Combattants: Activists or Criminals? A Reflection on Ethnoregionalism and Political Violence among Congolese Immigrants in South Africa
Most studies on African immigrants in South Africa focus on xenophobia, illegal immigration, and corruption within the South African Department of Home Affairs,1 while leaving unexamined some aspects of immigrants’ everyday life in the country. Saint José Inaka highlights “ethno-regionalism and political conflicts among immigrants” as one issue that existing studies have glossed over.2 Inaka’s recent work on the feuds between immigrants from the eastern and western regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) living in Pretoria provides a thorough analysis of the complexities associated with transnational politics. This essay in turn examines the tensions among different Congolese ethnoregional groups living in South Africa. It focuses on the role of combattants3 and the violence they unleash within the community of Congolese immigrants.
Combattants refers to the fighters belonging to a political group that emerged during the 2011 elections in the DRC, when the Congolese political opposition opted to campaign among Congolese living outside the country. At the beginning, they were admired by many Congolese, both locally and internationally, for raising awareness regarding what most considered the challenges facing the country. The combattants and their supporters were united around hatred for President Joseph Kabila and support for opposition leaders, such as Étienne Tshisekedi, the President of the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS), famous for being the only opposition party operating openly in and outside the DRC during President Mobutu’s era;4 and Honoré Ngbanda, a former Mobutuist, as well as founder and President of the Alliance des Patriotes pour la Refondation du Congo (APARECO). Disappointed when the ruling government was declared winner of the elections, the combattants contested the results through social media and physical protests. Most importantly, they blamed people from the eastern DRC for voting for Kabila, because he was “their son.”5 From 2012 on, ethnoregional identities increasingly influenced political affiliations among Congolese.
Nevertheless, the “east–west conflict” in the DRC is neither new nor peculiar to current Congolese immigrant communities. It can be traced back to colonial and postcolonial times, especially during President Mobutu Sese Seko’s three decades of dictatorship. East–west cleavages also resurfaced during the war to oust Mobutu, which started in May 1997 in the Kivu region when a Kiswahili-speaking army marched on Kinshasa as “liberators.” Some people felt President Laurent Kabila (father of the current president) and his allies wanted not only to end Mobutu’s everlasting reign, but also to end the hegemony of the Lingala language by replacing it with Kiswahili.6 Two events—a series of attacks on the DRC by Laurent Kabila’s ex-allies in 1998 and his assassination by a young soldier from Kivu in 2001—proved decisive in the re-emergence of the east–west tensions within the Congolese transnational immigrant community.
During the 2011 elections, combattants were active within the DRC, especially in Kasai, Katanga, and Kinshasa. They also acted more openly in Western countries and in South Africa, organizing protests in countries such as Belgium, Canada, England, France, the Netherlands, South Africa, and the United States to voice their opposition to the declaration of Kabila’s electoral victory. From mid-2012 on, the combattants became increasingly notorious for the brutal methods they deployed against whomever they assumed was a “collabo”—that is, a collaborator with the Kabila regime.
According to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, followers of the UDPS chose the name “combattants” in the 1980s to distinguish themselves from the “militants” of Mobutu’s Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution (MPR). What the term meant then has little to do with the angry and violent mobs of Congolese who have more recently referred to themselves as combattants, especially in the aftermath of the 2011 elections. Inaka, however, is very defensive of their “activism.” For him, combattants are not just “louts, crooks, and braggarts,” as their Baswahili counterparts derogatively call them, but activists on behalf of human and political rights.7
If, indeed, combattants are against dictatorship,8 the occasional use of violence to impose their political beliefs on others makes people question what they stand for. In 2011 and 2012, they not only attacked Kabila’s supporters, but also those who supported any political party other than the UDPS. The degree of violence they have deployed against their victims—sometimes without any proof, sometimes only because the person is from Kivu or because they have heard rumors that the person is pro-Kabila—also leads to questions about the authenticity of their alleged human rights activism.
In the author’s view, the reason Kivucians have not joined the combattants’ “struggle” in South Africa is simple: combattants are now considered just another group that spreads terror among Congolese immigrants. They are feared for their violence, such as sabotaging concerts featuring those they consider “collabos.” These acts have taken place at some well-known musicians’ concerts in European countries, as well as in South Africa, and even at simple social gatherings. Combattants have also threatened religious leaders, including pastors of well-known churches, by literally “banning” them from visiting the countries where the combattants “rule.”9 They also reportedly interfere with anything from simple social meetings to political gatherings if they have not been informed of them and paid in advance to stay away.
In conclusion, ethnic and regional tensions—often acknowledged as a feature of politics within the post-Mobutu DRC—have, indeed, also increased among transnational Congolese immigrant communities. There is little doubt that frustration with the disputed outcome of the 2011 elections partly explains the descent into political violence within the Congolese immigrant community in South Africa. More research is needed, however, to fully discern the reasons behind the combattants’ shift from political activism to violent, gang-like behavior.
It can also be argued that the east–west tensions among Congolese go beyond ethnoregional identities, in some regards. The author contends that the increase in Congolese immigrants, mainly from Kivu, arriving en masse in South Africa in the past decade (as a result of persisting armed conflicts in their home region) has further fueled tensions among them. The hardships associated with making a living in South Africa has led some immigrants to see their compatriots as aggravating their misery. This was evident in conversations between the author and Congolese immigrants from the western region, who related how their applications for refugee papers were often rejected because no war was going on in the western DRC. Thus, Kivucians appear better placed to enjoy the sympathy of the South African refugee system for being the only “real” Congolese refugees; the “privilege” they enjoy in countries such as South Africa has consequently contributed to combattants’ resentment and anger. Competition over scarce resources and survival challenges faced by Congolese immigrants from peaceful regions of the DRC living in South Africa has also contributed to the violence perpetrated by combattants against those from Kivu.
In the past five years, combattants have increasingly terrorized Congolese communities in major South African cities, such as Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg. South African law enforcement institutions often overlook their actions, which frequently involve both verbal and physical abuse. These institutions perhaps care little about the combattants’ activities, probably because they view them as immigrant-on-immigrant violence. Also of concern is the view that combattants can be hired by any Congolese as enforcers in matters ranging from debt collection to domestic disputes. Often, Congolese who own businesses in Cape Town are threatened by combattants if they refuse to give jobs to their members or to anyone else they recommend.
Finally, if the South African government keeps ignoring combattants’ crimes simply because they only victimize their compatriots, there is a risk that they may mutate into more sinister gangs with local and transnational connections. This possibility carries foreboding implications for security in South Africa and the neighboring subregion.
- Sarah Pugh, “Human Mobility in South Africa,” in Africans on the Move: Human Mobility in Ghana, Nigeria, Angola and South Africa, ed. Fabio Baggio (Cape Town: Scalabrini Institute for Human Mobility in Africa, 2014). ↩
- Saint José Inaka, “Combattants and Anti-Combattants (Collabos): Congolese Transnational Politics in Pretoria,” Strategic Review for Southern Africa 38, no. 1 (2016): 7. ↩
- The word “combattants” is French for “fighters.” ↩
- Étienne Tshisekedi has passed away since the initial writing of this piece. Aaron Ross, “Congo's Main Opposition Leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, Dies at 84,” Reuters, February 2, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-congo-tshisekedi-idUSKBN15G5D1. ↩
- Inaka, “Combattants,” 13. ↩
- Gauthier de Villers, “Identifications et Mobilisations Politiques au Congo-Kinshasa,” Politique Africaine 72 (1998): 92–94. ↩
- Inaka, “Combattants,” 11-15. ↩
- Ibid., 13. ↩
- David Garbin and Marie Godin, “‘Saving the Congo’: Transnational Social Fields and Politics of Home in the Congolese Diaspora,” African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal 6, no. 2 (2013): 116-117. ↩