How a missed chance to prove unity and the ability of conflict resolution resulted in insignificance in the historical narrative, as presented in Sapin’s drawing.
“INDEPENDENCE OF CONGO | June 30th, 1960: Congo’s Prime minister Patrice Emery Lumumba holds his memorable speech. An extract from his integral speech which you can hear in the audio: ‘We have experienced forced labour in exchange for pay that did not allow us to satisfy our hunger, to clothe ourselves, to have decent lodgings or to bring up our children as dearly loved ones. Morning, noon and night we were subjected to jeers, insults and blows because we were “Negroes”.'”
Source: Facebook video post from Africa Museum, Tervuren, Belgium.
Long live independence and African unity! Long live the independent and sovereign Congo!
With these words closed Patrice Lumumba his speech on June 30, 1960, the official day of Congolese independence from Belgium. In 1960 the Congo, like many other African countries, had become an independent state and the end of colonial rule and oppression gave room to new perspectives for the future of the African continent. At the same time, it posed challenges of how to implement ideas that had long been mere visions. As Lumumba’s speech indicates, for him the independence of the Congo was inextricably linked to a united Africa. The idea was not new, in fact, the vision of a Pan-African future can be traced back into the 18th century but with the independence of most African states it became implementable politically. In practice, this led to the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, the predecessor of today’s African Union. The Congo Crisis constituted a first chance for the OAU to find an “African solution to an African problem” and put Pan-African policies of conflict resolution into practice.
The OAU is not represented in the drawing of Sapin Makengele on the Congo Crisis. This raises the question to what extend it had any significant influence on the crisis. Rather than taking a depicted event or person in the painting as a starting point for an article contributing to understanding the Congo Crisis, this post is inspired by a blank spot, by something that is not depicted. In conversation with Sapin, this article questions why the OAU was not depicted, how it can be seen as a forgotten part in the history of the Congo Crisis, and how it links to the Pan-African ideals in current times.
The question mark – a recurring motif in Sapin’s paintings – served as another spark of inspiration to look into this forgotten aspect of the Congo Crisis. In the drawing it occurs twice, once at a prominent place right next to the depiction of Che Guevara, which might represent the confusion around his participation in the Simba Rebellion. The second can be found at the bottom left corner, right next to Sapin’s signature.
A question mark can have many meanings – and for everyone and in every context it differs. It raises questions and gives room for interpretation. For Sapin personally, the question mark serves as a symbol for encouragement, reminding himself of having been able to overcome a youth shaped by doubts and worries about the future. Today, he can see these questions as a strength that have led him to where he is now and have made him into the person of today. Regarding his work, he uses question marks in his art to encourage people contemplating his drawings to ask questions and inspire them to think critically about what they see. To me, in this case the question mark represents a call to critically question history and to go beyond the well-known narratives.
It means questioning not only what happened, but why it did. To not only look at what is remembered in the personal and collective memory but also how it is remembered and why some aspects are forgotten. Sapin’s drawing is an artistic expression of thinking critically about history, as well as a representation of such personal as well as collective memory. What happened, and what is said to have happened and what is included in the historic narrative (see Trouillot, 2015: 2) sometimes doesn’t overlap. This is such a case, where an “actor” of a historical process is forgotten in the narrative presented by Sapin.
In order to understand the Organisation of African Unity’s involvement in the Congo Crisis, this article is first giving a short introduction to the notion of Pan-Africanism , in which Sapin shares his views on what it means for him. It then goes on to examine the OAU’s creation as a Pan-African project, the challenges its members faced and the way in which it functioned. The third part then analyses the OAU’s involvement in the crisis and eventually points out why it failed to reconcile the conflict and eventually turned out to be an insignificant footnote in the historical narrative of the Congo Crisis. The concluding part, brings in Sapin’s views regarding Pan-Africanism, the Organisation of African Unity and their involvement in the Congo Crisis. His answer as to why he didn’t depict them in his painting is rather disillusioning but gives an account as to how the OAU is remembered.