The politics of elegance

Daniel Tödt

German historian Daniel Tödt wrote a history of the Congolese évolués. In this interview, he talks about the historiographical interventions of his book and the role of Patrice Lumumba in the history of évolués.

Students in the teaching laboratory, medical school, Yakusu Hospital, Yakusu, Belgian Congo. Credit Wellcome Trust via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0.

Interview by
Pedro Monaville

In November 2021,  the New York Times (NYT) reported on allegations of colossal corruption regarding the management of the Congolese state-owned mining company Gécamines by Albert Yuma, its former chairman and one of Congo’s most well-known businessmen. The newspaper cited overwhelming evidence against Yuma, including mentions of secret documents and multiple interviews with insiders to the world of Congolese capitalism and politics.

Something else, the NYT suggested, seemed to indict Yuma: his character and lifestyle. The article described him as “a perpetual flashy presence,” known for his taste of Crystal Champagne, contemporary art, and luxury cars (and the article included a link to a video of a “Las Vegas-like” wedding ceremony thrown by Yuma for his daughter). The cult of elegance and the celebration of bourgeois extravagance are, of course, not foreign to Congolese society and popular culture. But the NYT’s description also carried echoes of a central colonial trope: the suspicion about improper appropriation of bourgeois culture by overdressed “Europeanized” Congolese.

In The Lumumba Generation: African Bourgeoisie and Colonial Distinction in the Belgian Congo, Berlin-based historian Daniel Tödt revisits the history of this colonial discourse, showing how the Belgian colonizers used claims about the Congolese’s supposed deficient civilized lifestyle to deny them rights to emancipation. Tödt’s book centers around the figure of the “évolué,” the evolved colonized, which became central in the Belgian colonial discourses of the 1940s and 1950s. The colonizers demanded that Congolese master the proper tenets of European bourgeois culture before they could be considered mature interlocutors worthy of rights. At the same time, they constantly questioned the performances of civilized behavior staged by the Congolese to meet their demands. Tödt’s work explains how this vicious cycle and the constantly receding horizon of reform and equality generated frustration and resentment that ultimately led many members of the colonial elite-in-the-making to turn radically against the colonial system by the end of the 1950s. In this interview, I ask Tödt questions about the historiographical interventions of his book and the role of Patrice Lumumba in the history of the Congolese évolués.


Your careful analysis of the tensions of postwar elite-making in The Lumumba Generation offers a very useful reappraisal of late colonialism in the Belgian Congo. But what I also find particularly interesting are the many connections you make through the book to various historiographical debates beyond Congolese history, in particular to the scholarship on the global bourgeoisie and to global history more generally. I wanted to start by asking you how you see your work in relation to this field, which has been so lively in Berlin in recent years.


When I started the research in 2009, my initial approach was comparative. I wanted to look at elite culture in two different colonies: the Belgian Congo and the Gold Coast. Yet, I quickly realized how unbalanced such a comparison would be. By the 1880s, cities like Cape Coast had already a vibrant elite culture, with associations and journals dedicated to projects of “self-perfection.” These types of associations and journals did not develop in the Congo before the Interwar years; and the Belgian focus on colonial elite-making only hit its climax after the Second World War, at a time when the Gold Coast was already quickly moving towards decolonization. So, I made the choice to only focus on the Congo. But I studied elite culture in Leopoldville not as local history, but as a project located within a wider context.

What I find particularly inspiring in the development of global history in Germany is that this field of research was mostly championed by historians who came from area studies and who used their expertise about specific places to reframe our understanding of the “global stage.” My book builds on previous attempts to challenge the Eurocentric bias in the history of bourgeois culture. For me, it was important to bring the Congo into this history, also because the whole “civilizing mission” so centrally featured in the making of global bourgeois culture, even if it has not been seen enough as that.


The book uncovers the contradictions of the colonial project of “bourgeoisification” through the figure of the évolué, which is at the center of your analysis. While this figure was not unique to the Belgian Congo, it seems it was much more prominent there than it was in other colonies. How do you explain this specificity?


The term évolué comes from the French colonial sphere. It was used in Senegal quite early on and throughout French territories in West and Equatorial Africa. But it is true that in no other colonies was it so obsessively discussed as it was in the Belgian Congo. If the Belgians so strongly invested in the project of elite-making centered on the ideal of the “evolved” African, it was partly because it helped them to project the image of a “model colony.” Belgian officials had not forgotten the international campaign against the Congo Free State’s regime of atrocities. They continued to fear external interference and a possible take-over of their colony by another imperial power, which is also why their propaganda was so attached to the narrative of the model colony, with its model subjects-in-the-making, the évolués.

At the same time, the Belgian colonizers refused to open any discussion about the type of imperial citizenship that emerged in French colonies in the aftermath of the second world war. Instead of the question of rights, they remained fixated on the problem of status. The discussion in Brussels and Leopoldville continued to evolve around questions of manners, habits, and accurate levels of cultural development, whereas the French agreed to a form of imperial citizenship detached from cultural considerations. By contrast, the Belgians, like the Portuguese, continued to envision perfect adherence to European bourgeois cultural values as a precondition for any form of legal equality. There was something anachronistic in this position, but it was in line with a racist discourse that posited the Congo as the least civilized place on the continent. The Belgians constantly referred to this idea of specific backwardness to deny demands for more rapid change in their colony. They viewed the évolués as inherently incomplete. But the colonized, on the other hand, had little other choices than embracing the discourse and performances of self-perfection to contest the denial of their status as civilized subjects. So, this évolué trope was so central in the Congo because until nearly the very end it served as the only battleground for discussing status, rights, and entitlements.


One of the most iconic figures on this battleground was, of course, Patrice Lumumba. As you write in the conclusion of your book, your goal was not to write another biography of a great man, but instead to embrace a broader Congolese generation. What would you see as the main insights of this generational approach in our knowledge of Lumumba?


There are already several great biographies of Lumumba [see here, here, or here]. My goal was to understand a generation. Viewed through this lens, the trajectory of Lumumba is maybe easier to grasp. He was sometimes described as a chameleon or turncoat because he went from praising Belgian colonialism and the memory of Stanley in 1954 to championing Congolese nationalism in 1960. But this evolution was not his only. Instead, it was emblematic of how educated Congolese related to a rapidly changing field of political pathways. It is why it is important to focus on other figures beyond Lumumba that struggled through the same changing landscape— figures like Antoine-Marie Mobé for instance. Mobé is particularly interesting because he was a real role model for Lumumba in Stanleyville, where they both worked at the post office and in numerous associations. In the book, I notably talk about the strong resistance that Mobé faced when he first arrived in Stanleyville in the early 1950s, with the ambition to breathe life into the local évolué scene. He took the rhetoric of colonial reformism seriously, and he was therefore particularly frustrated when local colonial officials frontally opposed his efforts at organizing the évolués because they worried about possible subversions of the colonial status quo. This is the same kind of disillusionment and frustration that Lumumba, and countless others, experienced through the rest of the decade and that animated the anti-colonial struggle once political parties began to emerge in 1958. The Congolese who embraced the subjectivity of the évolué were not unconditionally committed to Belgian colonialism. What they responded to was a promise of reform and more equality.


As you show in the book, the discourse of self-perfection was not only embraced by people like Lumumba who, through their education and positions as white-collar employees in the colonial economy, could pretend to be recognized as évolués by the colonizers.  Other groups—women and uneducated migrants to cities—also sought to participate in the forms of sociability that developed around colonial elite-making. Can you talk a little bit about these forms of appropriation?


An early choice in my research was to resist the temptation to reconstruct an ideal-type. I don’t relate to the term évolué as designing a neatly defined social group, but as a term that entered the world of Belgian colonialism—a world of racism and systemic injustices—and that was embraced by a variety of social actors. Belgian colonizers, but also members of the Congolese elite offered very strong normative views on what true évolués should look like, but it was always possible to challenge their categories. Évolution was first a question of situational performances. When uneducated workers created organizations that resembled the type of évolué associations to which people like Lumumba belonged, it was not simple mimicry or mockery. Because the colonial state denied rights to the Congolese on the pretense of their supposed civilizational lag, there was always an impetus to demonstrate that you were actually more civilized than you were seen as. This may have been a losing battle in the face of colonial racism, but it was taken seriously by many—men and women alike.


Thinking about Lumumba through a generational lens also brings to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous preface to Lumumba Speaks. One of the arguments of Sartre in this text—and it is an argument that upset many Congolese nationalists despite the fact that they otherwise strongly connected to Sartre’s preface—was that the failure of Lumumba, his inability to resist his enemies’ efforts to suppress him in the last months of 1960, came from the fact that he remained too much of an évolué, a “Black Robespierre” who had not sufficiently broken away from colonial elitism and failed to activate the power of the popular masses that were ready to support his revolution. What is your view on this? Do you see Lumumba as breaking away from the évolué mold or still captive of it in 1960?


As a French évolué intellectual, Sartre perhaps expected others to be more radical than he was, and he may have wished that Lumumba was more like the Algerian liberation front (FLN) leaders. But in his preface, he also defends the idea that évolués were able to subvert Belgian colonialism by embracing its civilization discourse. At the end of the day, Lumumba was not limited to one role. Like others in his generation, he had engaged in the battle opened up by the évolué question in the mid-1950s, but his trip to Accra at the end of 1958, the violent riots that erupted in Leopoldville in January 1959, and the political struggle for dominance fundamentally transformed the script that Lumumba and others had to compose with. If you look at Lumumba’s independence speech in June 1960, it is difficult to see what is left of the évolué imprint by that time.

Translated from German by Alex Skinner, The Lumumba Generation is published by De Gruyter as part of its series “Africa in Global History.” The book is available in open access on the publisher’s website.

About the Interviewee

Daniel Tödt is assistant professor of African History at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

About the Interviewer

 Pedro Monaville is an assistant professor of history at New York University Abu Dhabi.

Further Reading

Bring Patrice Lumumba home

The return of Patrice Lumumba’s remains must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and coverup.