In recent decades there has been a growing awareness of the potential interest in relating the rise and effectiveness of the state historically to the role of cities. (Tilly & Blockmans, 1994) The relationship is far from direct or easy to establish and the possible outcomes diverse. Some of this interest lies in the development of the subject of governance, of ways of looking at state intervention and operations beyond governmental structures narrowly defined. Some is undoubtedly forwarded by the fashionable attack on government in favour of so-called civil society and more localised types of rule that accompanied the triumph of so-called neo-liberalism after 1990. Inevitably this is a question that, if anything, gains interest when applied to the so-called 3rd world and notably to Africa. Can African cities offer possibilities for accumulation and sustainability where states fail? What role do cities play in post-conflict situations? Is local governance able to be an engine of growth where national government has been an impediment, on the Piore & Sabel model (Piore & Sabel, 1984)?
It is understandable that Kinshasa presents a formidable challenge to the application of such a model. In some respects, it seems to fill the bill in terms of potential. This is the largest African city after Cairo and Lagos with perhaps 7-8 million inhabitants so it is of real importance in terms of demographic weight. The Democratic Republic of the Congo after independence in 1960 was under the reins of a state notorious for its ineptitude and inability to sustain economic growth during the long Mobutu dictatorship. This regime was overthrown by force, initiating a period of disorder and military contestation that may perhaps be just now, after more than a decade, coming to an end, so we also have a post-conflict situation. The current government seems more in sympathy with Western nostrums about development and open to institutional changes approved by the likes of the World Bank and other international funders than any other has been.
Moreover, as will be shown below, there are urban agglomerations in the Congo which are suggestive of interesting and original initiatives from ‘civil society’. In this sense, queries about Kinshasa are in order. However the burden of this paper will be to suggest that these queries, unless put somewhat differently, will not lead to positive roads of research to any great extent. The Piore & Sabel model, following the pioneering research of Roberto Bagnasco, focuses on the Third Italy of the little, quality—orientated, co-operative but competitive, productive firm in smaller cities. In this sense, Kinshasa is not like Bologna or Prato or Gorizia; it is like Rome. But Rome has always been a home for artisans supporting imperial glory and clerical splendour as well as the workings of a questionably modern state. Kinshasa is a very impoverished Rome which suffers from a dearth of gainful employment where economic activities have to be shared between many hands for the population to survive. A ruthless ruler like Pol Pot might wish to send its inhabitants off to the land to retool themselves as peasants but the very forces, cultural, social as well as economic, of globalization, ensure that this will be unlikely to happen.
This argument will contain two sections. The first longer section is intended schematically to proceed through the history of modern Kinshasa by stages, emphasizing main trends.1 The second uses a variety of sources including particularly a survey of middle class professionals undertaken by the author in 2009 in Kinshasa, to take the main argument further. The conclusion points away from a particular crisis-ridden or idiosyncratic interpretation of Kinshasa to consider it more within the range of typical African cities of the early 2lst century instead.