Plagued by a horrifying and tragic history, people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are still slaving for a living. Unfortunately, the term slaving is not being used as a metaphor but as a reality for a lot of Congolese citizens.
The mining industry in the DRC is one of the biggest suppliers of cobalt, diamond, copper, tantalum, gold, and tin. However, the extraction of these minerals is far from legal. Allegations of child labour and sexual abuse have become a common phenomenon for people living in these regions. Children under the age of ten are said to have been working under inhuman conditions in these mines and there have been cases of sexual abuse on women who choose to work in the primarily male-oriented mining jobs. Stories of people dying because of disease that developed due to working in these mines without proper equipment, people having breathing problems, children and adults being whipped on the job, etc. seems like a huge part of Congo is still dealing with the same issues they were dealing with in the 1800s.
The Bloody History of Congo
We go back as early as the 15th Century when the Kingdom of Kongo was a prosperous and well-populated kingdom. It was well developed and had extensive amounts of land to call its own. Minerals were important at that time as well. The item that was always in demand at the time was ivory along with iron and copper. The Kongo Kingdom was the capital, and all other regions were said to have either clan leaders or chiefs who were in charge. Slave trade was a major reason for strife between the different leaders before the Europeans arrived.
The 15th Century also saw the arrival of the Portuguese that resulted in a massive reduction of the population for the Kongo kingdom. Millions of slaves were shipped off to Brazil from Kongo, and after many years Kongo’s king realized that the population of his kingdom had reduced drastically.
The 1800s saw the arrival of the Europeans. Africa was unchartered territory for the Europeans and the moment it was found, it was ready to be plundered. In 1874, a British explorer by the name of Henry Morton Stanley discovered the Congo River. His explorations were brought to King Leopold II’s attention and from there on a committee to study the Congo was formed in order to begin trade between the two regions. By 1884, King Leopold II, not the Belgians just the king, was ruling over almost half of the continent. He took control of these African states by convincing everyone at the Berlin Conference that his intentions towards this newly found land were humanitarian. He promised to abolish the practice of slavery and bringing religion to the masses, but such was obviously not the case.
Congo Free State
Today the “Congo Free State” is something that we associate with violent atrocities and suffering. It was the beginning of the most horrifying practices that took place under the reign of King Leopold II. Soon, Leopold’s plan of “civilizing” the natives turned into a scheme to get the maximum amount of minerals extracted from the region by using local labour. The king’s men forced natives to work in horrible conditions, in fact, their families would be harmed to get more work out of the men. The worldwide demand for rubber led to the king’s greedy intentions of making as much money as he could using any means possible. All villages under his control were required to meet a set quota of ivory and rubber. If the quota were not met, the villages would be plundered by the white soldiers resulting in rape, torture, and killing of several natives.
The routine punishment for not bringing in enough rubber was cutting off hands. This almost became a trend at the time. It was almost like a no wastage policy was being enforced and even the tiniest amount of rubber was valuable. Hence, the hands of the people that worked the rubber fields became an item of value. Furthermore, if severing of hands was not enough, the white soldiers would cut off the heads of men, women, and children and hang them by the entrances of the villages for sport. This callous insanity went on for years before these practices were revealed to the world by the one and only Joseph Conrad.
Conrad in the Heart Of Darkness
There is no better way to let the world know of the atrocities and vicious practices that were taking place in Congo than a novella written by a white European. The Heart Of Darkness brought to light several things that were happening in the villages under the rule of Leopold II. The novella was initially published in serial form and brought to light “the horror!” Conrad had experienced in Congo. He wrote of the vile behaviour of the white soldiers and their ill-treatment of the natives; he talked of the severed heads at the entrances of the villages and cannibalism.
However, Conrad’s description of Congo and the people of Congo almost seems humiliating. While the protagonist of the novella, Marlow feels a sense of “kinship” with the tribal folk of Congo, Conrad’s writing implies that he was witnessing something from prehistoric times. The story revolves around Marlow and his search for a man named Kurtz who is an ivory trader a local legend. The journey to finding this character unfolds a series of horrific events and discoveries for Marlow. However, this series was the evidence that was required to put an end to the inhuman practices of King Leopold II. Reports of atrocities and violence were afoot and soon there was photographic evidence.
The control over Congo was soon transferred to the Belgian government and the Belgian Congo was born. A new age had dawned upon the Congolese people where colonization was carried out through missionaries. The lifestyle improved drastically with churches, hospitals, schools, and jobs within the mining industry. However, the Congolese had no rights. It was their land but it was under the ownership of an outsider.
The Mining Industry in DRC
The Democratic Republic of Congo is still known as the richest country in terms of untapped resources in the world. However, these riches have cost Congolese their lives and their livelihoods. The country is one of the largest producers of a mineral known as Coltan and Cobalt.
Exploitation through Coltan mining
Columbites-tantalites is a mineral commonly found in the Congo region that is used in mobile phones. The mineral itself has to go through an elaborate extraction process which results in the formation of niobium and tantalum. Tantalum is what is in huge demand in the market. Tantalum capacitors make up the main parts of smartphones, computers, and a few other electronics.
However, mining for Coltan is not an easy task and the Congolese who mine these ores do not get their dues. They are paid a pittance for the work they put in. An article by ABC Australia in March 2020, presented the story of Solange who began working in the mines at the age of 11. The hardships Solange had to face as a mere adolescent are ridiculous. She was promised better pay and working conditions in exchange for providing sexual favours at the age of 15 and while she stopped giving in to her boss’s advances, she has to go back to a job that only pays her US$21 per week. There are many people who get paid US$1.90 a day.
The Smartphone Industry
Out of the four most mined conflict minerals in the world is- Tantalum. In fact, mining practices for Coltan have been compared many times with the callous treatment of mine workers for “blood diamonds” found in other regions of Africa.
This raises the question of whether people are truly aware of the outright human rights abuse of the people working in these mines. Some of the biggest names in the smartphone industry can be indirectly linked to the illegal smuggling of Coltan. Furthermore, Coltan is necessary to produce smartphones, hence it can be said that some of the biggest players in the smartphone industry condone this modern-day slavery in Congo. However, we do not know whether they are aware of how they obtain the product.
Cobalt and Child Labour
The extraction of Cobalt comes with a very similar story to that of Coltan. One of the main ingredients to create lithium-ion batteries, Cobalt, is found in abundance in Congo. The extremely high demand for the mineral makes it all the more valuable. Lithium-ion batteries can be found in just about any electronic product nowadays, especially your smartphones and laptops. So, a high demand requires more labour whether it is forced labour or not.
The worst case of child labour can be seen in the Cobalt mines of DRC. A news report by The Guardian said children as young as 7 years old can be seen lugging heavy loads of minerals. Along with that, crushing and transporting of the minerals is also carried out by the children. There is no limit to the hours of work they put in and their pay is next to nothing. Working conditions in the mines are highly dangerous and it almost feels like the lives of the Congolese who work in these mines every day are expendable.
The history of slavery in Congo has paved the way for modern-day thugs to continue the tradition. Most of the mines in the eastern region of Congo are run by armed groups. These particular groups act as local chiefs and use the cheapest possible labour to smuggle out conflict minerals to gain profits. Attacking villages, violence, and sexual assault is how they have managed to gain control of the region.
Child slavery, sex slaves, debt bondage, child soldiers, and many other forms of slavery are being practiced in these regions and nobody seems to have the power to stop it. If you are wondering why people succumb to such circumstances, the simple answer is poverty and limited resources. For a country that is rich in resources, a huge chunk of the population lives with limited resources because they do not possess the finances to afford such luxuries.
Furthermore, the modern-day slaves are forced into these jobs with a simple promise of a meal offered to them at the end of the day. Child slavery is most popular in the region and children as old as 7 years old are seen carrying heavy loads of cobalt or digging near the mines. They are paid next to nothing or they are simply offered some food as payment for working sometimes more than 12 hours straight.
Organisations such as “Free The Slaves” are taking steps towards “alerting the world about slavery’s global comeback” and are trying to abolish this practice once and for all. They aim to remove slavery of all kinds whether it is sex slaves, child slaves, human trafficking, forced marriages, or labour slavery. Unfortunately, they have a long way to go.
Long Journey Ahead for Congo
The concerns about human rights abuse, armed groups and illegal smuggling of conflict minerals, are some of the few problems on a long list of problems in Congo. For the past few years, the country has been struggling with access to water. Ironically, DRC supposedly has the potential produce a substantial amount of hydroelectricity because of the Congo river. Yet some of the rural areas still struggle to get a sustainable access to water.
While gender inequality is not something new to us, the gap between the rights of men and women in the DRC is huge. A massive percentage of Congolese women are said to be living under the line of poverty. Gender-based violence, sexual and domestic violence is very common. There are several organisations that stand in support of women who are victims of these violent crimes but at the end of the day, women and young girls in Congo are still highly vulnerable to violent crimes.
In addition, health concerns have been a longstanding problem in the DRC. It almost seems like the problems are endless and there is almost no hope. However, there are always going to be certain people, groups, national and international organisations that are ready to change the norm. Things may take time, but they will change for the better.