The difficult and violent transition from the former so-called Belgian Congo to the independent state nowadays called The Democratic Republic of the Congo dates back half a century, when the country obtained Independence in June 1960. Patrice Lumumba was the first elected Prime Minister as from 24 June 1960 and was ousted from office in a coup in September 1960. During the subsequent civil strive he was arrested, tortured, and murdered on 17 January 1961. The decolonisation of the Congo is also inextricably linked with the role of the United Nations and its second Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld. Hammarskjöld, who is widely considered as a unique international civil servant setting norms and living values not matched since then, lost his life – later in the same year as Lumumba – in his efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict following the secession of Katanga.
On his way to a meeting with Moise Tshombe, leader of the secessionist movement, the plane crashed upon approaching Ndola (a mining town in then Northern Rhodesia, what today is Zambia) shortly after midnight (local time) between 17 and 18 September 1961. None of the almost 20 people on board survived. Hammarskjöld died at the site during the early morning hours of 18 September 1961 before the wreckage was discovered. It remains a matter of speculation and conflicting theories, what the cause of the crash had been.
Ever since this tragic loss numerous efforts to bring lasting peace and stability to the resource-rich but torn country in the heart of Africa have failed. Like then, the people today have to pay the highest price. It is mainly the innocent ones who are the victims. They are sacrificed on the altar of greed. Even if his life would not have ended so untimely and tragically, Dag Hammarskjöld might not have been able to bring, against all odds, his mission to a successful end. Too much was at stake for the big powers, and all of them had their vested particular interests guiding their own selfish agendas.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations was aware of this. In a statement before the Security Council on 15 February 1961, he characterised the Congo as ‘a happy hunting ground for national interests’ and the UN’s role ‘to be a road-block to such efforts’. He was not prepared to compromise and never surrendered to the influence the big powers were seeking to exert over him and his office. In his attempts to find a solution for the Congolese people, he maintained integrity and his independent role as a negotiator and facilitator, seeking to bring a solution to the suffering by ordinary people.
For Hammarskjöld the United Nations was supposed to be the unique instrument for peaceful solution of conflicts. This required an urgent shift of emphasis: from the purpose of preserving the established international (dis)order of the superpower rivalry between West and East during the Cold War period to the purpose of meeting and dealing in a constructive way with the challenges represented by the newly independent countries.
When, over the escalating conflicts of interest being played out between the powers seeking to secure their own agendas in the Congo, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev demanded Hammarskjöld’s resignation at the UN General Assembly in September 1960, the Secretary-General responded with the following historical words:
It is very easy to resign. It is not easy to stay on. It is very easy to bow to the wishes of a Big Power. It is another matter to resist. As is well known to all members of this Assembly, I have done so before on many occasions and in many directions. If it is the wish of those nations who see in the Organisation their best protection in the present world, I shall now do so again.
Hammarskjöld’s refusal to give in to the demand for his resignation as Secretary-General during the most turbulent phase of the UN involvement in the Congo crisis was approved by a standing ovation from those he felt most accountable to, namely the delegates from those countries who normally are denied any meaningful agency in the world body.
His even-handedness towards the big powers is documented by an incident, shared by Sture Linnér (1917–2010) with an audience attending his presentation at the annual Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture in October 2007 in Uppsala. Linnér was, at the time of Hammarskjöld’s death, as Under-Secretary-General in charge of the UN mission in the Congo. In July 1961, the USA President J.F. Kennedy tried to intervene directly in local politics and UN affairs. Afraid of Antoine Gizenga – then campaigning for election as Prime Minister and suspected of representing Soviet interests – coming into political power, he demanded that the UN should prevent Gizenga from seizing office. If the UN did not comply, the USA and other Western powers might withdraw their support to the UN. Reportedly, Hammarskjöld in a phone conversation with Linnér dismissed this unveiled threat with the following words:
I do not intend to give way to any pressure, be it from the East or the West; we shall sink or swim. Continue to follow the line you find to be in accordance with the UN Charter.
Hammarskjöld’s integrity and conscience, combined with his sense of duty and his commitment to the search for peace and the recognition of fundamental human rights as the guiding principles of his defined mission in office were contributing factors to his decision to embark on a mission to Ndola on 17 September 1961 – which others warned might be a great risk. He nonetheless felt that the efforts to bring peace to the people of the Congo would require exploring all possibilities for dialogue, even with those who were among the main reasons for instability. At the end, Hammarskjöld was unable to accomplish this mission. Instead, he had to give his life in vain.
Kofi Annan, as Secretary-General of the UN, delivered on 6 September 2001 the annual Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture in Uppsala. The homage he paid to his predecessor almost on the day 40 years after his death remains valid:
Dag Hammarskjöld is a figure of great importance for me – as he must be for any Secretary-General. His life and his death, his words and his action, have done more to shape public expectations of the office, and indeed of the Organization, than those of any other man or woman in its history.
His wisdom and his modesty, his unimpeachable integrity and single-minded devotion to duty, have set a standard for all servants of the international community – and especially, of course for his successors – which is simply impossible to live up to. There can be no better rule of thumb for a Secretary-General, as he approaches each new challenge or crisis, than to ask himself, ‘how would Hammarskjöld have handled this?’
Sture Linnér ended his Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture with some final reflections on what Hammarskjöld had accomplished of lasting value in the Congo. He came to the conclusion:
The Congo crisis could easily have provoked armed conflicts in other parts of Africa, even led to a world war. It was Dag Hammarskjöld and no one else who prevented that. And it is certain that for a suffering people he came to be seen as a model; he brought light into the heart of darkness.
This special issue of AJCR on Southern Africa – 50 years after Hammarskjöld revisits in the first part hitherto less known aspects of the Secretary-General’s commitment to find solutions to challenges often considered to be ‘missions impossible’ and recalls the history of the early 1960s in some Southern African dimensions in new perspectives. The articles by Chris Saunders and Tor Sellström are based on genuine archival research. While a lot has been written already on Hammarskjöld and the Congo, they share for the first time some detailed information on his visit to and role in South Africa. Timothy Scarnecchia enters similar unknown territory by exploring so far not yet published archival material, which shows the dynamics linking the turmoil in the Congo to its effects on the formation of the early Zimbabwean anti-colonial resistance to the Rhodesian settler regime. The historical depth and value of these contributions are at the same time a reminder about the essential role the UN’s second Secretary-General played during the times when ‘the winds of change’ started to blow.
The legacy of Hammarskjöld is however far from being confined to the past. He stood for values and norms of global policy-making and international diplomacy in an independent international civil service. In the way he defined and executed his tasks he was – as shown in the first part of this introduction – rather more general than secretary. Fifty years after his untimely and violent death it is therefore most appropriate to bring the relevance of his legacy for today back into public awareness and discourse.
That the challenges Hammarskjöld was confronted with and unable to solve then have remained on the agenda of our current efforts to come to terms with violence and conflict, is shown by the contributions to the second part of this issue. They devote attention to the sub-regional challenges we are confronted with. Henning Melber links the normative framework advocated by Hammarskjöld to the demands put on us to position ourselves in regard to unresolved conflicts in the region, where the need is to speak truth to those in power. James-Emmanuel Wanki revisits Hammarskjöld’s original role in the continuing conflict in the Congo, and the United Nations’ interventions since Hammarskjöld’s death in seeking a solution to the continuing crisis and unabated civil war. Sarah Ancas refers to the cases of Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as she reflects on the opportunities and limitations of conflict handling within multilateral concerted initiatives. Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari adds a special emphasis on the emerging collaboration between external players in contrast to continental institutions and the effects this might have.
This special issue underlines the current relevance of Hammarskjöld’s legacy and the continued relevance of his mindset and convictions for our efforts today to enhance peace and reduce violence and discrimination. This covers not only dimensions seeking to protect individual people. It also includes efforts to ensure more equal relations among states within the international system, often misleadingly called ‘order’ but more often tantamount to a structurally embedded disorder. By doing so, the following contributions also articulate parameters for better conduct by and among states and their leaders, respecting the interest of ‘We, the Peoples’ as the Preamble of the United Nations Charter declares (in contrast to what follows in the actual clauses, which focus on the governments of states).
The pages following are the result of collaboration between ACCORD and the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. It thereby also strengthens the institutional ties seeking to overcome the North-South divide. I am grateful to members of the AJCR team for their support. Jannie Malan generously offered (and practised) constant, meticulous support during the editing of this issue. Angela Ndinga-Muvumba also backed us up with her warm and generous support during the production process. Thanks to both their support and the timely delivery of quality texts by the authors, we are able to publish this issue as planned in time for being launched at the international conference co-arranged between the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria. It takes place in mid-July 2011 at the Pretoria campus and has as theme ‘The United Nations and Regional Challenges in Africa – 50 Years after the Death of Dag Hammarskjöld’. The collection of articles presented here will certainly add value to the scholarly deliberations.