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Colonial policing and urban space in the notorious Commune Rouge of Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 December 2020

Simon De Nys-Ketels*
Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, Faculty of Engineering and Architecture, Ghent University, Jozef Plateaustraat 22, 9000Ghent, Belgium
*Corresponding author. Email:


Zooming in on the urban history of the Kenya neighbourhood in Lubumbashi, this article deals with the relation between urban space, colonial policing and African unrest. Colonial policy-makers feared the populous neighbourhood and its African masses, and deployed urban planning to materialize an ambiguous agenda of ‘welfare colonialism’ and discipline. The implementation of these planning projects was incomplete, and a spatial analysis of subsequent African local unrest, everyday colonial policing and military schemes sheds additional light on how colonial forces and Africans utilized urban space as a resource for protest and control. As such, the article aims to contribute to the academic debate on colonial policing, in which spatiality has been lacking.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press.

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This research is part of a broader research project on medical infrastructure in the DR Congo titled ‘Urban Landscapes of Colonial/Postcolonial Health Care. Towards a Spatial Mapping of the Performance of Hospital Infrastructure in Kinshasa, Mbandaka and Kisangani (DR Congo), from Past to Present (1920–2014)’. It is financed by the FWO (Fund for Scientific Research), Project No. G045015N and directed by Johan Lagae (Ghent University). The author would like to thank Professors Johan Lagae, Jacob Sabakinu and Donatien Dibwe dia Mwembu, and Dr Luce Beeckmans for their insightful comments, as well as the Picha Cultural Association and Patrick Mudekereza in particular for the warm hospitality and collaboration.


1 See e.g. Arnold, D., Police Power and Colonial Rule, Madras, 1859–1947 (Delhi and New York, 1986)Google Scholar; Anderson, D. and Killingray, D., Policing and Decolonisation: Politics, Nationalism, and the Police, 1917–65 (Manchester, 1992)Google Scholar.

2 Chandavarkar, R., Imperial Power and Popular Politics: Class, Resistance and the State in India, c. 1850–1950 (Cambridge, 1998), 181Google Scholar. This was also true in post-war Belgian Congo, where in 1954, 4,400 Congolese policemen were ‘led by a handful of white Commissaires’. See Lauro, A., ‘Suspect cities and the (re)making of colonial order: urbanization, security anxieties and police reforms in postwar Congo (1945–1960)’, in Campion, J. and Rousseaux, X. (eds.), Policing New Risks in Modern European History (Basingstoke, 2016), 71Google Scholar.

3 Blanchard, E., Bloembergen, M. and Lauro, A. (eds.), Policing in Colonial Empires: Cases, Connections, Boundaries (ca. 1850–1970) (Brussels, 2017), 17CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Martin Thomas’ general study of colonial policing and labour, and especially his pages on policing in Katanga: Thomas, M., Violence and Colonial Order: Police, Workers and Protest in the European Colonial Empires, 1918–1940 (Cambridge, 2012), 320–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Blanchard, Bloembergen and Lauro (eds.), Policing in Colonial Empires, 14; S. Legg, Spaces of Colonialism: Delhi's Urban Governmentalities (Chicester, 2007), 82–148; M. Bloembergen, ‘The perfect policeman: colonial policing, modernity and conscience on Sumatra's west coast in the early 1930s’, Indonesia, 91 (2011), 165–91. This was especially striking in Belgian Congo, which prided itself on being a model colony. See Lauro, A., ‘Maintenir l'ordre dans la colonie modèle. Notes sur les désordres urbains et la police des frontières raciales au Congo Belge (1918–1945)’, Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies, 15 (2011), 97121CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Brown, M., ‘The politics of penal excess and the echo of colonial penality’, Punishment & Society, 4 (2002), 403CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Lauro, ‘Suspect cities’; H. Fischer-Tiné (ed.), Anxieties, Fear and Panic in Colonial Settings: Empires on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Cham, 2016); Hunt, N.R., A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo (Durham, NC, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Burton, A., African Underclass: Urbanisation, Crime & Colonial Order in Dar es Salaam (Oxford, Dar es Salaam and Athens, OH, 2005)Google Scholar; Burton, A. and Ocobock, P., ‘The “travelling native”: vagrancy and colonial control in British East Africa’, in Ocobock, P. and Beier, A.L. (eds.), Cast Out: Vagrancy and Homelessness in Global and Historical Perspective (Athens, OH, 2008), 270301Google Scholar.

7 Home, R.K., Of Planting and Planning: The Making of British Colonial Cities (London, 1997)Google Scholar; Goerg, O., ‘From Hill Station (Freetown) to downtown Conakry (first ward): comparing French and British approaches to segregation in colonial cities at the beginning of the twentieth century’, Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne des Études Africaines, 32 (1998), 131CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 On the (failures of the) ‘segregation mania’ in colonial urban planning, see e.g. Nightingale, C.H., Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities (Chicago, 2012), 159CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lagae, J., Boonen, S. and Liefooghe, M., ‘Fissures dans le “cordon sanitaire”: architecture hospitalière et ségrégation urbaine à Lubumbashi, 1920–1960’, in Mpula-Lutebele, M. Amuri (ed.), Lubumbashi: cent ans d'histoire (Paris, 2013), 247–61Google Scholar. On the explicit relation between urban planning and public control, see Fourchard, L. and Albert, I.O., Sécurité, crime et ségrégation dans les villes d'Afrique de l'ouest du 19e siècle à nos jours (Paris, 2003)Google Scholar; Legg, Spaces of Colonialism, 82–148; Hanretta, S., ‘Space and conflict in the Elisabethville mining camps, 1923–1938’, in Bernault, F. (ed.), A History of Prison and Confinement in Africa (Portsmouth, NH, 2003), 191219Google Scholar.

9 Although in the last decade, some excellent historiographical overviews on colonial policing have been published, spatiality remains absent or of minor importance: R. Tiquet, ‘Maintien de l'ordre colonial et administration du quotidien en Afrique’, Vingtième Siècle. Revue d'histoire, 140 (2018), 3–13; Blanchard, Bloembergen and Lauro (eds.), Policing in Colonial Empires; M. Debos and J. Glasman, ‘Politique des Corps Habillés. Etat, pouvoir et métiers de l'ordre en Afrique’, Politique Africaine, 4 (2012), 5–23. Noticeable exceptions: B. Brunet-La Ruche, ‘“Discipliner les villes coloniales”: la police et l'ordre urbain au Dahomey pendant l'entre-deux-guerres’, Crimicorpus (2012),; Legg, Spaces of Colonialism; Burton, A., ‘“Brothers by day”: colonial policing in Dar es Salaam under British rule, 1919–61’, Urban History, 30 (2003), 6391CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Chandavarkar, Imperial Power. For Belgian Congo, and especially the general strike of 1941 that impacted Elisabethville, see e.g. Renton, D., Seddon, D. and Zeilig, L., The Congo: Plunder and Resistance (London, 2007), 6370CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Likaka, Osumaka, ‘Rural protest: the Mbole against Belgian rule, 1897–1959’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 27 (1994), 589617CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Higginson, J., ‘Liberating the captives: independent watchtower as an avatar of colonial revolt in Southern Africa and Katanga, 1908–1941’, Journal of Social History, 26 (1992), 5580CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Higginson, J., A Working Class in the Making: Belgian Colonial Labor Policy, Private Enterprise, and the African Mineworker 1907–1951 (Madison, WI, 1989)Google Scholar.

11 Scott, J.C., Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven, CT, 1985), 27Google Scholar.

12 Eckert, A. and Jones, A., ‘Introduction: historical writing about everyday life’, Journal of African Cultural Studies, 15 (2002), 8CrossRefGoogle Scholar. As early as 1994, Frederick Cooper warned that Scott's approach risks overlooking the complex dynamics of Africans in colonial society by lumping together ‘all acts of assertions’ as mere ‘weapons of the weak’. For Congo's capital in particular, Didier Gondola has shown that ‘everyday resistance’ does not fully grasp the daily socio-cultural practices of African youth culture. D. Gondola, Tropical Cowboys: Westerns, Violence and Masculinity in Kinshasa (Bloomington, 2016). Cooper, F., ‘Conflict and connection: rethinking colonial African history’, American Historical Review, 5 (1994), 1532Google Scholar.

13 B. Henriet, ‘“Elusive natives”: escaping colonial control in the Leverville oil palm concession, Belgian Congo, 1923–1941’, Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue canadienne des études africaines, 49 (2015), 340, 41.

14 For earlier publications on the urban development of Lubumbashi, see e.g. S. Boonen, ‘Une ville construite par des “gens d'ailleurs”: développement urbain et “gouvernementalité” coloniale à Elisabethville (RDC)’, Ghent University Ph.D. thesis, 2019; B. De Meulder, Kuvuande Mbote: een eeuw koloniale architectuur en stedenbouw in Kongo: veertien plannen en projecten (Antwerp, 2000), 71–92; J.C. Bruneau and M. Pain, Atlas de Lubumbashi (Nanterre, 1990); B. Fetter, The Creation of Elisabethville, 1910–1940 (Stanford, 1976).

15 D. de Lame and D. Dibwe dia Mwembu, Tout passe: instantanés populaires et traces du passé à Lubumbashi (Paris and Tervuren, 2005), 54.

16 Most of the city's inhabitants, including Kenya's inhabitants, associate the colour red with Kenya's perceived violent everyday reality. Some point to the red cross of the basilica, and for others the name is related to the (former) presence of communists in the neighbourhood. According to my archival research, the sobriquet was not yet explicitly in use during colonial times.

17 C. Young, The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective (London, 1994), 186.

18 Lauro, ‘Suspect cities’, 64.

19 V. Neels, Wij, Boudewijn, Koning der Belgen: het politiek, sociaal en moreel testament van een nobel vorst (Balen, 1996), 154.

20 A. Stenmans and F. Reyntjens, La pensée politique du gouverneur général Pétillon (Brussels, 1993), 35, 42.

21 G. Vanthemsche, Belgium and the Congo (Cambridge, 2012), 84–5.

22 Young, African Colonial State, 4; F. Cooper, Africa since 1940: The Past of the Present (Cambridge, 2002), 4.

23 On healthcare, see S. De Nys-Ketels et al., ‘Planning Belgian Congo's network of medical infrastructure: type-plans as tools to construct a medical model-colony, 1949–1959’, Planning Perspectives, 34 (2019), 757–78; Hunt, A Nervous State. On social centres, see Eckert, A., ‘Regulating the social: social security, social welfare and the state in late colonial Tanzania’, Journal of African History, 45 (2004), 467–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On education, see J. Lagae, ‘“Montcassin, Montserrat or…an alcazar”? Architecture, propaganda and everyday school practices in the Collège du Saint-Esprit in Bujumbura (Burundi)’, in F. Demissie (ed.), Colonial Architecture and Urbanism in Africa, Intertwined and Contested Histories (Paris, 2012), 277–94. On housing, see Beeckmans, L., ‘The “development syndrome”: building and contesting the SICAP housing schemes in French Dakar (1951–1960)’, Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue canadienne des études africaines, 51 (2017), 2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Hunt, A Nervous State, 8.

25 On the political history of labour of the UMHK in Lubumbashi, see e.g. Higginson, A Working Class; C. Perrings, Black Mineworkers in Central Africa: Industrial Strategies and the Evolution of an African Proletariat in the Copperbelt 1911–41 (London, 1979).

26 While the recession undoubtedly reinforced fears of unemployment and vagrancy, these were already existent and would continue to influence colonial policy-making throughout the colonial period.

27 F. Grévisse, Le Centre Extra-Coutumier d'Élisabethville: quelques aspects de la politique indigène du Haut-Katanga industriel (Brussels, 1951), 182; Fetter, Creation of Elisabethville, 126.

28 Grévisse, Centre Extra-Coutumier, 183.

29 Africa Archives, Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (AA), Local General Government files (GG), 20400, Note sur le projet d'installation d'une nouvelle cité indigène, by Commissaire de District A. Gille, Elisabethville, 15 Sep. 1948.

30 AA/GG 20400, Note sur l'extension du C.E.C. Elisabethville, Chef de Service des Affaires Indigènes et de Main d’œuvre, Elisabethville, 28 Oct. 1946.

31 However, these discussions would eventually lead to the development of Katuba, Elisabethville's third African neighbourhood.

32 It was from this initial plan onwards that authorities started referring to the neighbourhood as Kenya, most likely due to the many Congolese veterans arriving from the Kenyan war campaign. Grévisse, Centre Extra-Coutumier, 15.

33 Ibid., 185.

34 AA/GG 20400, Compte-Rendu de la Séance du Comité Urbain, 15 Mar. 1947.

35 Home, Of Planting, 56; B. De Meulder, De Kampen van Kongo: arbeid, kapitaal en rasveredeling in de koloniale planning (Antwerp, 1996), 17–42. For a more general discussion on the origins of grid planning, see R. Rose-Redwood and L. Bigon, Gridded Worlds: An Urban Anthology (Cham, 2018).

36 AA/GG 6186, Rapport de Gestion, 6 Jan. 1957.

37 Libotte, M., ‘L'évolution du problème du logement au C.E.C. d'Elisabethville’, Bulletin Trimestriel du Centre d'Étude des Problèmes Sociaux Indigènes, 21 (1953), 7981Google Scholar.

38 In comparison: the European ville, quartier Albert and quartier Katuba respectively counted around 13,000, 18,000 and 28,000 inhabitants in 1957. AA/GG 6186, Rapport de Gestion, 6 Jan. 1957. Subletting was not illegal and, while accounted for, had been drastically underestimated during the planning of the neighbourhood.

39 Lauro, ‘Suspect cities’, 70.

40 C. Emsley, ‘Policing the empire / Policing the metropole: some thoughts on models and types’, Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies, 18 (2014), 9.

41 Lauro, ‘Maintenir l'ordre’, 107.

42 Which various local policy-makers critiqued on several occasions. See e.g. AA/GG 17113, Rapport d'Inspection de la Police du Centre-Extra-Coutumier, Elisabethville, 19 Sep. 1955; AA/GG 6186, Rapport de la Réunion du Comité Protecteur, 7 Mar. 1957.

43 AA/GG 13533; 13745; 17551; 17895; Rapport Journalier, signed by various police officers, from 10 Oct. 1955 to 30 Dec. 1955 and complete for the years 1956–58.

44 AA/GG 6182, several police reports: 16 Feb. 1956; 8 Sep. 1956; 4 Aug. 1955; 9 Apr. 1951.

45 All above quotes from: AA/GG 6182, Rapport du Commissaire de la Police de Centre, 8 Sep. 1955.

46 AA/GG 17895, Rapport Journalier de la Police de Centre, 13 Oct. 1956.

47 AA/GG 13708, letter from Commissaire de Police Principal Lycops to Procureur Général, 20 Oct. 1956.

48 Of course, this is not to say that if Kenya's original project had been a success, unrest in response to colonial policing would not have occurred. The precise spatial actions, however, would have been of a different nature and perhaps more similar to ‘everyday resistance’, as without the refuge of unlit, unpaved spaces, open protest might have been more risky for African inhabitants.

49 Henriet, ‘“Elusive natives”’, 356.

50 At least, that is what the police initially concluded as ‘everything leads us to believe that these “incidents” were spontaneous and exclusively due to’ the ticket issues. Nonetheless, general discontent among African inhabitants about socio-economic or political living conditions in the colony may have stirred up general disgruntlement and protests. AA/GG 13708, letter from Commissaire de Police Principal to Procureur Général, 20 Oct. 1956.

51 Scott, Weapons of the Weak, 27.

52 As Belgian Congo's fairly peaceful period of 1945–57 was often called. The term reflects colonial policy-makers’ beliefs that anti-nationalist revolts were much less likely in the Belgian ‘model colony’ than in other African colonies. L.F. Vanderstraeten, ‘La Force Publiqe et le maintien de la “Pax Belgica”, 1944 – Janvier 1959’, in Congo, 1955–1960: recueil d'études (Brussels, 1992), 495–524.

53 Several similar province-wide and city-wide plans seem to have been outlined across Belgian Congo. Ibid., 511.

54 AA/GG 6182, multiple records of meetings of the Commission Trouble throughout 1949.

55 AA/GG 13708, Note de service, Opération Tornade, 29 July 1957; AA/GG 12049, Manœuvres Tornade, Instructions Générale pour la Direction de Manœuvre, l'Arbitrage et les Exécutants, Aug. 1957; AA/GG 6182, description of Operation Tornado in Kenya, Aug. 1957.

56 Previous letters had been sent in this regard to warn various district commissioners of the increased exchanges between Congolese and foreign protagonists of the labour movement. AA/GG 13708, letter from Commissaire principal de la Sûreté Katangais to various district commissioners, 1 Apr. 1957.

57 AA/GG 12049, Manœuvres Tornade, Instructions Générale pour la Direction de Manœuvre, l'Arbitrage et les Exécutants, Aug. 1957.

58 AA/GG 6182, description of Operation Tornado in Kenya, Aug. 1957.

59 AA/GG 6265, directives on Operation Typhon, 1958.

60 On the issue of colonial governments (dis)trusting African intermediaries, see B. Lawrance, E.L. Osborn and R.L. Roberts (eds.), Intermediaries, Interpreters and Clerks. African Employees in the Making of Colonial Africa, (Madison, 2006).

61 Legg, Spaces of Colonialism, 3; Brown, ‘Politics of penal excess’, 403.

62 Legg, Spaces of Colonialism, 91.

63 A similar argument about Elisabethville's local ‘persistence of racial segregation’ has been made with regard to the watering down of metropolitan progressive public healthcare policies. See Lagae, Boonen and Liefooghe, ‘Fissures’, 260.

64 Stanard, M.G., Selling the Congo: A History of European Pro-empire Propaganda and the Making of Belgian Imperialism (Lincoln, NB, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

65 Speech held at the Stade Baudouin in Léopoldville, 17 May 1955; see Neels, Wij, Boudewijn, 149–51.

66 Brown, ‘Politics of penal excess’, 403.

67 B.S.A. Yeoh, ‘Municipal control, Asiatic agency and the urban built environment in colonial Singapore 1880–1929’, University of Oxford Ph.D. thesis, 1991, 13–14.

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