Article by Tom Hartley. Edited by Liz Goodwin. Additional research by Tom Hartley.
On October 30th, 1974, Muhammad Ali secured his place in sporting history by reclaiming his world heavyweight title by beating the reigning champion, the younger and stronger George Foreman, in Kinshasa, Zaire. As important as this match was in the boxing world, the event took on a level that transcended sport and embraced political and cultural issues. Fifteen years after African nations had begun to achieve independence, the Ali-Foreman fight brought a major sporting event to the continent for the first time. It also came at the height of the Black Power Movement in the USA, and was seen as an opportunity to show the world the strength of African-American culture. Ali’s triumph was seen as a victory for the movement and an act of defiance against officials who had tried to limit his influence. However, the Rumble in the Jungle promised to change the face of the Zairian landscape in very different ways.
When the up-and-coming boxing promoter Don King came to search for funding for the championship bout, help came from an unlikely source. Mobutu Sese Seko, the President of Zaire, offered to host the fight in the capital, Kinshasa, in the stadium named after the day he had seized power, the May 20 Stadium. In addition, Mobutu personally offered Ali and Foreman $5m to take part. The money undoubtedly came straight out of the purses of the Zairian population, but this hardly seemed to matter for anyone involved. Combined with a music festival to promote African and African-American music, Zaire ’74, which actually took place six weeks prior to the fight due to the postponement of the fight from September to October, taking the fight to a new African nation could only be a good thing for everyone involved.
Mobutu came to power in the Congo 1965 by way of a military coup, helped by a wealth of Western actors, who hoped to prevent the central African country from apparent ‘communist’ influences. Mobutu instantly began a program of rebranding the country, embarking on the process of ‘Zairianisation’ – whatever that meant. It wasn’t enough for the regime to simply be the bastion of Western values taking a stand against communist influences in the Third World. For Mobutu, his regime would only be successful if he could transform the region’s Heart of Darkness imagery into an icon of internal stability and progress. And the early signs were that he was succeeding, as this 1970 excerpt from the New York Times suggests:
In the years before independence, the Congo was viewed from abroad as a symbol of the mysteries of Africa, of the perils of Tarzan’s dark jungles, of cannibalism, crocodiles and bewildering and bitter rivalries between backwards people with names like Lulua and Baluba. In the years just after independence, she became a terrifying symbol of all that could go wrong in a new land, of tribal savagery and vicious anti-white violence. Now, at the end of a decade of turbulence, many observers in vibrant capital city [Kinshasa] are saying that those days are past, and that, finally, the time has come for the Congo to become a new kind of symbol for the world’
Mobutu’s nationalist rhetoric not only gained him the support of Western governments, but also African-Americans. This group had been unhappy with the way the US government had helped Mobutu overthrow the Congo’s democratically-elected leader, Patrice Lumumba, so Mobutu was keen to restore their support. Kevin Dunn, a political society for the Great Lakes region, described how during the USA’s civil rights movement Africa was often seen as an idealised homeland. By hosting the continent’s first major sporting event, Zaire was in a strong position to bask in this growing popularity. Such visions became particularly emphasised in the build-up to the Rumble. Ali himself declared that he was ‘home’ upon arriving in Kinshasa, and suggested that Zairians were freer than American blacks. With Ali seen as a hero by African-Americans, and portrayed that way to Zairians, his words had a significant impact on the attitudes of both.
The Rumble in the Jungle was the culmination of a cult of personality that secured Mobutu’s place both internationally and internally. Mobutu remained a key ally of the West up until his deposition from power in 1997, long after the need for an ally against communism was over. Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior regarded Mobutu as a personal friend, Mobutu being the first African head of state to pay an official visit to President Bush. In Zaire itself, the clear corruption and the vast levels of wealth amassed by Mobutu and his family at the expense of the population has done little to damage his reputation. While Mobutu will never be as popular in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as his predecessor Lumumba, political commentators have highlighted a certain level of nostalgia in the country for the stability experienced under Mobutu.
Of course, the reality was far different. Congolese people suffered terribly under Mobutu. By 1970, the real wages of those in employment were worth 10% of what they had been in 1960. At the same time it was estimated 40% of the Kinshasa population suffered from malnutrition. In rural areas only 1% of the land was cultivated. In 1982, Etienne Tshisekedi, a dissident under Mobutu who challenged for the presidency in 2011 at the age of 78, described the way in which Zaire was run:
Mobutu truly has a malady. He is a kleptomaniac. Zaire is ruled by an uncontrolled thief. It is a kleptocracy.
Unfortunately the brave challenges of Tshisekedi and his colleagues were in the minority. The world saw what it wanted to see – a man who kept stability across Africa and prevented significant communist penetration into a key region of the Third World. By bringing a major sporting event such as the Rumble in the Jungle to Zaire, Mobutu won over his doubters in African-American politics and ensured his reign of corruption and oppression over Zairians would last for a further twenty years.