Sunday, January 13, 2019

Leopoldville 1959 – Martyrs for Independence

On December 30, 1958, leaders of the Kalamu Section of ABAKO (Alliance des Bakongo, an early political party) wrote to the Premier Bourgmestre (Mayor) of the City of Leopoldville advising of their plans to hold a meeting at the YMCA the following Sunday, January 4.  Assuming they had concurrence with their plans, the ABAKO leaders began notifying their membership of the planned event. Because of the New Year holiday, however, the Bourgmestre, Jean Tordeur, did not receive the letter until Friday, and his response was not received by Vital Moanda, the President of ABAKO Kalamu, until noon on Saturday, January 3. The Bourgmestre noted that ABAKO did not request permission, therefore the meeting should be considered private, otherwise they were well-informed of the regulations governing public meetings.
A view of Kalamu from Stade Baudouin (Photo: Pvt. Coll.)
Leopoldville was in a state of heightened political tension at this time.   In December 1957 the previous year, the Belgians had allowed the first opening toward Congolese self-governance with elections of African Bourgmestres in 8 newly-created Communes. July 6, 1958 a new Congolese-edited political journal, the Presence Africaine was inaugurated on Ave Victoire in Dendale Commune. Joseph Kasavubu, President of ABAKO and Bourgmestre of Dendale Commune, attended. Across the river in Brazzaville in August 1958, French President DeGaulle announced Independence for all French Territories in Africa. On December 28, Congolese delegates returned from the Pan-African Conference in Accra. Patrice Lumumba, Gaston Diomi (Bourgmestre of Ngiri-Ngiri) and Joseph Ngalula (Editor of the Presence Africaine) organized a press conference outside the Kalamu Commune office on Ave. Victoire to report on the meetings. Considering that ABAKO Bourgmestres headed the three Communes in the “Nouvelle Cité”, ABAKO felt under pressure to respond to the initiative led by Lumumba’s rival MNC.
Legend: [1] Kalamu Commune Office, [2] YMCA, [3] Kasavubu's residence [4] Foncobel, [5] Commune of Dendale, [6] Commune of  Kalamu, [7] Commune of Ngiri-Ngiri. 

The “Nouvelle Cité”, was created south of the original (old) African cité after World War II under the direction of Leopoldville Territorial Administrator Fernand Dendale and then more formal subdivisions were developed by the Office des Cités Africaines.  The African population of the city had more than doubled during the war, from 47,000 in 1940 to 96,000 in 1945, and new residential areas were urgently needed. The post-war economic boom that continued to attract migrants had faltered, however. Unemployment in the city had nearly doubled from 13,173 to 22,277 in the seven months leading up to December. 
Middle class housing on Ave. Prince Baudouin in 1947. (Photo: Pvt. Coll.)
These new developments were established as the Communes of Dendale (now Kasavubu), Kalamu and Ngiri-Ngiri for the elections in 1957, while the old Cité was subdivided into the Communes of St. Jean (Lingwala), Kinshasa and Barumbu. The Nouvelle Cité was connected to the old Cité and the European section by Avenue Prince Baudouin (see map below). After the creation of the Office des Cités Africains (OCA) in March 1952 (Sept.30, 2011), the agency built several planned subdivisions in Kalamu, including Renkin (now Matonge), Foncobel (now Kimbangu) and Yolo Nord & Sud the adjacent the European Commune of Limete. Further development to the south was constrained by large concessions previously granted to European companies and individuals, such as Foncobel (Fonds Colonial Belge). As a result, OCA opted to build large “satellite” communities further south (Matete, Ndjili, Lemba) which were connected to the city via Blvd. Leopold III (now Blvd. Lumumba).
Ave. Prince Baudouin in the late 1940s. The Foyer Social is at left (Photo: Pvt. Coll.)
The YMCA, recently opened on Ave Prince Baudouin in Kalamu, was a logical choice as a venue, but potentially problematic considering the tenuous relationship of the sponsoring branch of the Belgian YMCA with the other Protestant groups in the city.  The established missions accepted the need for programs focused on youth but were wary of a religious movement not specifically associated with a church, recalling the negative reaction to the Salvation Army and the Kimbanguist church (May 14, 2012) The Colonial authorities were cautiously open, but noted that other youth-focused groups existed, such as the Catholic JOC. After a decade of preparatory work in the city, the YMCA complex was inaugurated in 1958 by Provincial Commissioner Paquet. The facility comprised two wings surrounding a basketball court and included a 40-bed hotel, a restaurant, auditorium, classrooms and workshops. The YMCA designated Simon Tezzo, a former OTRACO train station master affiliated with the American Baptist mission, as facility manager.
The YMCA on Ave. Baudouin shortly after opening. (Photo:
The Bourgmestre’s veiled warning unsettled the Kalamu organizers. It was very late in the day to advise their supporters of a change of date, which they now proposed for January 18. A small group that appeared at 10:00 on Sunday morning accepted the decision and dispersed, but people continued to arrive at the YMCA and by 13:00 over 4000 had filled basketball court. Kasabubu’s arrival to confirm the rescheduling (the Abako President’s residence was located diagonally across Ave Baudouin from the Y), appeared to mollify expectations, but the sudden arrival of the Premier Bourgmestre’s representative captured the crowd’s attention and people turned back and filled the street between Ave Victoire from the Y along Ave Prince Baudouin. Europeans driving by on Ave. Baudouin had stones thrown at their cars.
The crowd gathered at the YMCA basketball court. (Photo:
Kasavubu (dark suit) addresses the crowd at the YMCA (Photo: Mboka Mosika)
Kasavubu returned at 15:00, but his remarks in French were drowned out by the crowd. Shortly after, the police on the street began to beat back participants in an attempt to drive them away. Demonstrators targeted gas stations on Ave. Prince Baudouin.  The arrival of a contingent of Military Police from nearby Camp Leopold II only inflamed the crowd. Bourgmestre Pinzi climbed up on a vehicle to calm the crowd, but to no avail.
Kalamu Bourgmestre Pinzi speaking from the top of a vehicle. (Photo: Mboka Mosika)
Attack on a Petrofina gas station. (Photo:
Around 5:00 pm, the rioters began to move “en masse”, albeit slowly, northwards towards the European city.  At the same time other rioters headed south towards the Foncobel commercial district at the end of Ave. Baudouin. This was a European commercial center in the heart of the Congolese cité.
Legend: [1] the European city, [2] the old African cité, [3] the Nouvelle Cité, [4] Ave Baudouin linking the three districts.
Foncobel was a large land concession granted to the Fonds Colonial Belge, created in 1929 by local entrepreneur Joseph Jancart and the Expansion Colonial Belge as primary investment partner.  By 1949, Foncobel was dissolved, the General Assembly noting that the company had no recent activity.  OCA picked up the concession to develop new housing, with Foncobel retained as the name of the quartier. It was a commercial center serving the Nouvelle Cité.  Most of the proprietors were Portuguese or Greeks who provided retail commercial services to Congolese. Though not Belgians, the mob focused their frustration on them.  The shopkeepers sought shelter together and some pulled out hunting rifles to defend themselves.
Rioters attacking a Police vehicle. (Photo:

By 20:50 the situation appeared out of control and Provincial Governor Bomans called in the Force Publique, the colonial Army. These were joined the following day by elements of the Metropolitan army flown in from the Belgian Metropolitan military base at Kamina.  Complicating the Force Publique’s mission were European “volunteer” militia that arrived on the the streets but were encouraged to return home after being advised that the Congolese NCOs commanding the guard posts would be giving them orders.
Elements of the Force Publique confront the rioters (Photo:
On the night of January 4, the Force Publique deployed its troops to erect barricades and secure 5 zones to prevent the rioters from entering the European city.  Primary points included the Gombe River bridge on Ave. Josephine Charlotte (now Liberation), Police Camp Lufungula on Ave. Huileries (Democratie), the Zoo on Ave. Baudouin (Kasavubu) up to Ave. Kabinda, and the Marche on Ave Plateau as well as Ave Syndicat to the east leading into the industrial neighborhood of Ndolo. Thwarted in their attempt to invade the European city, at 2:00 am on January 5, the mob sacked the new Sarma commercial block, one of several buildings designed by architect Claude Laurens in the 1950s (Aug. 5, 2011). At about the same time, on Ave. Josephine Charlotte, the military rescued the Danish Consul and his wife who had been pulled from their car by demonstrators.  
The SARMA store near the Marche Publique. (Photo:
Throughout the day Monday, January 5, the Force Public maintained the cordon around the European city and proceeded with mopping up operations, including rescue around noon of Europeans from Foncobel.  On Tuesday, January 6, the FP occupied the Communes of Dendale, Kalamu and Ngiri-Ngiri.  On the following day, the military secured the Commune offices in the three locations.
A commercial street after the riots. (Photo:
The Belgian authorities blamed the Congolese leadership of the Communes for the riots and issued an order for Kasabubu’s arrest on Jan. 5. Pinzi was also arrested.  This, as elsewhere in Africa during the struggle for Independence, had the effect of enhancing their credentials. The Force Publique proceeded with mopping up activities, but still the operation (according to their own records) resulted in 12 killed and 72 injured. 
The Force Publique maintains order following the riots (Photo:
On January 13, King Baudouin announced eventual independence for Congo. A Working Group at the Ministry of the Colonies had been expected to issue a report on possible governance reforms in the colony on that very date, but overtaken by events, the riots forced Belgium’s hand.

One casualty of the riots was the Premier Bourgemestre, Jean Tordeur, who was transferred to a cushy exile in Ruanda-Urundi.  Another was the new African hospital under construction on Ave. Josephine Charlotte near Camp Leopold.  Construction halted under reports that the structure was unsound, and later that budget resources dried up after Independence.  After a brief period as an MPR party facility, it was not until 2010 that the Kabila government launched a rehabilitation of the structure as the Hopital du Cinquantennaire.
Hopital du Cinquantennaire. (Photo: Ambassade de la RDC on flickr)
The drive for Independence carried Kasavubu to become Congo’s first President in June 1960 in which he served until he was deposed by Joseph Mobutu in November 1965.  In 2010 on the 50th Anniversary of Independence, a statue in his honor was erected at Rond Point Kimpwanza on Ave Victoire in Kasavubu Commune.  Arthur Pinzi became Minister of Finance in the Adoula Government in 1961, then Ambassador to Cote d’Ivoire. Gaston Diomi was elected Governor of Leopoldville Province after Indpendence.  Quartier Renkin in Kalamu, developed into the celebrated Matonge district of the Kinshasa music scene.
President Kasavubu's house on Ave. Kasavubu in 2017. (Photo: author)
Kasavubu's House. (Photo: author)
A statue of President Kasavubu at Rond Point Kimpwanza in 2010 (
In 1967, Mobutu’s new youth movement JMPR (Jeunesse de la Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution) attempted to take over the YMCA.  After a three-and-a-half-hour interrogation of two secretaries at the Y, the JMPR ejected the YMCA staff and occupied the building.  The following year, the JMPR ceded the premises back to the YMCA, but the facility no longer had the same vitality.  A women’s group held meetings there and a school opened.  Today, two schools operate there on a split schedule and the meeting hall is a popular venue for community workshops.
The basketball court at the YMCA in 2017. (Photo: author)
The restaurant at the YMCA. (Photo: author)
A commemorative poster on display at the YMCA. (Photo: author)

The events of January 1959 in the Nouvelle Cité were clearly the catalyst for accelerated independence in a timeframe not anticipated by the colonials. With the coming of Independence on June 30, 1960, the locus of governance shifted from Brussels to Leopoldville and the axis of power established between the administrative district of Kalina (now Gombe) and the Presidential palace on Mont Ngaliema. Leopoldville-Kinshasa continued to play a central role in affairs of state, but the local government at the Commune level would never again be so influential. Local government elections, including those for Commune Councils are scheduled for December 2019, the first such since Mobutu's coup in 1965.


Archives et Musée de la Littérature (

Belgium, Chambre de Représentants, 27 mars 1959, « Commission Parlementaire chargée de faire une enquête sur les évènements qui se sont produits à Léopoldville en janvier 1959 »

Mboka Mosika, 17 décembre, 2017. « Liste des bourgmestres de la ville de Léopoldville des années ’58 et ‘59 » (

Mutamba Makombo, 1998. Du Congo belge au Congo indépendant, 1940-1960: émergence des "évolués" et genèse du nationalismePublications de l’Institut de formation et d’études politiques.

Ryckmans, Francois, 2019. « Il y a 60 ans, au Congo belge, le soulèvement de Léopoldville », (

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