The World Today for June 21, 2023


Contextual Legacies


History has been stirring passion in Belgium as the country prepares to celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2030.

When authorities announced they would spiff up the triumphal arch in the Parc du Cinquantenaire in Brussels – a monument built in 1880 to commemorate the European country’s first 50 years of existence – critics noted that they failed to include any references to Belgian colonization and decolonization in Africa.

“For me, the Parc du Cinquantenaire remains a park strongly linked to the exploitation of Congo,” said Georgine Dibua Mbombo, who runs Bakushinta, an organization that promotes Congolese culture in Belgium, in an interview in the Guardian.

Belgium controlled Congo from 1885 to 1960, including 25 years when the entire African nation, then called the Congo Free State, was considered the personal property of Belgian King Leopold II, explained TRT World. Belgium’s current monarch, King Philippe, has expressed his “deepest regrets” for the 10 million Congolese people who died under Leopold’s brutal rule due to famine, disease, and violence. His critics say Philippe has yet to fully apologize, however.

Meanwhile, curators at the Africa Museum in Tervuren near Brussels have been working with experts to redress their colonial legacy. Leopold II founded the museum. Among its first exhibits were live Congolese people who had been forcibly taken from their homes, wrote the BBC. Now the museum has special educational displays that include explanations for racist statues that formerly might have stood in the building without any such context.

Such efforts might be bearing fruit. In 2001, 95 percent of Belgians believed colonization was positive. Last year, only 35 percent shared that view.

Today, the symbol of post-imperial Belgium might be the Palace of Justice, reported the New York Times. Built in 1883, the building was once the largest in the world. But it has been undergoing renovations since 1984. Since then, the crumbling palace and the botched repair job have become a metaphor for a country that arguably is equally dysfunctional: three officials languages (French, Dutch, and German); one federal and six local parliaments; a myriad of political parties – and the Flemish separatist movement. These layers are one reason why Belgium recently endured two years without a government.

Enlivening the electorate could be one reason Belgium is allowing voters as young as 16 to cast ballots in the European Parliamentary election next year, wrote Politico. Austria, Greece, and Malta also have similarly lowered voting ages for the same elections, noted Euronews.

The Belgians seem to have learned that everyone has the right to try to make history.

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