King Philippe of Belgium. Picture: AFP/HECTOR RETAMAL
King Philippe of Belgium. Picture: AFP/HECTOR RETAMAL

Brussels — Belgium’s King Philippe expressed his “deepest regrets” on Tuesday for the harm done during Belgian colonial rule in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), in a first for his country.

Philippe, who has reigned since 2013, made his remarks in a letter to the president of the DRC, Félix Tshisekedi, on the 60th anniversary of the DRC’s independence on June 30 1960.

The death of African-American George Floyd in May by police in the US city of Minneapolis has stoked fresh debate in Belgium over its colonial record.

“I want to express my deepest regrets for these wounds of the past, whose pain is reawakened today by the discrimination still present in our societies,” Philippe said.

Historians say that millions of Africans from areas in what is now the DRC were killed, mutilated or died of disease as they worked on rubber plantations belonging to Belgium’s King Leopold II.

Philippe, without mentioning Leopold by name, said that during this period “acts of violence and cruelty were committed which weigh on our collective memory”.

“The colonial period which followed [1908-1960] also caused suffering and humiliation,” he said.

Philippe said he will combat all forms of racism and that he wants to encourage the reflection on the issue begun by the Belgian parliament so that such memories can be put to rest.

Several statues of Leopold, who ruled between 1865 and 1909, have been daubed with paint or torn down by protesters in Belgium in recent weeks, and a petition has been launched for their removal.

On Tuesday, the city of Ghent will mark the 60th anniversary of DRC independence by removing a statue of Leopold.

The French-speaking daily Le Soir welcomed the royal intervention in an editorial: “Finally, this gesture, so necessary, which lifts the King and his country.”

Through concession companies, Leopold II used forced labour to extract rubber in the DRC, among other things. Harsh treatment — up to the cutting off of hands for unproductive workers — have been documented.

According to most historians, the violence did not stop after Leopold II, and a regime of strict separation of blacks and whites, comparable to the apartheid of SA, was maintained for decades.

“We have heard of the famous ‘benefits of civilisation’ brought by the Belgians,” Romain Landmeters, a researcher at the University Saint-Louis in Brussels, said. “But between the roads, hospitals, schools, we know that everything that was built was essentially intended to serve this system of extraction and production of wealth for the settlers.”