The cleaners who came for King Leopold II in Brussels this July knew what to do. Many times over the past few years, they have used chemicals to dissolve words such as “assassin”, “racist” and “murderer” scrawled across the statue on the Place du Trône.
As before, they removed the blood-red paint protesters had dumped on his hands. But this time they missed a spot: the fingertips and palm of his curled right hand were still crimson.
As protests following the killing of George Floyd in the US reverberated around the world this summer, Belgium, like many other countries, experienced its own reckoning: with a brutal colonial past, with the systemic racism that inhibits its black citizens today and with the question of what exactly it owes to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which it exploited for 75 years.
With thousands taking to the streets to protest police brutality, racial profiling and racism, Belgium’s leaders came under pressure to respond. In a June 30 letter to DRC President Felix Tshisekedi on the 60th anniversary of the country’s independence, King Philippe for the first time expressed his “deepest regrets” for the “acts of violence and cruelty” committed by Belgium and linked that period to racism today.
If not quite an apology, it was a big step for an institution that was still celebrating bringing its civilising mission to Congo not long ago. That same month, Belgium’s parliament launched a truth, reconciliation and — crucially — reparations commission to examine its plunder of Congo under Leopold II and the following half-century of colonialism.
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