One was a suave, smartly dressed black African exile telling a journalist at lunch about his vague plans to launch an uprising against the government in his distant homeland.
The other was a tall, muscular, graying former planter and mercenary now tending a cafe near a Brussels railroad station. He was complaining about feeling out of place in his native Belgium since leaving his adopted home in Zaire's former Katanga Province years ago.
Still a third was the executive of a large Belgian conglomerate and mining company discussing the impact of the latest military rebellion in Zaire on the prices of copper.
The sketches are only a few, but nevertheless fairly typical, of the links that still bind Belgians and Zairians to common destinies, ties that began with a colonial land grab over a century ago. This relationship between Belgium and its former Congo colony changed with Zaire's independence 20 years ago this summer. It was a change accompanied by bloody and confused clashes that required military intervention by both Belgium and the United Nations.
These past two decades have been filled with political highs and lows that have more or less corresponded with with the shifting policies and moods of Zaire's leader for the past 15 years, President Mobutu Sese Seko. At the moment Belgo-Zairian relations are enjoying a relatively close and calm period.
A number of important factors have led to the improvement of relations in recent years. First came an end to the Mobutu government's unsuccessful attempt at nationalization of the country's resource-rich economy. Admitting his failure to efficiently turn over control of the economy to native entrepreneurs, President Mobutu a few years ago invited Belgian interests back into the country.
Although both Zairian and Belgian interests were seriously disrupted by almost annual uprisings and invasions in recent years, efforts have been made in the past two years by Zaire and industrialized Western nations to reform and reorganize the troubled African state's promising but chaotic economy. The Belgian government has helped organize several international economic and financial conferences aimed at acquiring outside financing to help the struggling country. It also has continued its own national programs of military and other aid to Zaire.
As a political corollary, President Mobutu has yielded to outside recommendations and moved to liberalize his regime and reconcile his differences with his opposition. This has meant ending his running feud with left-wing neighbors in Angola and with the welter of plotting exile revolutionary groups in Belgium and elsewhere.
This improved climate has made it possible to bring about a normalization of links between Belgium and its nearly 10 million people, and its 25 million former colonial subjects. These contacts are so deep that nearly every Belgian family and major company has had some experience in the large central African state.
Belgian interests remain strong in the Zairian mining, transport, commercial, and other sectors.
Business connections today, as during the colonial era, are mainly characterized by the large holdings of the major Belgian banks such as Societe Generale de Banque and the sometimes related mining operations. They are focused on Zaire's rich mineral resources, which account for about 7 percent of the world's copper, 67 percent of the cobalt, and one-third of the industrial diamonds.