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7 Kinshasa: A reprieved mega-city?

Jean-Luc Piermay


Deuxième agglomération d'Afrique centrale par la population, Kinshasa appartient à une sous-région qui, paradoxalement, connaît les taux de croissance urbaine les plus élevés de continent tout en étant dépourvue de tradition urbaine. Lieu d'accumulation des richesses d'un Etat prédateur, la ville a longtemps fonctionné selon une logique de redistribution. Mais la déliquescence des structures d'encadrement étatiques - et aujourd'hui leur effondrement - pose la question de l'avenir d'une mégapole qui avait toujours fondé sa croissance sur la puissance de l'Etat. Malheureusement, les données fiables manquent et le fonctionnement réel de nombreux domaines de la gestion urbaine restent inconnus. C'est pourquoi a été privilégié un exemple, celui de la gestion foncière. Il montre l'élaboration par les différents acteurs de la ville de stratégies anti-crise, le rôle ré-agencé de réseaux de relations, le poids dominant des petites activités et la mise au point de formes d'encadrement dans lesquelles les pouvoirs d'Etat vent mobilisés au profit des stratégies propres aux individus qui constituent ces pouvoirs. L'espace kinois en est recomposé de même que les espaces sous influence de la ville; une intense création sociale est en oeuvre. Mais l'avenir d'un organisme urbain aussi démesuré reste incertain par rapport aux capacités gestionnaires disponibles et dans le contexte d'un pays où les identités locales s'affirment et où la fragmentation commence.


Talking about recent trends in Kinshasa's urban growth and trying to understand their causes is quite a challenge. The city, which is probably the second largest in sub-Saharan Africa in terms of population (after Lagos), is indeed poorly known at present because of the decay of its supervisory bodies and therefore the lack of reliable data. The international media have reported the crisis at its climax. In particular, the events of September 1991, marked by soldiers' extortions and plunder by those who took advantage of the situation, contributed to the destruction of part of the productive services and the wealth of knowledge accumulated on the city and the country, while revealing the state's bankruptcy. But this bankruptcy had been in the making for a long time, with services in total chaos for years and data from the census questionable.

Although it is difficult to proceed in a classical manner with the scientific analysis of such an urban set-up, understanding Kinshasa's situation is, however, crucial, because it seems to be a forerunner of what one can begin to detect elsewhere in Africa and maybe the rest of the world. How can a city of this size and deprived of supervisory bodies keep on operating? What is the future of a capital city whose growth was based on the presence of a state that has now collapsed? Is there going to be a massive urban exodus before a gigantic redistribution of the population? Can the city survive the actor that gave birth to it and maintained it despite repeated and sometimes violent reactions from peripheral regions (such as the successive revolts in the rich mining area of Shaba)? Will it be reprieved? If it is, what mechanisms can possibly replace those that have failed? These are the crucial questions that research should try to answer, a task that cannot be fully realized in this chapter, owing to the lack of data and opportunities for investigation arising out of the difficult circumstances.

A mega-city without an urban past

Kinshasa lies in a privileged position - as does Brazzaville on the other bank of the Congo/Zaire river.1 These two capital cities - in Zaire and Congo - are situated not on the littoral as in most African coastal states but 350 km away from the sea. Rapids interspersed with falls downstream as well as a long navigable stretch upstream explain the site chosen for the cities on either side of a large becalmed part of the river (the "Pool"; see fig. 7.1). Despite this inland location, Kinshasa is actually on the periphery of the country. In the west, wedged between Angola and the Congo, the gas-Zaire region (which comprises only 2.3 per cent of the country's territory) is the narrow outlet towards the ocean that Leopold II, the Belgian king who "created" the Congo, managed to maintain against other colonial competitors. The same Leopold II gave the city its first name (Leopoldville), which was meant to be the starting point for colonialist ventures into the heart of the continent long before it was promoted to administrative centre of the territory. That was hardly a century ago. Today Kinshasa is a mega-city, one of the conurbations that cannot be managed as a whole because of its size and the lack of supervisory capacity. It is one of the surprising paradoxes of Central Africa that a century ago there were no towns in the region and now it is one of the most urbanized parts of the continent (the urban population in Zaire was 32 per cent of the total in 1984²).

Fig. 7.1 The urban structure of Kinshasa (Source: Pain, 1984; field surveys, 1985)

Recent and spectacular population growth

During the "scientific" census of 1984, Kinshasa was found to have 2,664,000 inhabitants, that is 8.7 per cent of the country's total population (30.7 million inhabitants) and 31 per cent of its urban population (INS/UNDP, 1991). Even though the census was criticized at the time, because reliable local observers felt that the capital city's population had been somewhat underestimated and was at the time nearer 3 million inhabitants, it is the last signpost we have to measure the country's population. Is it possible to establish estimates for the present? If the estimated growth rate in 1984 is extrapolated (Republic of Zaire, 1984), the lowest assumption for 1994 (5.03 per cent annual growth) is 4,335,000 and the highest (5.73 per cent) is 4,632,000 inhabitants. But what is the value of such extrapolations? To answer this question it would be necessary to have an idea of the impact on the population of the very serious crisis prevailing in the country, which affects the heart of the Zairian state and administration and therefore the capital city that is its headquarters and its symbol.

Like all the cities in Central Africa, Kinshasa is recent. There were large villages on the banks of the "Pool" before the Europeans arrived, where tradesmen plying the river lived, but the population remained small. The post set up by Leopold II's men in 1881 was of secondary importance. The city came into being when the railway line between the Pool and the Matadi sea pier was completed (1898), when the Leopoldville port was constructed to enable the development of the remarkable upstream river network, and the town was promoted to the rank of capital city of the Belgian Congo (1923). The colonial authorities were so restrictive that for a long time migrant workers were considered to be only temporary residents in the city and had to go back to their villages when their employment ended. But gradually the controls were eased and, despite racial segregation, which was fiercely maintained up to the end, the African population made the city their own, with women coming in large numbers to establish urban families. The decrease in the global sex ratio reflects these basic changes: from 200 men to 100 women in 1933, the ratio went down to 139.2:100 in 1955, 116.9 in 1970, and 104.1 in 1984.

The mega-city is even more recent. In 1940, there were only 50,000 inhabitants in the city, which already occupied the first rank in Central Africa in terms of population, and there were 400,000 in 1960 at the time of independence. The male population growth rate has long been spectacular, especially since the end of the 1933 crisis. Some periods featured extraordinary annual growth rates (15 per cent from 1940 to 1950, 12.6 per cent from 1950 to 1955, 10.6 per cent from 1959 to 1967), while even "lower" growth rates were considerable (1955-1959: 2.4 per cent, 1967-1976: 4.9 per cent, 1976-1984: 5.4 per cent). For 20 years now the urban population growth rate has clearly slowed down. However, city dwellers are mostly very young, with half of them below 15 years of age. Besides, not only are birth rates in Kinshasa higher than in the rest of the country (51.5 as against 48.1 per 1,000) but total fertility in the capital city too is above the national level (7.7 compared with 6.7). In this regard, Kinshasa is at the same level as the adjacent gas-Zaire and Bandundu regions, from which most of the city's migrant workers come. Furthermore, mortality rates are clearly lower in Kinshasa (12.6 per 1,000 compared with 16.8 at the country level) thanks to its health services, despite their present sorry state. The rate of natural increase is therefore at its highest in the city (38.9 per 1,000), and this accounts for three-quarters of its total annual growth. The only possible sign of a change in the population growth pattern is the age of first marriage, which in town is 29 for men and 22.5 for women, compared with 24.9 and 20, respectively, in the country as a whole (INS/UNDP, 1991, p. 65).

Spasmodic occupation of space

Similar spasmodic progress has characterized the way the city has occupied space. Data are rather old. The city has always developed horizontally - apart from a few blocks in the centre - and the built-up area increased from 2,331 ha in 1950 to 5,512 ha in 1957 (+13.1 per cent per year), 12,863 ha in 1968 (+8 per cent per year), 17,922 ha in 1975 (+4.9 per cent per year), and 21,288 ha in 1984 (+1.9 per cent per year) (Piermay, 1993a; see also fig. 7.1).

However, this spectacular increase hides the uneven nature of the process over time. The greatest increase in area happened within a few months of the declaration of independence (1959-1960). The land occupied at this time was sufficient for the development of the city over the next 10 years or so (Pain, 1984, p. 32). The way in which space for urban development was generated explains this peculiar feature. During colonial times and up to the very end of colonialism, the so-called African districts were under very strict constraints (Africans could not own property and had to obtain a work permit to be able to reside in town), while the city's development abutted European-owned agricultural and cattle farms. The collapse of the colonial system and the civil war that followed, which ravaged the country for five years, abruptly deprived the white farmers of legal protection and allowed the de facto occupation of vast stretches of land, which was initiated by leaders of political parties, traditional leaders, and the inhabitants of neighbouring areas. Thereafter these settlements could not be challenged, because they were too massive for any return to the past to be possible, but it took a long time for houses to be built. Things therefore went from highly interventionist growth to extreme laxity. The very important building programmes of the Office des Cités Africaines (OCA, African Townships Office) in the so-called "Cités planifiées" (planned townships), which are still highly valued areas despite their increasing age, suddenly ended and were replaced by "self-production" in which an applicant for a plot is at the same time owner and "promoteur" (manager of self-built house construction). Since then the city has kept on growing and it today covers a wide area: some 28 km on its east-west axis and 19 km on its north-south axis in 1985 (fig. 7.1).

The changes in population densities clearly reflect these sudden changes in growth. However the built-up area has been growing less rapidly for some years and in particular is growing more slowly than the city's population. Whereas the average density stood at 87 inh/ha in 1950 and 92 in 1975, surveys in 1984 indicated a spectacular increase to 126. Greater distances, increasing environmental problems due to the city's encroaching on intensely erodible sandy hills (with all the consequences of their unstable nature for investment in building and the degradation of infrastructure networks), lack of roads suitable for motor vehicles in outlying areas, and the intractable problems of transport to the centre of such a vast agglomeration may have finally restricted its continuous spread and led instead to increased internal densities, although still not to vertical construction. However, the densities remain low compared with those in some West African cities. The lack of an urban tradition and the related lack of knowledge about how to manage the problems caused by proximity in limited spaces, the general aspiration for an individual plot, and the lack of experience in building upwards all help to explain this. Record densities are seen in the poorest areas adjacent to the city centre (in the "old townships" of Lingwala and Kinshasa): 300 inh/ha (fig. 7.2). On the outer edges of the agglomeration, the peripheral suburbs have much lower population densities because building is still going on. This is because Kinshasa residents like to put up permanent structures that are relatively costly and take a considerable time, usually over 10 years, especially since the crisis and its associated decrease in incomes.

The lack of an urban tradition: A paradox

The most recently urbanized region on the African continent thus became the one with the highest urbanization rates on the continent. The paradox is only superficial. A state supervisory presence was not altogether absent in the subregion prior to colonial times. But the Kongo kingdom had practically disappeared by the time Leopold II's soldiers arrived, and most of the other kingdoms were declining, weakened and disorganized first by the slave trade then by the trade in firearms. In other places, in particular in the Zaire basin, which is now the centre of the country, pre-colonial political entities were unambitious and had had only low population densities. The introduction into these weakened and poorly structured societies of all manner of colonial pressures - from the extortions by concessionary companies, to porterage duty, the harvesting or compulsory cultivation of red rubber, recruitment for roadworks and other building sites, without forgetting the appearance of little-known diseases, which frightened people away from inhabited places - destroyed the social structure of villages. In the end people turned to the cities. The turning point came after World War II when large investments created a modern economy and towns became attractive to the African populations. The country's features were deeply changed, with urban settlements acquiring a key role.

Fig. 7.2 Urban neighbourhoods in Kinshasa (Source: based on BEAU, Projet de développement urbain,Kinshasa, Polycop, 1985)

The very collapse of colonial authority strengthened urban centres through a variety of processes that reinforced each other. During the civil war from 1960 to 1965, the rural population, which was most affected by the conflict, sought refuge in the city. Despite the fact that the growth rate slowed down after this massive migration towards the capital city, the basic trends were maintained. Coming just when world oil prices were increasing, the sudden Zaireanization measures adopted by President Mobutu in 1973 to allow Zaireans to take over formerly foreign-owned enterprises generally disrupted the Zairean economy. However, the upheaval was worst in the countryside, while the beneficiaries were chiefly city residents, who, though mainly attracted by gain, did reinvest some money in the urban areas. Based on these various processes, social networks did the rest: the city became, for modern Zairean society, the place to live, a place where social relations could bloom and where they could become the key to success.

But Kinshasa is also a symbol of how difficult it is to create an urban society. Each social network encompasses only a fraction of society. Outside these networks, a way of life with common rules must be created within a territory where there are many people and where the demands they make on the land are extraordinarily strong compared with those in the Central African rural areas, where the availability of vast open spaces facilitated the resolution of many conflicts. It is clear that Kinshasa never had structures adapted to such major social transformation. But its population growth rates were so high that it is doubtful whether its structures would have had the time to mature properly, even if some authority had been willing to see it through the growth process.

The mega-city, daughter of the state and social patronage

The capital city as centre for a predatory state to accumulate riches

Whereas the great crisis of 1930 led to a decrease in the urban population and post-war economic investments encouraged rapid population growth, in recent times the relation between economic growth and population growth has become blurred. There has actually been a significant de-linking of the two phenomena. Already the 19551959 crisis hardly influenced the population growth rate. Unlike the 1930 crisis, the civil war (1960-1965) provoked a massive influx of people who considered the city a safer place than the rural areas, where bandits were roaming and no law could be enforced. Since that time, however, the number of jobs in the formal/modern sector has steadily decreased in comparison with population figures. Whereas in 1955 the modern sector offered one job for 3.3 inhabitants, the ratio was 6.3 in 1967 and 6.1 in 1975, even though the situation is much better in Kinshasa than in the smaller towns.

However, this statement that investments do not explain the city's population growth should be put in perspective, because it is not only the growth of these investments over time that should be considered, but also the relative importance of investment in the capital city in relation to the rest of the country. In this regard Kinshasa accounted in 1971 for 50 per cent of manufactures and 49 per cent of private sector wage earnings. However, it accounted for only 2() per cent of employment and 17.4 per cent of GDP, with the first rank in this respect occupied by the Shaba province (36.2 per cent) where most of the mining industries are located (copper and cobalt).

These proportions have undergone great changes since 1960. An analysis of projects approved by the Investments Commission showed that, between 1969 and 1976, 36 per cent of national investment was in Kinshasa while Shaba province obtained only 14 per cent (Pain, 1984, p. 57). The pattern has not changed since then and the largest projects have gone to Kinshasa and its region, including major building projects and road developments (the World Trade Centre, Cité de la Voix du Zaïre, the Limete interchange), the hydropower station at Inga on the Zaire river (which is 250 km downstream of Kinshasa), the steel plant at Maluku, the national cement plant, and the creation of an industrial free zone at Inga (Willame, 1986, p. 227; see also fig. 7.3). The imbalance in wealth between the capital city and the other regions is, therefore, bound to have increased, but this process should be studied in depth. Many of these investments are in fact only white elephants generating no profits and doomed to early failure. Above all, they provide opportunities for large commissions for the local decision makers, who reinvest the money in financial markets in the capital city or invest it abroad. These funds are essentially how the city obtains most of its capital. However, they can hardly be called "investments."

The development of Inga is a good example of how the preferential treatment given to Kinshasa in terms of investment derives from a deliberate political strategy. A number of factors, such as the presence of the second-largest river in the world in terms of flow, the regularity of this flow, and the 96 m fall over 15 km of river, contribute to making Inga potentially the largest hydropower site in the world. But the building of the first power station and even more so of the second one (Inga II), which could not be justified by the immediate needs of Kinshasa itself, was politically motivated. The idea was that Shaba province should be supplied from Inga so as to exert Kinshasa's economic hold over this unruly region. It was an enormous project, because it involved putting up an 1,800 km power line, which had to transmit at high voltage (700,000 volts) to minimize energy losses on the way. The Inga-Shaba line was completed (19721983) with enormous financial inputs from the state. Because it does not supply the regions in between, where consumption is not important enough to justify the building of transformers, its benefits have been limited. Electricity consumption in Shaba, declining since the beginning of the copper crisis, is hardly sufficient to justify maintaining the line in operating condition. The power station at Inga has at least enabled a major increase in Kinshasa's public lighting (Willame, 1986) and street lights are now a common feature even in the most outlying districts of the city.

Fig. 7.3 The metropolitan region of Kinshasa

A survey of money circulation and consumption in Zaire's capital city reveals even stronger contrasts. Whereas Kinshasa comprised 9 per cent of the country's total population and 31 per cent of its urban population in 1984, it accounted for 42 per cent of the building sector, nearly 40 per cent of trade, one-third of direct taxes, and one-fifth of public services (in 1970). In 1975 it consumed 72 per cent of low-voltage power and accounted for 47 per cent of water sales (Pain, 1984, p. 57). However, these data pre-date the serious crisis of governance now prevailing in the country. As for what is left at present of Kinshasa's modern sector (mainly administration, trade, port operations, and, in the industrial field, the processing of local agricultural products and of raw materials imported for local consumption), it is impossible to obtain recent data. For reasons that are easy to understand, large foreign companies are little represented in any way in Kinshasa today.

Social networks and social crisis

The relation between the accumulation of wealth and the city's population growth lies in the understanding of redistribution mechanisms. Until the crisis of the 1930s, the city was considered to be the temporary residence of male villagers, who left as soon as they lost their jobs. With the arrival of women and the constitution of urban families, the town (a colonial creation) was taken over by societies that had not known it existed a few decades before. The process worked so well that today the city is seen as the only place for social success, the place where one must live.

However, the city is still an uncertain place to live, so that most city dwellers maintain links with their original villages under the pretext that these will make it easier for them to leave in case of conflict. So far the city has not created many common rules, just as if the coming together of many customs from various ethnic groups has forced each group to retreat into its own identity rather than looking for solutions applicable to all city dwellers. The best example of this can be found in the laws of inheritance. The most significant legacy from a city dweller to his heirs is his house. In the rural areas around Kinshasa succession is predominantly matrilineal, with the child belonging to his mother's family and inheriting from his maternal uncle, whereas modern laws imposed by the colonial power tend to be patrilineal, with the child belonging to his father's family and inheriting from him. This is also the aspiration of the city family head, who desires his children to inherit the house he has built. However, he knows that when he dies it will be difficult to avoid conflicts between his nuclear family and the extended family of his in-laws, who will want to recover what is a very valuable item in the urban context. This explains the complicated strategies thought out by fathers to create in their lifetimes their children's pre-eminent rights over the plot on which the family lives. To achieve this and try to remedy the terrible uncertainty, they use all means at their disposal, from administrative documents to power relations or social relations.

One of the favourite strategies consists of integrating into networks of social relations, mainly ethnic relations, so that old habits are maintained in the city even amongst the most powerful citizens who want to establish for themselves a range of clients, in order to acquire power through the number of their dependents. While associations between people of the same origin maintain solidarity among their members through various family events, the manager of an enterprise, or his chief of personnel if the manager is a foreigner, will prefer to recruit among his "brothers." Therefore ties with the family remain much stronger than those with the enterprise or with the state.

However, life in the city has become harder since the mid-1970s, with a gradual deterioration in the situation up to the present. Spiralling inflation, the collapse of large enterprises (starting with Gecamine, which produced copper in Shaba province), the desperate search for income owing to the unbelievable decline in real wages, capital flight, and the so-called "assainissement" (purifying, meaning rationalizing) measures, i.e. the massive retrenchment of civil servants in the name of structural adjustment - these have all contributed to the declining quality of life in the city.

Some redistributive measures were maintained as long as the state had the necessary resources, but they are now jeopardized owing to the drying up of both internal and external resources. How could such redistribution be beneficial when two-thirds of households do not have high enough incomes to provide a minimum amount of food for their families?³ In this context, a new social group has appeared, referred to as "sparrows" (children abandoned by their families and living on the streets), "fighters" (because they fight for survival), "balados" (petty thieves), "beggars." All these are more or less excluded from the old processes of redistribution and seek solutions in alternative practices, which in the extreme lead to plundering and ransacking (Willame, 1992, p. 226). However, the political basis of these practices and the impetus they derive from better-organized groups should not be ignored. Soldiers in the national defence forces, whether manipulated by the powers that be or of their own accord, have long been plundering civilians (Young, 1965) to make up for salaries that have always been insufficient and that are now much more so, as for all wage-earners.

There is another major factor in today's social crisis: the AIDS pandemic, which may have the highest rate of occurrence in the world in Central African cities. In 1986, it was estimated that between 5 and 8 per cent of the sexually active adult population had been in contact with the virus (Shoepf, 1991). This percentage has increased greatly since then. This high percentage, though not reaching the record level of Kigali, Rwanda, results from urban sexual practices. The city brought together groups from different cultural backgrounds while encouraging a relaxation of old restrictions. The delayed age for marriage, the increase in polygamy, and the multiple sexual partners of many individuals, married and unmarried, have facilitated the spread of the virus, so that sexual freedom has long been seen as a symptom of the crisis. Matonge, Kinshasa's red light district, remained for a long time protected from economic hardship. At first, the residents of Kinshasa refused to acknowledge the reality of the disease. They had named it the "Syndrome Imaginaire pour Décourager les Amoureux" - or Imaginary Syndrome to Discourage Lovers - based on the French abbreviation for AIDS, which is SIDA (19867). Though awareness later increased, little could be done about it, owing to the decay of the state and the health apparatus.

These social changes will no doubt have serious consequences for the city's population growth. There will certainly be an increase in the mortality rate, but to what extent? Will fertility rates decrease or increase to balance this? Unfortunately, we lack data and the 1984 census seems too old to be a useful reference to answer these questions. Urban population growth may stagnate, but the most deprived population groups may still consider the capital city to be a place of opportunity, where it is easier to develop strategies to combat the crisis.

Parallel authorities, on stage and behind the scenes

The powerful informal sector

The informal sector is omnipresent in Kinshasa. However, after an in-depth study in several parts of the city in 1975 and after cross-checking with data from other sources, Marc Pain, like many other researchers, refused to use the term "informal" activities, and counted 37,632 "small-scale activities" (11,782 artisanal and commercial enterprises and 25,850 itinerant businesses), employing 15,000 craftsmen and 80,000 traders, i.e. 37 per cent of city jobs (Pain, 1984, pp. 106-124). A count today would yield even more spectacular results, as state authority has dwindled and the economy collapsed.

However, the two economies should not be seen as merely coexisting, because they actually interpenetrate. Everything in Zaire indicates very strong relationships between the two, with every wage-earner acquiring a parallel income that is not only a wage supplement but often the main source of income. According to a study undertaken in Kinshasa in 1986, the proportion of income derived from wages was only 33.4 per cent for civil servants, 42.2 per cent for wage-earners, 36.8 per cent for skilled workers, 46.3 per cent for semiskilled workers, and 46.7 per cent for unskilled workers (Honyoux et al., 1986). What is unexpected is that wages as a proportion of total income are smaller as salaries increase!

So, in relative terms and particularly in absolute terms, the wealthy are those benefiting from the informal economy. It may well offer some means of survival for the mass of urban dwellers, but mainly it increases the gaps between social groups. Indeed, small businesses need seed capital, however limited, and in particular they need social contacts and business acumen. Access to capital, to supplies whose quotas are fixed by the government, or even to some services (such as private education and health services) is obviously easier for someone in a strategic professional position or at the centre of a vast network of relations. Unofficial economic activities may therefore be perceived as an implicit advantage of wage earning, thus justifying the low levels of these wages. In a way this parallel economy appears like a tax on the whole population, a costly tax owing to the chain of intermediaries that it needs, while it does not ensure the services usually derived from normal taxes (MacGaffey, 1991, p. 175).

Rather than focusing on a census of activities, the result of which will remain uncertain because of the extent of piecework and the many enterprises that operate intermittently,4 it would be better to observe how the informal economy - or rather the real economy, to use a term coined by Janet MacGaffey - fits into the urban system. In view of its many forms, one example will be given particular attention, because it seems to provide a perfect illustration, i.e. access to land.

The legal system of land allocation is totally unable to satisfy demand. The system was radically transformed after independence and in particular in 1973 with the Land Act 021 of 20 July. The principle was to set up a uniform procedure with a "registration certificate," a title deed to fixed property, because it was considered that only investments made in land can be privately owned and not the land itself, despite the fact that previously there were two very different procedures, one for European and the other for African areas. This system had previously existed only in the former European suburbs. However, the system never worked properly and even the conversion of old documents never took place. Thus in 1984 it was estimated that, for every 1,100 plots that were legally established, more than 11,000, i.e. 10 times more, were established outside the legal system.

The conventional mechanism for obtaining access to land since 1959, when the restrictive system set up by the colonial authorities in the African districts collapsed, gives pride of place to the Bahumbu traditional chiefs of the Kinshasa region and to their "royal" entourage. The colonial powers had hoped to exclude people in these societies from the urban areas by compensating them for the absorption of their land. However, they took advantage of the disruption that followed the civil disobedience movement of 1959 and have since retained an important role in the mechanisms by which urban growth occurs. Claiming their ancestral rights, they now mark out rough plots on a grid-iron plan with the help of so-called "surveyors," usually family members so designated for the occasion. These plots are then sold for cash to city dwellers. However, when the two parties to the deal belong to the same clan, they still resort to the traditional offering of palm wine and the sale price is adjusted in proportion to the closeness of the relationship.

This method of land disposal used by the traditional chiefs seems simple, but this is only an illusion, because the chiefs' area of jurisdiction is not easy to define. Even if things had been simple before colonization, areas were not delineated in the accurate manner necessary for a densely populated city - a tree or some other special feature in the countryside was enough. Furthermore the colonial authorities always exercised their power over chiefs by favouring those whom they could trust and dismissing those who kept on demanding their rights. At present, areas claimed by various chiefs overlap and it is impossible to know who is taking advantage of whom, that is, who is attempting to defraud the other. "Proofs" of legitimate ownership produced by various chiefs are both unreliable and varied, because they are based simultaneously on traditionally invested powers and on those conferred by the colonial authorities. In addition, the internal structure of the seller's family is often ill defined, especially when the family head is old and illiterate. Individual vested interests are then stronger and each family member may take contradictory decisions regarding the plots.

In addition, the chiefs' method does not always seem to contradict the state procedures. There are often close links between the traditional chiefs and the administration, with the chiefs' next of kin always eventually obtaining from local civil servants some official papers, which are used as proof of their right of tenure.

Acquiring a plot is a first step for any Kinshasa resident. After arriving in town and being housed for a time by a "brother," he usually becomes a tenant in one of the many peripheral high-density suburbs where overcrowding is the rule. In these areas, plots are used for rental purposes, sometimes with the centre of the plot reserved for the owner's house, which is surrounded by rows of small shacks, each housing one household; sanitary arrangements, which are extremely basic, are communal for all the inhabitants of the plot. Having acquired this urban experience for a few years and set up a network of contacts, the tenant then decides to become an "owner," even if his conception of ownership is incompatible with that of the state. This aspiring plot owner is nearly always a man, because women in Kinshasa have only limited access to urban land. According to surveys carried out in 1985,5 only 5 per cent of plot owners were women, which was the lowest percentage in all the Central African cities surveyed. Though here, as in all of Central Africa, women are the guarantors of stable domestic life and play important roles in the retail trade, they remain "social minors" (Bayart, 1979). Perhaps a link could be made between the small number of women landowners and the weakness of urban agricultural production in Kinshasa. Even though any vacant urban land is planted at the onset of the rainy season, it is occupied only on a temporary basis. Urban agriculture, whether in the built-up or pert-urban area, cannot play more than a marginal role in feeding a city the size of Kinshasa, because of the distance it is necessary to travel to get access to the rural areas and because intensive cultivation techniques are not known.

While trying to break away from unpredictable loan sharks, Kinshasa residents also aim at social acceptance through the purchase of plots (Girard, 1993). Thereafter the building of the house will be a protracted lifetime endeavour demanding many sacrifices and all manner of tricks. Indeed, owing to the lack of clear regulations and authorities to enforce them, the new property owner must beware of all those who might threaten his purchase. These include the chief, who might try to resell the plot to a third party; the civil servant, who will try to settle there by force; the neighbour, who will try to add a few square metres to his own plot; and those who try to steal building materials. In this totally unregulated situation the weakest (or the one who seems to be the weakest) or the poorest are always more vulnerable. In the same way as purchasing a plot is a "must," building a permanent structure is a "must," and doing so without delay or at least at the same pace as the rest of the suburb is another essential.6 However, the procurement of permanent materials such as cement, wood, and corrugated iron, and their conversion into a house by pieceworkers who will make the blocks and by a bricklayer and his team who will build, are a heavy strain on domestic incomes when most households do not earn enough for mere survival. Thus building is usually protracted and most suburbs look more like ruins than future residential areas.

Therefore actors in the urban development process are numerous, and regulatory authorities invisible. To use a Kinshasa formula, it is rule by "Article 15," by which it is meant that the advantage goes to the most resourceful, most daring, and best organized (Piermay, 1993b). Nevertheless, the growth of the city is not merely the sum total of "spontaneous" actions, but is a real social construction, which defies the prevailing confusion in both rules and ruling authorities.

State power: From entropy to apparent collapse

The above analysis places state authorities in the back seat, an impression that is confirmed by looking at the way the administration works: dilapidated offices, massive absenteeism, very poor filing, obvious disorganization, very poor control over urban development, weak control mechanisms, and a poor capacity to adapt. This is how the urban authorities appear. Decentralization, gradually implemented since 1977, has resulted in the establishment of two levels of urban authority: the city and the zones (24 in Kinshasa), both with elected councils. But these entities have inadequate personnel and very limited financial resources, and their role, even with regard to the budget, is not clearly defined (Mbuyi, 1993, p. 185). The city's true boss is therefore the Regional Governor, a powerful political figure always chosen from among the President's favourites. It is necessary, therefore, not to be taken in by appearances. Whereas administrative structures are poorly developed and have a weak role with respect to the process of growth in the city, the members of the state apparatus play a powerful role and are ever present.

This analysis should not deal only with the main authorities of the city and the state. Studies of cadastral services in Kinshasa in 1985 demonstrated the considerable role played by surveyors working in these services. Having appropriated and divided amongst themselves the cadastral maps, which are no longer available in the offices but only in their homes, the surveyors know better than anyone not only the layout of the land but also the official procedures. They use this knowledge to further their own interests by selling their services, serving as intermediaries in land sale deals, and sometimes taking advantage of favourable circumstances. They are now feared both by the people who are threatened with expropriation and by their own superiors, against whom they can plot coups if the latter are not sufficiently docile (Piermay, 1993a). It is a truly parallel system, which operates from Kinshasa cadastral offices, and is demonstrated by the relatively constant prices for basic transactions in land and the failure of all attempts to reform the service. Thus the state's weakness does not signify that its agents are not powerful.

It is, however, obvious that, generally speaking, those who are higher in the official hierarchy have better access to opportunities for accumulation and more influence on urban growth mechanisms. Outside the political sphere there seem to be only scanty and disparate means of accumulation, as demonstrated by those many city dwellers who start building and have to save on a daily basis in order to proceed with construction. Among politicians, the main role goes to the President. Not only does his post give him privileged means of accumulation, but above all he has the power to integrate these means of accumulation into a strategy. It seems, in practice, that this strategy is of a political nature and is aimed not at increasing wealth but rather at combating the dangerous countervailing power of money by redistributing state resources in proportion to people's position in the official hierarchy. In the same way, this strategy has consisted of harnessing all alternative sources of power, whether traditional (by integrating chiefs within official honorary bodies), political (by promoting or dismissing politicians at will), scholarly, or community based (by subjugating and discouraging local initiatives). Champion of the law as well as champion in techniques of misappropriation, the President wants to present himself as the only possible recourse, the only countervailing power, in order to harness new social relations.

He has succeeded remarkably well and only the Catholic Church has maintained its resistance and counter-power, mainly because it has its own hierarchy and a head who is outside the country. Apart from the Church, the head of state's collaborators remain faithful to him in relation to their position in the official hierarchy, not excluding the possibilities of dismissal or promotion. The regime has in this way achieved remarkable staying power, as evidenced by the present impossibility of replacing it politically, even though the resource redistribution engines have all but ceased to function. Income from raw material exports and international aid has declined and the country is no longer in the strategic position it occupied during the Cold War owing to the proximity of Angola and southern Africa. But this staying power has been obtained at the expense of state entropy and has been accompanied by the decay of all the institutions and regulations necessary for governance. In general, people think that they can put their own wits to good use as well as the many possibilities for fraud offered by urban life, without being aware that the system actually deepens inequalities and splits society into innumerable contradictory micro-interests. In the final analysis, there is indeed an "individual acceptance of the crisis situation" (Willame, 1992, p. 118). As for those who cannot "cope," they are not very dangerous to the regime.

It is through these "parallel authorities" that the governance of urban areas should be viewed. In this field, as in others, the official system has failed. Any idea of overall urban planning has been abandoned, as have all projects for the improvement of infrastructure networks, because these operations would necessitate coordinated action within a coherent urban set-up. However, Kinshasa cannot be said to be without governance. It is managed by extra-ordinary stakeholders, and only by them, each one exercising some kind of control over part of the urban territory. Traditional chiefs have not relinquished all their powers - they are still in the picture when plots are subdivided and sometimes later when some members of their families are among the locally elected authorities. Some institutions and services, in particular the defence forces, have managed to maintain control over land, which was often obtained during colonial times. The same can be said of individual owners of peripheral plots, acquired more recently and vital for the city's future growth. Religious missions and various Christian churches often constitute the core around which localized development occurs.

However, the most efficient "extra-ordinary managers" are probably the intermediaries, who are numerous in Kinshasa. I have already mentioned surveyors and politicians who, thanks to their knowledge in a crucial area and their presence in social networks, are able to solve problems for their clients arising from the complexity of the urban structure. A good example is the agencies who deal in real estate and other transactions, which are often managed by civil servants taking advantage of the information that they obtain through their jobs. These specialists, who often live by solving the inevitable problems to which this unregulated urban society gives rise, are not in the least interested in attempting to minimize these problems. On the contrary, and in particular with respect to their professional activities, they may well be tempted to reinforce the problems in order to limit the number and influence of their competitors. The way in which these parallel officials manage the city is, therefore, logical from their own point of view.

This parallel system is thus based on a real functional logic that clearly favours some of the stakeholders - those who take advantage of the crisis and the deterioration of all structures to advance their own interests and guarantee themselves some kind of permanence. "Good governance" of the city, on the other hand, would demand skills that they do not possess and means that they do not control. This conclusion should be pondered over, both by those who might try to offer simplistic solutions to the crisis in Kinshasa and by observers and authorities planning the future of other mega-cities. Paradoxically, Kinshasa may demonstrate a real state of equilibrium for a weak society within the context of laissez-faire economics at the world level.

The structuring of urban space

Towards a reconsideration of inherited plans

The colonial authorities had devised careful zoning based on racial segregation. European-reserved areas enjoyed proximity to the river and the city centre (at a time when there were no motor vehicles), whereas Africans were confined behind these residential areas beyond a so-called sanitary buffer zone, which was a manifestation of the separation between the two communities and whose permanence was ensured by the presence of large facilities, such as a golf course, zoo, and botanical gardens. Owing to the growth of the city's area, the town centre and the European suburbs have become less and less central. In addition to the "old townships," "new townships" and self-built areas (so-called "planned townships") had already been developed during colonial times and were separated from the old townships by a second sanitary buffer zone (today occupied partly by factories, but mainly by an army camp and army airport, both installations creating quite effective ruptures in the urban fabric). During the 1950s, when segregation was still strictly enforced, the first infringements of the master plan appeared, with residential suburbs built in some areas (Binza, Djelo-Binza; see fig. 7.2), as well as large developments, such as the university, on the surrounding hills far from the built-up areas, and the development of a planned estate for African wage-earners in the far eastern part of the city (Ndjili, beyond the Ndjili River).

This strict allocation of space was abandoned at independence. The civil disobedience movement initiated by the Kongo leaders against the colonial authorities was the breaking point. Land tenure and other legal shackles were jettisoned, never to be reinstated or replaced. Self-built areas submerged European farmland around the city as well as traditionally owned areas, and filled in the spaces left between the town and hills, which had been partly occupied by the large developments implemented during the previous few years. The city thus spread more or less equally in all directions, despite a proposal by the urban planning office (Bureau d'Etudes et d'Aménagement Urbain, BEAU) for a master plan to direct its growth to the east. The implementation of the master plan never even started owing to lack of state resources and possibly lack of will. The powerful factors driving the city's growth, which involved so many actors, gave rise to its growth in all directions despite the considerable dangers of erosion of the sandy hills, a lack of roads accessible to motor vehicles, and questionable land tenure. It is hardly noticeable that the two surfaced roads into the city (the road to the airport and to the Bandundu region and to a lesser degree the road towards gas-Zaire; see fig. 7.3) do contribute somewhat to the extension of the built-up area. Although the general plan is no longer respected, subdivision plans are still strictly followed. In this regard old habits have prevailed. Streets through the old neighbourhoods have been extended, sometimes in a somewhat haphazard manner up onto the hillsides, while traditional chiefs keep delineating 300-400 m² plots, as was always the case in the city's poor suburbs.

The pert-urban challenge

Popular thinking tends to favour urban growth. Not wishing to remain tenants forever and looking for social status through the ownership of land, citizens go searching for plots in the peripheral areas. It is a very individualistic search but not an isolated one, because solitude is not valued and is even regarded with suspicion as being linked to witchcraft. Once having found a plot and immediately made it his own, the citizen therefore wishes to be surrounded by neighbours, and the same goes for the settlement of the area some months or years later. After a protracted development period, with bouts of construction interspersed with long waiting periods, the difficult threshold to cross is when the first occupant settles in. After that the whole area is rapidly occupied.

It is interesting to analyse land tenure in the rural periphery of the city. Without necessarily being a reflection of the present state of social forces in the city, the differences between the present and what was observed in previous years indicate the way Kinshasa society has changed. The city is now mainly bordered by market gardens in the valleys or by property belonging to prominent people. Market gardeners control only small areas, which are of marginal interest for urbanization because of the level of groundwater. Cultivators are usually attached to their gardens, but are threatened by the encroachment of built-up plots and the consequent erosion, and are finally tempted to sell their land. Those who have procured property have bought it from the former European owners or from local traditional chiefs or acquired it free of charge through the Zaireanization procedures imposed in 1973. It would appear that traditional chiefs have already been evicted from land subject to speculation. It is true to say that in the past they defended themselves when buyers, whether Europeans or private companies, tried to divide up plots and sell them to city people, by claiming traditional rights that the sale could not abolish. Though this strategy should still be viable, it is unlikely to succeed if the people concerned are in high office.

The metropolitan area and its sphere of influence

Kinshasa is close to the relatively densely populated areas of the Bas-Zaire region (40 inh/km²) west of the city. To the east, however, densities are low or very low, even at times in the Kinshasa urban area (7 inh/km² in the Maluku area, which covers 70 per cent of the Kinshasa region) and also in part of the neighbouring region of Bandundu (fig. 7.3).

Though Kinshasa is one of the very rare coastal African capital cities that was not built on the littoral, it is not anywhere near the centre of the national territory. The country's borders are very near the city and cut across the old Kongo kingdom: there is a border with the Congo, whose capital city can be seen on the other bank of the river, and there is a border with Angola, refugees from which were and still are in Kinshasa.7 Owing to the proximity of these borders, and even though there is an important trade in food products to Brazzaville (which is enhanced by the difference in value between a strong CFA franc and the Zaire, which has hardly any value), Kinshasa mainly exerts its influence on a limited part of the surrounding area. The sides of the road to the gas-Zaire region have far more settlements than those of the Bandundu road, which traverses areas that are mainly desert and ecologically poor. When the powerful citizens of Kinshasa wish to acquire agricultural land, they would rather purchase large tracts towards gas-Zaire and around the city. The land tenure legislation, which grants priority to a buyer who is able to develop the land, as well as the traditional chiefs' greed and the indifference or complicity of local authorities, enable buyers to displace many peasants, who after selling are often driven to rent the plot they used to cultivate freely before (Bulu Bobina, 1984).

Although a capital city, Kinshasa does not attract people equally from all parts of the Zairean territory. The birthplace of inhabitants enumerated in the 1984 census indicates their origins. Whereas 60.7 per cent were born in the town, 12.7 per cent and 12.8 per cent came from the gas-Zaire and the Bandundu regions, respectively, placing these on an equal footing even though gas-Zaire's population is probably only 54 per cent of Bandundu's. The number of inhabitants coming from outside these two regions, which constitute only 15 per cent of the country's total area, is much smaller, with more from the Equateur region (4.1 per cent), which is linked to the capital city by the river and is favoured by the powers that be, and from the Kasai Occidental region (3.2 per cent), thanks to the dynamism of its Luba population (INS/UNDP, 1991). Therefore there is still a vast population pool from which the city can draw future migrants if the country maintains its present configuration.

The regions from which Kinshasa obtains its material supplies are more or less the same, including Bandundu, gas-Zaire, and Equateur during the dry season. Freight is carried by dilapidated trucks, ancient whaling boats, small boats, and even bicycles for shorter distances. These are now complemented by small traders travelling on foot, called "par colis" ("by small parcel"), who use any means of transport available. They leave the city with manufactured items for sale or barter and come back laden with food products (Tillers, 1991). Kinshasa's supplies depend on the informal sector and on many small enterprises that have limited funds for investment. The same goes for Zairean food products, which are sold to the neighbouring city of Brazzaville by Zairean traders wishing to obtain CFA francs. Despite this lively trade, the food produced by peasants is not distributed properly. It is estimated that only half of the commercial food production from the Luozi area, though only 250 km away from Kinshasa and ideally situated near the Congo border (fig. 7.3), is actually sold (Mkwala-ma, 1991). The formal sector, though it may not actually deserve this name, more easily controls trade through the port of Matadi and Ndjili international airport.

The regions from which potential migrants look to Kinshasa are those where people speak Lingala (the language spoken along the river upstream of the city) and Kikongo (spoken in gas-Zaire and Bandundu), the two "national" languages used in Kinshasa. On the other hand, regions using Tshiluba (Kasai) and Swahili (the east and south of the country), the other two national languages, do not send many migrants to the capital city. But Kinshasa's influence goes beyond this. Its role as a capital city is essential for President Mobutu, who has never forgotten the first secession of the rich Shaba province and has deliberately favoured the convergence on Kinshasa of all trade to the detriment of the economic development of the outlying areas. In this regard the most spectacular and absurd development was to make Shaba depend on power from the Kinshasa area. But Kinshasa is also a major cultural centre thanks to the attraction of bands from Matonge and the other neighbourhoods, who popularized rumba in the whole of Central Africa and thereby gave some measure of prestige to the Lingala language in neighbouring countries.

Conclusion: Whither Kinshasa?

Despite its number of inhabitants and recent growth rate, the question of the continuation of Kinshasa in the future arises. The crisis of the Zairean state is such that its very survival is in doubt, thus posing a crucial dilemma for a city whose expansion was based on that of the state.

The erosion of state power has made other collective bodies that have emerged through various initiatives more visible. Despite the total failure of periodic official attempts to mobilize labour for collective projects (called salongo), the state did not take kindly to any initiatives taken outside its authority. These were for a long time in practice the monopoly of the Catholic and Protestant churches, which set up structures often complementary to those of the state, whether colonial or post-colonial, and benefited from direct contacts with powerful Western charitable organizations. In the suburbs, parish authorities are still vital on all social fronts, including the health field. In the crisis situation, religious people have maintained a moral stature that has enabled some of them to play a major role even in the 1992 National Conference. But for some time now, other types of initiative have bloomed, of which the intervention of businessmen in local projects and the many private and local church-run universities are the most striking examples. Today in Zaire, the sum total of these isolated initiatives adds up to a dynamic city.

In this way competition is generated between "neglected" and "supported" towns. A few years ago only Mbuji-Mayi, the administrative capital of the Kasai Occidental region, was really "supported" by businessmen enriched by illegal trade in diamonds and united in their feeling of belonging to the Luba "nation." Since then this example has been taken up in various provincial towns by other regional or ethnic groups, including some of those residing in Kinshasa. What will then be the lot of Kinshasa now that the state, which was its mainstay, is bankrupt and external funds have all but dried up? Will the city of Kinshasa also be "supported" by its citizens? But how many Zaireans actually consider themselves to be "from Kinshasa"? It is true that habits and permanent features should be taken into account: new citizens establish themselves in the city by buying a plot. But the example of Brazzaville, with an agglomeration of peoples similar to that in Kinshasa and similar land practices, should be food for thought. During the urban conflicts of 1992/93 in the Congolese capital city, did we not see many evictions of plot owners whose identity was not to the taste of the local mafias? Thus, the Zairean urban network may still be subject to change. New cities could still be created and the relative size of the present urban centres could change.8 In a country where vast tracts of land are unoccupied and where people mainly live in outlying areas far from the capital city, other big towns may develop and - why not? - turn into mega-cities. Will Kinshasa, when the crisis is over, resume a role commensurate with its size? In a country that has to be reconstructed (Piermay et al., 1991), is not a new pattern of urbanization in the making?


1. Still referred to as "Congo" on the northern bank, the river was renamed "Zaire" on the southern bank at the same time as the country itself, because of the ethnic connotation of the old name, derived from the "Kongo," a large group of people living on the Atlantic Coast.

2. Any town of more than 15,000 inhabitants is considered to be an urban area.

3. In 1986, 57 per cent of the total household budget was devoted to food (Honyoux et al., 1986).

4. These intermittent businesses (entreprises conjoncturelles) are linked to others. The networks of contacts lie dormant most of the time, but are activated when an order is placed (Delis et al., 1986).

5 Surveys carried out by the author in Kinshasa, Mbuji-Mayi, and Kisangani, Zaire; Bangui, Central African Republic; Brazzaville, Congo; and Libreville, Gabon.

6. The same goes for Brazzaville, on the other bank of the Congo/Zaire river, but not for other Central African cities.

7. Because of the civil war, which has divided the country, 15 per cent of Kinshasa's population in 1975 were Angolans. However, they appeared to comprise scarcely more than 2 per cent of foreigners in 1984; these data are very questionable.

8. Mbuji-Mayi, which was the third Zairean city in terms of population, is certainly the successor to the small mining centre of Bakwanga. But it acquired its present role when the Luba people returned to their land of origin between 1959 and 1962, increasing its population sevenfold in the course of this brief period. It has today become the second-largest city in the country in population teens.


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