenoot aan die Nelson Mandela Metropolitaanse Universiteit, Port Elizabeth. E-pos:

Henriette Roos is Professor in die Departement Afrikaans en Algemene Literatuurwetenskap aan die Universiteit van Suid-Afrika, Pretoria. E-pos:
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Title Annotation:Editorial/Redaksioneel
Author:Renders, Luc; Roos, Henriette
Publication:Tydskrif vir Letterkunde
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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