The city lies near the Lulua River - a tributary of the Kasai River and the Ilebo – Lubumbashi railway. An important commercial and administrative centre, it is home to a museum and to Kananga Airport.
German explorer Hermann Wissmann established a station in the area around present-day Kananga, on the left-bank of the Lulua river. Wissmann named the station Malandji, a name suggested by his 400 carriers, who were from the city of Malanje in Angola. Later on, with the construction of the railway on the other bank of the river, the station was moved, and the Lulua train station gave its name to the new town, namely Luluabourg. The old location is named Malandji-Makulu (old Malandji) to this day.
At the Brussels Round Table in 1960, the name given to the negotiations for the independence of the (then) Belgian Congo , a decision was taken that the new state would move the location of its capital from Kinshasa to Kananga (then Luluabourg), due to the latter's central location. However, due to multiple political setbacks, and particularly the secession attempt by Albert Kalonji and his South Kasai, this decision was never implemented. When the central government reconquered South Kasai in 1962, Luluabourg became the capital of the new Kasai-Occidental province.
In 1966, in a move to reclaim the "authenticity" of Congolese identity, Mobutu Sese Seko renamed a number of cities and towns that bore European names. Leopoldville became Kinshasa, and Luluabourg became Kananga.
Under the 2006 constitution, the Democratic republic of the Congo was divided in 25 provinces, and one national Capital city (Kinshasa). The Kasai-Occidental was divided into two provinces. Kananga became the capital of the Lulua Province.
Locally, Kananga is known as Kananga-Malandji, or even Kananga-Malandji wa Nshinga. Nshinga, or cables, stands for the large high-voltage cables of the Inga-Shaba project, that cross the skies of Kananga, and that link Kolwezi and the southern Katanga Province (post-2006, the Lualaba Province) to the Inga Dam in Kongo Central.