The decolonization of Belgian public space

The decolonization of the Belgian public space is an issue of a territorial, societal and ethical nature, which takes an important place in the Belgian public debate. But what is this concept? Why is this question debated? Are changes afoot? What solutions could achieve consensus? Let's try to answer these questions!


Since 2020, the theme of decolonization of public space has been very present in public and political debates in Belgium. Indeed, citizen demands asking to decolonize the public space of Belgian cities have taken on a spectacular scale with the resurgence of the movement Black Lives Matter, which occurred following the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. This man, an African-American, died of suffocation under the knee of a police officer who was trying to arrest him... This event was the trigger for a series of demonstrations called: “ Black Lives Matter » (BLM) during which the [1] demanded an end to structural racism and police violence against black people, but also a reconstruction of public space heavily imbued with references that glorify the colonial period in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi[2]in the direction of the demonstrations to begin a reflection on the question and propose recommendations. This one took out his report. But does this report announce the launch of a real decolonial reconstruction?[3] Brussels and, more broadly, Belgian public? However, to answer this question and clarify the debate somewhat, other points deserve to be addressed first.


Firstly, to talk about the decolonization of the public space, it is interesting to return to the definition of “decolonization”. The report "Towards the Decolonization of public space in the Brussels-Capital Region» explains the action of decolonization as the “historical process of liberating colonized peoples from the domination of their colonizers”[4]. Despite the accuracy that this definition may reveal, it lends itself, more particularly, to decolonization actions carried out during the independence and post-independence period of the 1960s. In this context, it is therefore preferable to attach to a more global definition like that proposed by the Colonial Memory and Fight against Discrimination Collective (CMCLCD) in a letter addressed to Brussels parliamentarians on June 14, 2021: decolonization is “the total or ongoing break with any persistence or reminiscence of the colonial fact in all its human, philosophical, cultural, political, economic, social or scientific aspects". Next, it is important to clarify what we mean by “public space”[5]. It is a “space shared between citizens, in the sense that it can be accessible, directly or indirectly, by all or that it can be a place of relationships or social interactions between all »[6].

To use the terms of the Colonial Memory Collective (CMCLCD), this decolonization must be seen as “a rupture or deconstruction (by contextualization for example) of said space and what is there to be decolonized, namely publications of a political, cultural nature , anthropological having had or always has the aim of alienating a part of the population and making it adhere actively or passively to the colonial fact.

Now, this insight allows us to more easily understand the notion of decolonization of public space. The idea is to rebuild public space, bearing in mind that the current construction of things is exclusive and unequal with regard to certain citizens. Currently, public space is dotted with numerous colonial references, illustrating unequal and racialized relationships between formerly colonizing and colonized individuals. The objective is not to remove all traces of colonial history that constitute public space, but rather to adapt them to highlight the history of colonization from all its angles, recalling and commemorating history colonized people as well as that of the colonizing people. The final objective being the pacification of the minds and the reconciliation of these people.


Although decolonization movements are not new, the desire to decolonize our public space takes a large place in the current public debate. We can note, on the one hand, that several citizen protest actions had already called into question the references to Belgian colonial history. On the other hand, certain municipal and regional decisions had also proposed new arrangements to make the representation of colonization in the public space more objective and less controversial. In this regard, a multitude of examples can be given.

Already in 1919, when the Congolese Union[7] worked for wider recognition of Congolese fighters who served during the First World War. Paul Panda Farnana, founder of the Union, managed to have a memorial erected in honor of the unknown Congolese soldier. In 1986, the Congolese author Ekanga Shungu wrote Black Africa in Brussels and describes the Matonge district as the crossroads of all African ethnic groups. As for the decolonial walks, the first date from 1994, when the Elzenhof Community Center in Ixelles organized walks to highlight colonial references in Matonge. LONG, Cooperation Education Culture (CEC), in partnership with representatives of civil society from Matonge initiates the first fresco of contemporary African art in Brussels public space. For this occasion, it is the Congolese painter Cheri Samba, who creates a gigantic painting entitled “Matonge-Ixelles. Porte de Namur! Gate of Love?". In 2002, the visual artist, Toma Muteba Luntumbue, covered the statue of General Storms in the Meeûs square and the Monument to the Belgian Pioneers in the Congo in the Cinquantenaire park with blood-red sheets, to oppose the glorification of the past Belgian colonial in its public space. Outside of Brussels, this decolonial momentum is also making its mark. For example, in 2006, the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debts (CADTM) campaigned for the city of Liège to remove the commemorative plaque from the town hall, in honor of the Liège residents who “died for civilization”. . Moreover, it is precisely certain members of the CADTM who created the Collectif Mémoires Coloniales, in 2008. Their objective was to reconstruct the public space around a representation taking into account the negative aspects of colonization and integrating the forgotten figures of this era[8].

For the 50e anniversary of the independence of the Congo, Lucas Catherine publishes his work Walks in the Congo. A short anti-colonial guide to Belgium which, as the title indicates, offers walks visiting the Belgian colonial past through its heritage, from an innovative and critical angle. In 2015, a demonstration in Trône around the equestrian statue of Leopold II opposed the tribute that the city of Brussels wanted to pay to the second king of the Belgians, and caused the event to be suspended. In 2017, a working group was formed by the Anderlecht municipal council to contextualize certain colonial buildings constituting Anderlecht public space. During the year 2018, several statues to the glory of Leopold II were vandalized in Brussels and at the same time, the Belgian Afro-Descendants Muntu Committee (BAMKO) association wanted to put Patrice Lumumba in the spotlight and erected a traveling statue of the first Congolese Prime Minister in Brussels. But 2018 is also the year of the inauguration of Square Lumumba in Brussels and of some changes in street names in Wallonia to honor certain Congolese historical figures.[9].

In view of all these examples, it is clear that this desire to decolonize public space is not as recent as one might believe. Despite everything, the year 2020 left its mark because this decolonization movement had never taken on such magnitude. First of all, a petition, launched at the end of May 2020 and attacking the statues of Leopold II, gathered more than 20,000 signatures in less than a week. Then, despite the health restrictions put in place due to the spread of Covid-19, several gatherings in the cities of Brussels, Ghent and Liège took place without authorization between 1er and June 6, 2020. On June 7, a demonstration, this time authorized by the Brussels authorities and bringing together more than 10,000 people, was able to denounce once again structural racism and the colonial construction of public space . During these protests, several statues commemorating the colonial past were vandalized, often painted blood red or removed from their bases. Several municipal or university authorities have also decided to withdraw certain statues or colonial references, such as the municipality of Hal or Auderghem or the University of Louvain or Mons[10]. Finally, in June 2022, the municipality of Ixelles withdrew the statue of Emile Storms, from the Square de Meeûs, and placed it in the Ixelles museum.

To conclude this part, it is interesting to ask why it is so important to decolonize public space. The Belgian public space, and even more so in Brussels, is imbued with numerous references glorifying and promoting the colonial enterprise. These statues, squares and street names were designed to justify the importance of colonial projects in the eyes of the Belgian population. Unfortunately, this promotion of the colonial project still allows the perpetuation of racist and discriminatory ideas inherited from colonization in Belgian public opinion. As a result, many Afrodescendants are uncomfortable and revolted by this racist, stereotypical and colonial imagination that Belgium continues to expose. Certain elements of Belgian heritage are therefore synonymous with deep identity and societal discomfort for part of the population, and consequently, it is essential to rebuild public space in a more inclusive and modern way.


On July 17, 2020, the Brussels parliament adopted the proposed resolution “relating to the structural and inclusive decolonization of Brussels public space”[11], by recognizing the decolonization of public space as the objective of public policy. Even if it is mainly a declaration of intent, this resolution is, for the moment, the first political commitment that goes in this direction. Thanks to this resolution, Brussels deputies therefore asked the Brussels government to take decisions and implement this objective. The Secretary of State for Urban Planning and Heritage, Pascal Smet, formed a working group at the end of 2020 and tasked them with proposing recommendations. This working group was made up of four members of the Brussels administrations and sixteen members of the voluntary sector. Their report was released in February 2022 and asserts the following thesis: “Since the end of the 19th century, the public space of Brussels has been dotted with elements created from a unilateral and propagandist perspective which was based on a certain number of myths and historically questionable facts and which obviously does not take into account the interpretation nor the presence of colonial subjects and their descendants. This public space is currently no longer adapted to the vision of the current inhabitants of Brussels, as demonstrated by the mobilizations of activists for many years. What was normal yesterday is no longer normal today»[12]. This traces colonial history and also provides intervention strategies, legal benchmarks and recommendations to succeed in reconstructing public space in a decolonial manner. These recommendations propose several projects and actions to achieve a more balanced representation also referring to Congolese, Rwandan and Burundian people who suffered and fought against colonization.

According to the report, this work should begin by establishing a dialogue between citizens, the associative world and the local authorities concerned. A dialogue, to critically dissect the current colonial narrative, proposing “counter-narratives” and solutions that ensure the visibility of Afro-descendants, without erasing the other side of colonial history . Subsequently, this participatory process should lead to the establishment of more global memory work on the colonial past. The changing of the names of streets, squares, tunnels and stops as well as a commemorative day, a documentation center, a monument and a memorial space in honor of the victims of the colonial enterprise are among the recommendations. concrete data given by the working group. In addition, the report recommends continuing and increasing awareness-raising initiatives in the associative sector, animating the debate around this theme.[13].


In view of the recommendations proposed by the Brussels report and the demands launched by civil society actors such as the CMCLCD, BAMKO or Intal, numerous initiatives exist to empty the Belgian public space of obvious signs of colonization. However, it is not easy to agree on lasting and proportionate solutions that satisfy everyone. In this last part, we will therefore review all of these ideas.

Thus, certain activist movements would like to remove and place in museums multiple colonial monuments to put an end to the glorification of these figures of colonization, such as King Leopold II or General Storms, most of whose statues are placed in significant places in the Belgian capital[14], For example. Some civil society activists, in a more radical way, also speak of destroy these statues and replace them by sculptures in the image of African figures of colonization. But will the removal and replacement of these buildings allow for a fair and proportionate reconstruction of public space? Many historians, like a large part of the Belgian population, contest this idea and are categorically opposed to the destruction of this heritage.[15].

In another vein, several civil society organizations are proposing to affix a text of contextualization on colonial monuments to explain why this statue was built and what it refers to, as has already been done in certain localities. However, the way to “contextualize” will have to be decided in a participatory and coordinated manner between the different actors linked to this question. For others, this contextualization should be accompanied by a artistic evolution colonial works. For example, the authorities in charge of rebuilding public space could ask Congolese, Rwandan or Burundian artists to add a reference to heroines, victims or resistance fighters of colonization on existing buildings. Without forgetting that this contextualization should affect all colonial references in public space, that is to say, statues, memorials, names of streets, squares, tunnels, bus stops, trams , metro and train[16].

Furthermore, the erection of statues in honor of independence figures, resistance figures and victims of the colonial period would also be a strategy to diversify and decolonize Belgian heritage. The first step in this direction was seen in June 2018, with the inauguration of the Patrice Lumumba square located at the entrance to the Matonge district, in the commune of Ixelles (at Porte de Namur). Moreover, this idea is accompanied, for some, by a desire to erect a memorial in tribute to the victims of colonial imperialism. Although this type of project would allow a certain decolonization of public space, the Ecolo deputy, Kalvin Soiresse, drew attention to the fact of not depicting the Congolese, Rwandans or Burundians only as “ mere passive victims” of colonization. Indeed, the colonized populations also formed resistance against the colonial enterprise and paying homage to them only as victims would erase their just memory. As a result and with the aim of perpetuating research around this theme, the CMCLD highlighted the wish to set up a “institute for the memory of colonization". This institute would raise awareness, inform and train the public on the history of colonization and maintain dialogue and research on decolonization.[17]. In addition, members of the association BAMKO, proposes to diversify the people we put forward in the public space, inevitably by integrating African figures, but also by including women.

Despite these numerous proposals, it is difficult to define precisely what would be the best solutions for decolonizing the Belgian public space. However, with all these avenues of action and the continuation of the debate on the subject, it will be possible to find solutions satisfying a large majority of public opinion, without radically removing all traces of history.

Far from being exhaustive, this inventory nevertheless shows that the decolonization of public space is a subject which is of greater interest to citizens. This decolonization is becoming a real societal issue to which it is essential to combine policies providing for the development of heritage to make it more representative, inclusive and egalitarian. From now on, the work started by the associative world as well as by the Brussels working group must serve to truly begin a decolonial reconstruction of the Belgian public space. The report from the Brussels working group can therefore be seen as an act potentially creating change, but does not offer any concrete progress. But, it has an important symbolic force given that it represents the first report requested by a government and recognizes the decolonization of public space as the objective of public policy. However, as the Brussels report explains, the associative sector is required to continue its work of information and awareness among citizens to, once again, highlight the importance of the duty of memory . However, the work of memory does not stop at the decolonization of public space, but must take the form of a decolonization of consciences to have an impact in all spheres of society.

Clara Gatugu.


[1] In this context, an “activist” is seen as a person committing, generally collectively, to a cause, of a political, social, associative, religious, etc. nature.

[2] “Tributes, parliamentary commission, regrets from the King, statues: the consequences in Belgium after the death of George Floyd”, RTBF, May 2021

[3] “Towards the Decolonization of public space in the Brussels-Capital Region: framework for reflection and recommendations”,, February 2022.

[4] Ibid., p. 49.

[5] Letter from the Colonial Memory and Fight against Discrimination Collective of June 14, 2021: “On the necessity and urgency of the decolonization of public space”.

[6] Op cit.

[7] First Belgian Congolese association, described as an “association for mutual aid and moral development of the Congolese race”. This nationalist and pan-Africanist association aims to integrate more Congolese into the administration, improve access to education and limit forced labor in the Belgian Congo.

[8] Op cit.

[9] Op cit.

[10] Arnaud Lismond-Mertes, “The decolonization of public space”, Together, n° 103, October 2020

[11] Brussels Parliament, Resolution relating to the structural and inclusive decolonization of Brussels public space as part of a work of dialogue and memory, July 17, 2020.

[12] Op cit.

[13] Op cit.

[14] Like the Place du Trône or the Parc du Cinquantenaire which are important places in the capital.

[15] Céline Teret, “Decolonizing public space”, Journal The essentials, September 2020.

[16] Op cit.

[17] Ibid.


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