Belgium should apologise for colonial past, says first black mayor

AFP Brussels, Belgium Jun 20, 2020, 01.32 PM(IST)

Pierre Kompany Photograph:( Reuters )

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While in the United States activists declaring 'Black Lives Matter' have targeted the symbols of the slave-holding Confederacy, in Belgium the protests have focused around statues of Leopold II, 'King Builder' of the Belgian nation.

Belgium is due a reckoning with its colonial past, and things left unsaid must now be discussed, argues the Congolese-born 72-year-old who became the country's first black mayor.

Pierre Kompany's family has made a name for itself in Belgium. He is a former refugee turned pioneering politician, and his son Vincent Kompany is a star footballer in the national squad, the world's top-ranked team.

But, in an interview with AFP before the June 30 anniversary of the then Belgian Congo's independence, and against a backdrop of anti-racism protests, Kompany senior said it was time for some home truths.

Also read: Activists remove statue of Belgian colonial King Leopold II in Brussels

While in the United States activists declaring "Black Lives Matter" have targeted the symbols of the slave-holding Confederacy, in Belgium the protests have focused around statues of Leopold II, "King Builder" of the Belgian nation.

Reigning between 1865 and 1909, Leopold held Belgium's central African territory, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, as a personal fiefdom, profiting directly from rubber plantations run with sadistic and murderous brutality.

Also see: World dismantles historical artefacts of racism, monuments become sites of protest

Historians and writers have documented the crimes of the era, in which up to 10 million Congolese were killed or fell victim to disease and torture, but Leopold's statues still look down on parks and squares across modern Belgium.

For Kompany, the monuments should have been taken down and placed in museums years before they became the target of protests and night-raids by activists, as part of a broader reckoning with the past that could heal some modern wounds.

"No one would go into a museum to smash them," smiles Kompany, who was elected bourgmestre or mayor of the Brussels suburb of Ganshoren in 2018 and represents the centrist CDH party in the capital's regional parliament.

For Kompany, Belgium missed an important opportunity to face up to its past in 2009, the centenary of the former king's death, which the Belgium state allowed to pass without fanfare, embarrassed to revive debate over his legacy.

 

"There is a flagrant reality, it's not in doubt," he says of the crimes carried out in Leopold II's name.