‘Change of Plans – Part 2’
Generally one of the most striking things about the Katangan secession of 1960-1963 was the imagery and iconography created to develop a personal nationalism that could resonate within the local population. A variety of things were created and constructed – an airline, the national/local military, Katangan postage stamps, the Katangan national anthem, the flag, and a local currency – to foster and help associate a collective identity and personal association to the State of Katanga among the population. Because of this, and the representative nature that flags have to their respective nations, it is interesting that the Bakata reharnessed, repurposed, and used the flag the secessionist state (1960-1963) on March 23. However, unlike the secession of 1960 and various other historic secessions worldwide, what happened on March 23 appeared in various forms and images on the internet in real-time with only a few minutes delay.
One of the most prominent images of the Bakata on March 23, besides the image of the Bakata in the UN compound, is the image of the group proceeding through Lubumbashi with the flag of the State of Katanga being carried high above their heads. Granted, they had deemed themselves the ‘New Katangan Army,’ so the use of the flag from the 1960s shouldn’t be that surprising, but it was. Additionally, while I had been told that the flag was currently being used to brand different products by a particular company, making it commonplace in Lubumbashi, it was still quite different to see it being re-purposed as an actual flag. It was because I associate this particular flag with a state and a government that no longer exists and hoisting it up a flag pole actually has strong implications for that supposed dead meaning.
Like other revolutions in history or attempts at independence, the flag of Katanga is an iconic symbol of the new nation and tend to be imbued with various meanings, which makes the use of it by the Bakata all the more unique. In July 1960, a local banker was commissioned to design the flag to incorporate the ideas of hope, peace (although, Tshombe was quoted by a mercenary to have said that white was to have stood for the purity of the women), prosperity, and power or bravery and blood in defense of the homeland into the flag, in the idea that these elements would stand for the new nation. It’s hard to say that the Bakata thought of these while carrying it through the city because of their notorious tactics in other parts of Katanga.
Historically, the use of a flag to represent a nation or any movement is a worldwide common practice. Furthermore, it is not rare to find that during times of disruption that the flags are refashion into symbols of loyalty and are worn on the body. One of the most well-known examples of this is during the French Revolution, when sashes and cockades (a rosette of the tricolor) were worn. This concept of literally fashioning loyalty to the idea or cause provides a visible concept of the future nation. While historically, these are represented through famous paintings of the French Revolution, such as Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, where the man in the lower left hand corner is wearing a waist sash of the tri-color. Luckily, we no longer rely on paintings such as Delacroix’s. Instead, we have color photographic images to examine. Several of the photos show the majority Bakata wearing a variety of headband/tie around their head. While the Bakata could consider it an amulet for protection, if you examine the colors they replicate the Katangan flag. The fact that they have chosen to wear the similar colors of the Katangan flag on their bodies espouses a very personal belief in Katanga as independent. Carrying the flag through the street while wearing a marker of the flag gives off a much stronger sign than simply walking into Lubumbashi without either of the two. There are a few unanswered questions left from raising the old secessionist flag that would be interesting to answer such as when and where was the flag picked as the flag for the Bakata? And was it carried throughout other areas of Katanga or if it was only carried into Lubumbashi and raised in the city center for a dramatic effect?
But how does the iconography of the Bakata have a great impact on the city or on any potential secessionist movement? It’s hard to tell because imagery isn’t a collective notion and resonates emotionally at different levels with various groups. While many were started to see the secessionist flag raised in town center because of its history, many people are still empathetic to the cause of Katangan secession or a federated province within the Congo, but not the means by which the Bakata carried it out or to the violence it could bring. However, the transition of the use of the flag from the 1960s to the Bakata displays a paradigm shift in how local nationalism and ideas about secession are being discussed.
Catherine Porter, doctoral scholar, University of Cambridge, email@example.com