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Pierre Kompany, “First Black mayor of Belgium”

Before anything else, Pierre Kompany is a courageous man. A man of integrity, too, who can make a difference in Belgian politics.

Photo: Pierre Kompany/Facebook

Shortly after his election as mayor of Ganshoren, a Brussels municipality, Pierre Kompany retweeted this tweet :

It is, of course, true that Kompany is the first black mayor in Belgium — but maybe, with white Belgians of Tintin country, this should trigger some serious self-reflection, rather than this airy euphoria that seems to breeze through at least the liberal population of the country.

Here we are, in nearly 2019, and contrary to everything our common humanity could have hoped for, the colour of Pierre Kompany’s skin is the newsworthy item — even for the New York Times :

Nowhere in the international press were these Belgian elections mentioned. And why should they have been? These were just city council elections, of local interest only. But the fact that one small Belgian town has — finally — a Subsaharan mayor makes for headlines around the world.

Pierre Kompany is, too, the father of Vincent Kompany. So some major news outlets, amongst others the BBC, CNN and even the Frankfurter Allgemeine, saw fit to bring the event under the Sports news.

Vincent Kompany himself, together with his brother François, posted a congratulations video on Instagram, pointedly remarking, “It was long overdue, but it’s progress.”:

Pierre Kompany has been active in local Brussels politics for over a decade now. Nor is he the only politician with Subsaharan roots in Belgium. There is, for example, the splendid, remarkable Assita Kanko, who raised many an eyebrow and a general tut-tutting and wary shakings of heads with her election campaign clip in 2014:

Assita Kano is a talented columnist and book author. She was an elected representative in Ixelles (Brussels), before founding the Belgian political incubator Polin (website in French, Dutch or German). Polin, a unique initiative, wants to help women enter and make progress in politics and leadership positions.

Stromae too — probably the most famous Belgian artist today — has given subtle political messages from time to time. He wrote the official hymn for the Belgian Red Devils at the 2014 World Cup. In the clip for the brilliantly dark Ta Fête, he appears as the villain of the piece, in Mobutu outfit and with typical Mobutuan attitude:

And while we are on the topic of the Red Devils: many of the Red Devils with Subsaharan roots, among them Romelu Lukaku, Christian Kabasele and Vincent Kompany himself, have been vocal about their country’s politics in the past.

In spite of these successful, eminently outspoken and prominent young role models, racism in Belgium is a deep-seated cancer, made salonfähig once again by the discourse of the political (extreme) Right. It shows its ugly head in the most hideous ways.

Cécile Dunga’s poignant and angry testimony is a case in point. Dunga is the only weather presenter with Subsaharan roots on the French-language public service broadcaster RTBF (in French, partly translated in this Guardian article):

She reacts to the endless stream of racist slurs and insults she has received over this one year she has worked for the RTBF. The latest was a telephone call from a woman who needed to tell Cécile Dunga that she is “too black, one can distinguish only her clothes on the screen.”

Dunga isn’t speaking out just for herself — she wants Belgium to finally come to grips with its colonial past. She believes that current racism has everything to do with the silence, the ignorance, and the willing avoidance of the truth about its former colony. In spite of Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost (1998) and David van Reybrouck’s epic Congo (2010), silence continues to reign in Belgium on the crimes of Leopold II in his private property the Congo Free State, and of the Belgian State in the governance of its colony, Belgian Congo. There simply is no debate.

So should Cécile Djunga’s urgent message, too, have sparked a debate — only it didn’t. The usual suspects gave their usual statements — urgent calls for action, even. Since then, silence. Silence is the secret weapon of Belgium: ignoring the facts so long until they go away.

What in German is called Aufarbeitung, the reappraisal and possible reparation of the past, is a non-issue in Belgium. I should know. In school, in the 1970s, I was told that Belgium’s treatment of its colonial subjects was humane, “in comparison” — and anyway, Belgian rule in the Congo ended in 1960. Congo was a fait divers, a footnote in Belgian history, something that was over and done with. Patrice Lumumba, need I say it, was never mentioned in my entire school career. We were not being told lies — we were being told nothing at all. Silence is a most powerful way to stimulate incuriosity, ignorance and disinterest. Africa, in most Belgian minds, is a blur — a blur only punctuated by the occasional tribal war or famine. Statues of Leopold II, however, remain part of the Belgium architectural landscape.

In 2010, Pierre Kompany went back to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, for the first time in 35 years. He visited the SOS Children’s Villages together with his son, Vincent, who is an ambassador for the Villages.

In this interview from 2010 (in French), he speaks of his renewed hopes for the future of Congo, and how he was agreeably surprised by the high standards of education, even in the remotest of villages. And he tells the story of Divine, a little girl in the village school he was visiting. Pierre Kompany, himself no mean footballer, started a ball game with the kids — the “ball” being a piece of foam wrapped in plastic and held together with a piece of string. Kompany, ardent champion of gender equality, then encouraged the girls to take part in a race — which is still far from self-evident in those backwoods places. Seeing those kids running like crazy was such a captivating spectacle that passing women stopped to applaud and encourage the girls. And finally it was this girl named Divine — ”as if the devil had had a hand in it” — who won the race under a thundering applause.

Kompany’s enthusiasm when he talks about Divine is contagious. Vincent Kompany, too, spoke with emotion about this trip with his father:

Pierre Kompany was born in 1947 in Bukavu, a pretty little town on Lake Kivu in eastern Congo, very close to the border with Rwanda. In his youth, he played as a striker for Tout Puissant Mazembe of Lubumbashi, one of the most successful football teams in Africa ever. He gave up football for his engineering studies at the then called University of Lovanium in Kinshasa. In 1969, however, students’ uprisings against the Mobutu regime grew louder, then deafening — and bloody. In June 1969, Mobutu ordered opening fire on protesters, killing tens of students. Pierre Kompany escaped with his life. The days that followed were marked by mass arrests of students, the closing of several university establishments and the banning of student associations. Two years later, Kompany decided to take up his studies in Lubumbashi. In solidarity with the ongoing students uprisings, he signed a petition against the regime. It would prove to be an unforgivable crime. Soon after, Mobutu ordered the closure of the universities and the enforced subscription into the army of the arrested students. Kompany, together with 260 other students, was locked up for 13 months in the military base of Kitiona, deprived of any contact with the outside world.

In 1975 he came to Belgium as a political refugee — a Sans Papiers. While waiting for a permanent residence permit, he worked as a taxi driver and in other contemporary jobs. It took the Belgian government seven long years to grant Kompany a residence permit and Belgian citizenship. Finally he was able to finish his studies. He got married, worked as an industrial engineer and as a teacher at the Institut des Arts et Métiers in Brussels, got three children. Since 2006 he has been politically active.

Now, 71 years old, Pierre Kompany, with 1327 preferential votes in the city council elections, has become, indeed, the “first black mayor of Belgium”.

Before anything else, Pierre Kompany is a courageous man. It is not the colour of his skin, nor being the father of, but his own life story that proves him to be an exceptional human being.

For Belgium, it is once again, too little, too late. Representatives of Belgians with all roots and colours should by now have taken their rightful place in society, in politics and in the government of the country.

In April 2018, Patrice Lumumba Square in Brussels was inaugurated — something that had been long requested by African and Congolese communities in Brussels.

A nice gesture, and this, too, long overdue. Especially in view of the fact that no reparations, not even excuses from the Belgian government for past colonial crimes have ever been extended. In. 2001, Lumumba’s sons started a court case against Belgium, “for hiding its role in the murder.” Investigations were started, a parliamentary report was published — but nobody involved has ever been tried before a Belgian court, let alone been condemned.

On the bright side: the Royal Museum For Central Africa, currently under renovation, will reopen on 9 December 2018. The renovation will present the visitor with a “contemporary and decolonised vision of Africa in a building which had been designed as a colonial museum.” The museum is in possession of absolutely unique collections, and now proposes to become a place of memory on the colonial past and a platform for exchanges and dialogues between cultures and generations.

And more encouraging news: the VRT, the Dutch-language public service broadcaster, has just announced a new documentary, starting November 20, about Belgium’s colonial past: ”Children of the Colony” (in Dutch, but many interviews in French). For the first time on Flemish television, Congolese people will be sharing their experiences of the past and talk about how the colonial legacy has determined their lives.

“I think Belgian history should be rewritten, with awareness of those immigration waves and the recognition that much of Belgium’s wealth originates from Congo.”
Elikia M’Bokolo, professor at Kinshasa University

Might something be moving at last?

Royal Museum For Central Africa © Photo Johan Bakker

Further Reading & Practical Info:

The Museum is currently under renovation, and will reopen on 9 December 2018.