I spoke in my last post about a boy from DRC who’s facing challenges. I thought, in this post, I would talk about DRC itself, at least one small part of that sprawling country.
A few weeks ago, I was in Lubumbashi, the capital of Katanga Province in the DRC. It is the southern-most province, with Lubumbashi a stone’s-throw from the Zambian border. It is also one of the ‘secessionist’ provinces of the 1960s – then-governor Moise Tshombe tried, but failed, to lead Katanga out of the DRC. It is where deposed prime minister Patrice Lumumba was taken by his captors and assassinated in 1961.
Provinces are led by governors (similar to our Premiers in South Africa) who, in the past, were appointed to their positions. However, the incumbent, Moise Katumbi, became the first elected governor of Katanga in 2007. Of mixed race (he is half Congolese, half Greek Jew), he is a very successful businessman who spent some time living in South Africa in the early 2000s. By all accounts, he seems to be doing a reasonable job as governor and is being punted by some as a possible future president of the country.
I was in DRC at an NGO workshop which was discussing human rights and development. The governor was invited to attend and not only came to the opening, but also the closing – and then invited delegates to visit him at his offices on the day following the workshop. The visit to his offices took place on a Saturday, an ordinary working day for him, it seemed.
He appears to be a warm, relaxed, accessible man and not overly concerned with pomp and ceremony. In the evening of the second day, I watched him arrive at the hotel where the workshop was being held. He leapt out of the car as it rolled to a halt, not waiting, as many politicians do, for someone else to open the door for him.
When we met with him on the Saturday morning, we discussed, amongst other things, crime. He proudly stated that, in Lubumbashi, it was possible to leave your house open and no-one would break in. I don’t know whether this is universally true in Lubumbashi or in DRC as a whole (and he was making comparisons with his experiences in Bryanston in South Africa where many houses are like fortresses), but we did notice a couple of other interesting indications that crime levels in Lubumbashi are indeed very low.
Across the road from our hotel in the centre of town was a small run-down park. Actually most of Lubumbashi is run-down. It has a very provincial air and most buildings in town are in need of repair and maintenance. The country is still in the throes of war (the M23 situation in the north-east was not yet properly resolved when we were there), and Lubumbashi is not receiving the same development attention as perhaps is the case with Kinshasa.
In front of the park, on the pavement is a curved line of steel tables. From these tables, traders sell cultural artifacts made of bright green malachite, copper and brass. Bangles, necklaces, carvings, little boxes – there is a wide variety of items, none of which sells for less than $1 US.
The remarkable thing about all this is that the tables are not fixed into the ground, nor are they chained to each other or the fence of the park. They stand free. And they stand there day and night, with no security, and no one attempts to steal them.
If this is surprising to someone living in Johannesburg where metal of all types is constantly being stolen for recycling, consider what these traders do with their goods at night. They don’t take them away to a secure place elsewhere. No.
Behind the fence of the park (and it is not a high fence – it would very easy to get over it, using the tables as a stepping stone), is an array of trunks, mostly metal. In these trunks, the traders store their wares until they return to lay them out for sale the next morning. Each trunk probably holds around $1 000 worth of goods. Those trunks that are locked are secured with cheap padlocks.
We were there for five days and watched the daily routine of unpacking, laying out, selling, removing and packing away the craftwork. We had no reason to think that the routine was any different before we came or after we left. It is inconceivable to think that traders in Johannesburg or other places in South Africa would be able to leave a trunk full of goods in an open place overnight and expect to find it intact in the morning.
The other manifestation of this low level of lawlessness was the money-changers. It may not be entirely legal, but much of the currency exchange in Lubumbashi happens on the streets. ‘Bankers’ sit behind narrow boxes marked on the side with a $ sign. On top of the box is a large wad of Congolese francs, held together with paper clips and rubber bands. Each chunk of money must be the equivalent of R1 000 or more.
Such trade would not last a day in Johannesburg.
We were told that there is a very low tolerance amongst the Congolese people for crime, that if someone were to try and steal money from one of the ‘street banks’, other people in the street would all assist in trying to catch the thief and probably dispense justice there and then.
The DRC is not a paradise. It remains a country at war with itself, with terrible atrocities that have been committed in pursuance of that war. It is also not entirely free of crime and this is perhaps increasing somewhat as a result of job lay-offs and the increasing number of people coming to Lubumbashi in search of opportunity. But it was very refreshing to be in a place where we felt safe walking in the streets, even late at night, and crime did not dominate the national psyche as it does in South Africa.
It also raises questions about whether it is fair for us as South Africans to blame foreign nationals for the high levels of crime in our own country. I would suggest it has a lot more to do with ineffective law enforcement and poor urban management.
Oh yes. The streets of Lubumbashi are also much cleaner than the streets of our Joburg inner city. Just saying.