By Tafi Mhaka
Every minute detail surrounding Muhammad Ali versus George Foreman in 1974 smacked of Zaire’s other-worldly mystique and amplified the oddly-universal fascination with the Congo.The Hendale Film Corporation, one of the co-promoters of the fight, later made Hollywood classics such as Platoon, The Terminator, and The Return of The Living Dead.
The fight almost didn’t happen after Foreman sustained a cut to his right eye in a sparring session with Bill McMurray.
The fight took place at around 3am in Kinshasa to accommodate fans watching the fight in America.
Ali married 18 year-old Veronica Porché in Zaire in the run up to the fight.
Zairean leader Mobutu Sese Seko watched the fight on TV for fear of assassination by political opponents.
The Godfather of Soul James Brown, jazz legend BB King, The Spinners, Bill Withers, The Crusaders, critically-acclaimed South African singer Miriam Makeba and Senegalese Afro-jazz legend Manu Dibango held an epic three-day concert to celebrate the fight.
A tropical storm of biblical proportions hit Kinshasa seconds after referee Zack Clayton counted Foreman out.
And, if it weren’t for a trainer by the name of Drew “Bundini” Brown, the promoters of the fight had planned to name world’s greatest spectacle “From Slave to Championship”.
Bundini – Ali’s corner man – uttered the words “Rumble, baby, rumble”.
There – and then: the rumble in the jungle began.
And rumble they did.
Congolese boxing fans fervently supported the sweet-talking Ali.
His boisterously strident persona swept the hearts of the Congolese people.
This after Ali said “George Foreman’s a Belgium” (sic) at an impromptu speech he delivered to thousands of supporters at the airport on the day he landed in central Africa.
“Ali Bomaye, Ali Bomaye” the fans shouted.
‘Ali Kill him, Ali kill him’ the fans chanted.
He didn’t kill Foreman.
But he did kill off the fight in the eighth round with a surprise knock-out win over a clearly frustrated and bamboozled Foreman.
Ali – ever the graceful showman – lapped up the early morning adoration of 80 000 jubilant Congolese fans and reminded the world he wasn’t just the most eloquent and prettiest boxer ever.
“I told you! I told you!” Ali screamed – as Foreman struggled to pick himself up.
Ali had defeated the world champ: a beast of a fighter who went into the fight with a 40-0 record that included 37 knockouts.
The greatest fight of all-time brought together a bizarre cast of highly-fascinating musicians, boxers, and political actors in the shape of a colossal African-American civil rights icon, a buff and cocky undefeated world champion who – boxers say, was as strong as an African buffalo – a supposedly black magic-wielding dictator who wore a leopard skin cap and carried a carved wooden sceptre with him in public and brooked no dissent from his political detractors – and a brash-talking boxing promoter whose brand of bare-knuckle capitalism and freakish flamboyance preceded him rather loudly wherever he went.
“Rumble, baby, rumble.”
The real rumble in Zaire began long before Ali and Foreman met in the early hours of October 30.
An Argentine man using the alias Ramon Benitez arrived in Zaire in 1965 to lend his support to the Marxist Leninist movement there.
Along with 12 Cuban military officers – plus a contingent of one hundred militias from Cuba – a buoyant Marxist-Communist revolutionary called Che Guevara landed in Zaire on April 24 determined to rid the Congo of Western imperialism.
A medical doctor by profession – the legendary Guevara – who had emerged as a major figure in the Cuban revolution alongside Fidel Castro – spent less than a year in Zaire helping the man leading the Marxist revolution in the Congo: a young rebel leader by the name of Laurent-Desire Kabila.
The rebel movement was fighting to overthrow Mobutu Sese Seko – a former journalist and former Chief Staff of the Congolese Army.
Mobutu had apparently been hugely instrumental in removing Patrice Lumumba – the first democratically elected leader of Zaire – from power.
The anti-Mobutu movement led by Kabila took another 32 years to oust Mobutu.
In that time – he deftly consolidated his power base by ruling out democracy in a series of tyrannical measures introduced by his party, the Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR), and dealt harshly with perceived internal dissent.
The central African nation became a one-party state after the state banned politics.
“For five years there will be no more political activity in the country,” thundered Mobutu at large rally in Kinshasa in 1965.
Every citizen of Zaire became a member of the MPR.
Party members learnt to chant “one party, one country, one father, Mobutu, Mobutu”.
This all was a part of Mobutism: a new style of governance.
Mobutism marked the start of Zairianization: the appropriation of farms, factories and business belonging to foreigners and the nationalisation of businesses.
All citizens had to drop their Western names for African ones.
The dear leader, who was born Joseph Desire Mobutu, assumed the title Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu waza Banga – “the all-conquering warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake”.
The state officially hailed Mobutu as the Second National Hero – after Patrice Lumumba – the man executed by three firing squads on 17 January, 1961.
Four ministers in Mobutu’s cabinet found guilty of plotting a coup also died at the hands of a firing squad in a big and public show of force and intent witnessed by fifty thousand spectators in Kinshasa.
When in 1970, elections were held, the MPR won 98.33% of the vote.
While Mobutu won more than 99% of the votes cast in the presidential election.
The political rumblings went ahead unabated for many years as Mobutu and his close associates led opulent lifestyles.
His attempts to reform the economy failed for the most part.
Zairianization enriched a few at the expense of the wider poverty-stricken population.
Beneficiaries of Zairianization expatriated billions of dollars to Swiss bank accounts.
The economy floundered and the cold war ended.
The big man of Zairian politics could no longer suppress the Katanganese rebellion.
His Western allies abandoned him and Mobutu was forced to flee to Togo in 1997.
Three months later – Mobutu Sese Seko died in exile, in Rabat, Morocco, from prostate cancer.
By then – the man who famously bragged on CBS show 60 Minutes that he was one of the world’s richest men – had allegedly helped himself to $US5 billion of state wealth.
“Rumble, baby, rumble.”
“He’s not the man of the hour”.
Laurent Desire Kabila failed to impress Che Guevara.
But the man born in Katanga province in 1939 did finally seize the reins of power in Zaire.
And change the name of Zaire to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Other than that, the man dubbed “the Mzee”, did little to change the political rumblings in Zaire.
Under his rule – DR Congo went to war against Uganda and Rwanda – erstwhile allies of Kabila.
Military intervention by Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola saved the day – and Kabila.
But he lost his next big fight in the Congo.
He was assassinated by a child soldier in 2001.
“Rumble, baby, Rumble.”
Ten short days later, his son – Joseph Laurent Kabila – who was merely thirty years of age at the time, took over from his father.
Kabila Jnr was elected president in 2006 and won a further mandate to rule five years later.
The man who attended Makerere University in Tanzania has battled to suppress rebellions in Eastern Congo that Kinshasa says are supported by Uganda and Rwanda.
His attempts to change terms limits and prolong his stay in power have led to demonstrations in the capital.
Opposition groups in Kinshasa say 50 people were killed last week in anti-government protests.
“The coalition deplores the number of victims, more than 50 dead at this point, victims of the firing of real bullets by the police and the republican guard,” read part of a statement released by opposition groups.
The vastly unpopular Kabila has chosen to remain mum on whether he will leave office when his term expires on December 20.
The violent protests in Kinshasa – a city of 12 million inhabitants – were triggered by a constitutional court ruling allowing Kabila to remain in office temporarily until elections are held.
If, as it appears, elections are not held this year, Kabila might stay in office well into 2017, if not further than that.
The DR Congo has experienced relative economic prosperity under Kabila: inflation and the exchange rate are stable and economic growth has averaged 7% a year since 2009.
Worryingly, though, less than 10% of the adult population have salaried jobs.
Corruption is rife and the cost of living is fairly exorbitant.
The DR Congo is mineral rich: It has 80% of the world’s cobalt reserves and 20% of the world’s copper supplies.
For many Congolese who live in the capital, Kabila, who is not entirely fluent in French or Lingala – the two main languages in Kinshasa – is an outsider, whose early life abroad makes him unfit for office.
Opposition leader Étienne Tshiseke returned to Kinshasa after two years in exile.
Tshisekedi “has come to take charge of operations, to enable the change of government that the Congolese people have been waiting for for decades,” said Bruno Tsibla, Secretary-General of Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress Party, as the plane landed.
The rumble in the jungle is on again.
Now: it is Joseph Kabila versus Étienne Tshisekedi.
The indefatigable spirit of Muhammad Ali might spur Tshisekedi to victory against all odds.
Or as Che Guevara and George Foreman found out, earlier, nothing is ever quite as it seems in the DR Congo.