“Mobutu’s Ghost”: Mobilising against foreign retailers in Kinshasa (DRC). Indigenization, autochthony and emerging urban subjectivities

Monday, 26 May, 2014 - 15:00

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Since 2009, several unions of Congolese retailers have demanded the implementation of a 1973 law forbidding foreigners from operating small businesses and limiting their access to retail. Seemingly similar mobilizations have been observed elsewhere in Africa (Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa), but the Congolese situation remains undocumented to date. The current discursive patterns and social practices that have emerged from this mobilization call for a socio-political enquiry, interrogating their xenophobic undertones but also envisaging them in relation with the distribution of power and emerging political subjectivities of post-Mobutist urban contexts. Based on extensive fieldwork combining ethnographic research with interviews with key informants, conducted in Kinshasa between 2010 and 2012, this study focuses on mobilization techniques, the web of representations they give rise to, and political actors involved in or resisting the movement. It reveals a complex type of nationalistic discourse that draws on historical and contemporary global sources, while also being influenced by Congo’s ambivalent relationship to national identity in the post-Mobutist period. The non-distinct xenophobic undertones of the discourse, while mostly intended for Asians and Lebanese, also result in the systematic targeting of West African business operators. Yet, despite often xenophobic and virulent rhetoric, interactions between Congolese and foreign traders have mostly remained characterized by ‘peaceful coexistence’ (Grafmeyer 1999). Those Congolese and foreigners who have chosen to resist injunctions to exclude the latter from economic spaces thus directly question national citizenship as the main basis for political and economic membership in the city of Kinshasa.

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