Black Lives Matter in Belgium (June-July 2020)
A Catalyst in Postcolonial Memory?
The Black Lives Matter movement in Belgium focused particularly on statues of Leopold II and other key figures in Belgian colonial history. These had already been the target of protest since 2004, but it was not until June 2020 that any were removed. Coinciding with the 60th anniversary of Congolese independence, the summer marked a true watershed in Belgium’s dealing with its colonial past. The Belgian King expressed his deepest regret and the Belgian Parliament established a sort of truth and reconciliation commission.
The death of George Floyd reverberated in Belgium, as it did in many other parts of the world. Initially, media focused entirely on the rallies in the US and the demonstration in Paris. From 4 June onwards, it also paid attention to recent cases of racism and ethnic profiling by the police in Belgium. On Sunday 7 June, several marches against racism and in support of Black Lives Matter took place all over the country, in spite of the COVID-19 restrictions. The demonstration in Brussels attracted 10,000 participants and ended in looting.
It did not take long for colonial monuments, especially those of Leopold II, Belgium’s second king who founded the Congo Free State (1885-1908), to be brought to the forefront of the debate. By the weekend of 30-31 May, just five days after Floyd’s death, statues of Leopold in Ekeren, Hasselt and Ghent had been vandalised with red paint. In early June, activist organisations such as Réparons l’Histoire (Let’s Repair History) and local individuals, including a 14-year-old boy of Congolese descent, launched petitions calling for the monuments’ removal. In the night of 3-4 June, the statue in Ekeren was again targeted, this time being set on fire. Over the following nights, other monuments of Leopold II were painted red or plastered with anti-racism graffiti, for example in Tervuren (4-5 June), Halle (6-7 June), Brussels (9-10 June), Auderghem (11-12 June), Ixelles (13-14 June), Arlon (week of 22 June) and Mons (25-26 June). Street signs bearing the names of colonial figures were also covered in paint, for instance in Molenbeek (11-12 June) and Leopoldsburg, as were other monuments, such as the bust of King Baudouin in Brussels (11-12 June) and the statue of General Storms (a collaborator of Leopold II in Congo) in Ixelles (13-14 June).
In contrast to other countries, these monuments were not pulled down, but only vandalised (apart from the bust in Auderghem). The actions did not take place during mass meetings, but were done at night by unidentified activists (although some perpetrators filmed their actions, e.g. in Halle and Auderghem, and posted the clips on social media). Official action groups, such as BYAR (Belgian Youth Against Racism), distanced themselves from these actions. Some non-colonial statues were also targeted, including those of St Arnould in Bouillon and of Julius Caesar in Velzeke (Zottegem), but this barely made the headlines.
These attacks on colonial monuments were nothing new. Since the BBC documentary White King, Red Rubber, Black Death was broadcast in 2004, several of the 17 monuments to Leopold II in Belgium had been defaced. Diaspora activists and other sympathisers had asked for a square in Brussels to be named after Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of independent Congo who was assassinated in January 1961, and for Leopold II streets in other cities to be renamed. However, these demands were only gradually and reluctantly complied with. No colonial monuments had been removed, though some had been given an information plaque. As late as 2018, a small street in Charleroi and a little square in Brussels were named after Lumumba, becoming the first places in Belgium to publicly honour a Congolese. In 2019, the city councils of Dendermonde and Kortrijk were the first to decide to rename their Leopold II Avenues.
This slow decolonisation of the public space was dramatically sped up in June 2020. On 9 June, the Antwerp municipality of Ekeren unexpectedly removed the statue of Leopold II that had been damaged by fire. On the same day, the University of Mons took away a bust from its Faculty of Business and Economics, although it had already been relocated 20 years earlier from the lobby to a less visible place. The next day, the rector of KU Leuven did the same with a bust of Leopold II in the university library, responding to a petition initiated by two students and signed by 500 students and staff members. On 17 June, Ghent city council decided to remove the monument of Leopold II on the symbolic date of 30 June, the 60th anniversary of Congolese independence. On 26 June, Leuven city council announced that it would remove Leopold’s statue from a niche in the façade of the town hall, a decision that was all the more remarkable because the iconic building and its 236 statues of historical figures are a legally protected heritage site and cannot normally be altered.
All of these steps marked a watershed in the history of Belgium’s grappling with its colonial past, being the first removals of Leopold’s statues after 15 years of activism. They were not the only measures to confront Belgium’s colonial legacy in the public space. Sint-Niklaas decided to change the name of Leopold II Avenue. An Antwerp district council passed a motion by two Green Party councillors to put up information plaques at four colonial monuments, add contextual information about 10 streets referring to colonial figures, and name future new streets after black people linked with the colonial past. Significantly, all of these measures were taken by local authorities, although they were also backed at regional level: in July 2019, the Brussels-Capital Region had already announced that it would reflect on colonial symbols in the public space, and on 15 June the Flemish minister for home affairs set up a working group to write a non-binding manual to assist cities and municipalities in decolonising monuments and street names.
However, that is not to say that this turnaround was unanimous and wholehearted. Ekeren municipal council emphasised that its statue needed restoration and that no decision had been yet made about whether it would return. The mayor of Halle said the municipality would restore Leopold’s monument, although he was considering adding a new information plaque and giving the monument a new function, for instance with the help of a Congolese artist. Other cities, such as Ostend and Geraardsbergen, decided not to bow to the new protests, and referred to information plaques that had been installed earlier. Similarly, several cities and municipalities, including Bruges, Koksijde, Leopoldsburg, Sint-Truiden and Spa, informed the media that they would not change the name of ‘their’ Leopold II Street, Avenue or Gallery. In Leopoldsburg, some citizens even undertook a counteraction and wrapped the statue of General Chazal – who had no colonial ties – in a banner demanding ‘Hands off our history’. Similarly, the Nation Luxembourg group expressed its support of Leopold II at his statue in Arlon, as did the Federal Minister of Social Integration Denis Ducarme in front of the equestrian statue of Leopold II in Brussels (LDH 16 June).
The debate took a new turn on 12 June, when the Belgian King and the president of the Chamber of Representatives spoke out on the issue and shifted the focus from statues and street names to apologies and compensation. The issue of apologising for the colonial past was not new. The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent had recommended this in its 2019 report on Belgium, and the Belgian prime minister in March 2019 had officially apologised for the forced adoptions of métis (children born to mixed-raced couples) in the colonial era. In early June 2020, suggestions that Belgium should apologise were only occasionally voiced in the media, most notably by activist Sandrine Moponami (Radio 1, 3 June), historians Zana Etambala (DM 4 June) and Karel Van Nieuwenhuyse (HLN 11 June), and journalist Inge Ghijs (DS 10 June). Things accelerated after the Flemish Christian Democratic party chairman on 11 June suggested that the King apologise, activists in the night of 11-12 June wrote ‘Réparation’ on a bust of King Baudouin, and the King’s brother defended his ancestor Leopold II on the morning of 12 June, prompting the Palace to issue a written response – its first official comment on this issue – a few hours later. This was, however, disappointing: King Philippe referred to a lack of historical consensus on the role of Leopold II as his reason for not taking a public stance, which was the same excuse he had used 18 months earlier for not attending the reopening of the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren. Journalists immediately called historians, who rebutted this position (and subsequently published an open letter, DM and LS 16 June). Later that day (12 June), the president of the Chamber of Representatives (the lower house of the Belgian Parliament) defused the situation with a tweet proposing to set up a truth commission that could help the King adopt a stance backed by the government. In the following days and weeks, there was much media discussion about apologies and compensation. These topics eclipsed the news of protests against statues and street names, which gradually died down. Remarkably, it remained a very Belgian debate, ignoring the fact that Congo had not asked for apologies or compensation or, conversely, that Burundi in 2018 had demanded compensation (Vandeginste 2020).
The King, whose sidestepping of the issue had been widely criticised, took a new and remarkable step on 30 June, the 60th anniversary of Congolese independence. He unexpectedly wrote a letter to the Congolese president in which he expressed his “deepest regret” for the “wounds of the past” that “are nowadays again becoming painfully apparent by acts of discrimination, which is still too present in our society”. This, again, was a landmark moment: Philippe’s father Albert II (who reigned from 1993 to 2013) had always remained silent on the subject, while Albert’s brother Baudouin (king from 1951 to 1993) had sung the praises of Leopold II. Interestingly, the King did not apologise, but encouraged “the reflection that has begun in our Parliament to definitively come to terms with the past”.
This was clearly a reference to the Congo – Colonial Past Commission that was being established. By mid-July, the Belgian Parliament had approved its composition (17 MPs and 10 experts) and remit. The latter is very ambitious: in the course of one year, the commission is tasked with unravelling the role of the Belgian state, as well as that of business, the Church and the monarchy in Congo between 1885 and 1960 and in Rwanda and Burundi between 1918 and 1962. At the same time, it must reflect on reconciliation and address issues of racism, colonial heritage, restitution, apologies and compensation (DM 17 July). In the following weeks, the commission met with various criticisms. Four of the 10 experts turned down the invitation and were replaced by others (compare DS 15 July with DS 6 August); another issued a warning about the many difficulties involved (LLA 11 August). After dozens of social scientists had signed an open letter commenting on the ‘reconciliation’ aspect (blogs; see reference below), many historians also reacted against the commission’s historical methodology (DS 17 August).
These debates are likely to go on raging in the near future. Nevertheless, it is clear that the death of George Floyd has triggered a new era in Belgium’s postcolonial memory. For the first time, statues of Leopold II were removed from the public space and the Belgian King took a critical stance towards his predecessor. These are landmark moments that undoubtedly herald a more mature approach towards the colonial past.
About the author
This overview is based on newspaper articles in, among others, De Standaard (DS), De Morgen (DM), Het Laatste Nieuws (HLN), La Dernière Heure (LDH), Le Soir (LS) and La Libre (including La Libre Afrique – LLA). The reference to blogs relates to https://blogs.mediapart.fr/plis/blog/070720/pour-une-nouvelle-orientation-de-la-commission-verite-et-reconciliation. On Burundi, see: Stef Vandeginste, “Kolonialisme en herstel(betalingen): wat verwacht Burundi zelf?”, MO* (18 August 2020). For more extensive background information, see Idesbald Goddeeris (2016), “Colonial Streets and Statues: Postcolonial Belgium in the Public Space”, Postcolonial Studies, 18(4): 397-409 and idem (2020), “Mapping the Colonial Past in the Public Space. A Comparison between Belgium and the Netherlands”, BMGN - Low Countries Historical Review, 135(1): 70-94.