‘Belgium no longer looks at Africa in the same way’, says Thomas Dermine

By Olivier Caslin
Posted on Wednesday, 8 June 2022 10:50

Thomas Dermine was appointed Belgium's state secretary for recovery and strategic investments on 1 October, 2020. ©Jean-Luc Flémal/BELPRESS/MAXPPP
Thomas Dermine was appointed Belgium's state secretary for recovery and strategic investments on 1 October, 2020. ©Jean-Luc Flémal/BELPRESS/MAXPPP

Belgium's King Philippe has landed in the Democratic Republic of Congo for a six-day visit. His arrival comes two years after he wrote to DRC's President Félix Tshisekedi to express his "deep regret" for the "wounds of the past". This will be the King's first visit since he took the throne in 2013. High on the agenda will be the restitution of art objects explains Thomas Dermine, Belgium’s state secretary for recovery and strategic investments.

Thomas Dermine, who started out in the realm of economics and technological innovation, was appointed Belgium’s state secretary for recovery and strategic investments on 1 October 2020. In charge of federal science policy, he manages the restitution of art objects to the DRC, a dossier the De Croo government has been working on since early 2021. A fine example of the new generation that has taken over the reins in Belgium over the past eighteen months, this thirty-six year old intends to conduct the process swiftly.

This restitution process should contribute to reconciliation around a past common to both peoples.

Dermine goes through the restitution process with us as the Belgian King Philippe makes his official trip to the DRC from 7-13 June – his first visit to the country since the start of his reign in 2013  – accompanied by Queen Mathilde and Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.

How does the Belgian restitution project differ from those launched at the same time by other countries?

Thomas Dermine: The European states are certainly going through a questioning process concerning their colonial heritage. It is a subject that has generated passionate debate in Belgium. Where others focus on a particular collection or piece, we have decided to take a global approach to the entire collection, regardless of the object concerned.

This approach is not intended to be spectacular, but rather to provoke dialogue with the Congolese. This restitution process should contribute to reconciliation around a past common to both peoples.

How did the Congolese react?

The welcome was obviously warm. Now the Congolese have to think about putting in place the legal and legislative framework necessary for such a process. President Tshisekedi has made this one of his priorities, and the adoption of the texts could be “imminent”, in the words of Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde.

We have to dispel a myth… Not everything has been stolen.

The process is also underway in Belgium. A draft law is due to be put on the parliamentary agenda over the next few days, probably in the wake of the King’s official visit to the DRC. I hope that it will be approved quickly, so that a bilateral agreement can be signed between the two countries and the first returns can be envisaged before the end of this year.

What criteria were used?

Firstly, they are geographical, since the project only concerns DRC. In Rwanda and Burundi, we are still only in the experimental phase with much smaller collections. The second criterion is the period from 1885 to 1960, from the Congo Free State, the possession of King Leopold II, to the end of the colonial era.

The third criterion concerns the scope, since only the pieces belonging to the major federal institutions such as the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren or the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences are included.

What will happen to the Tervuren Museum after this restitution?

We have to dispel a myth. The AfricaMuseum shows less than 2% of its collection to the public, and the vast majority of these objects, well over 50%, were acquired in a perfectly legitimate manner. Not everything has been stolen.

So the AfricaMuseum has a large enough collection. Its teams are also involved in research work carried out jointly with the Congolese, in order to determine the provenance and mode of acquisition of objects for which these questions still arise today. The government has just allocated €2m to intensify this scientific collaboration.

Why are you starting this process now?

Because the question arises as to the legitimacy of possessing and showing objects around which there is doubt over their acquisition. The past exists, whether we regret it or not, and it needs to be clarified and contextualised, so that it can be used as a teaching tool.

More than a restitution, this is a reconstitution.

There is also certainly a generational aspect, with the arrival of officials who did not experience the colonial period and therefore have a different perception of it than their elders. I believe that the current government has only one minister who lived through this period. Belgium no longer looks at Africa in the same way.

What role did the African diaspora play in this matter?

They participated in the dialogue and were able to mobilise so that various issues were taken into account and put on the agenda.

But the diaspora’s influence stops there. For the technical aspects of the dossier, the speed and extent of this restitution, we are working exclusively with the Kinshasa authorities.

Do you also discuss conservation aspects together?

Above and beyond simple discussions, many scientific programmes already exist to accompany the Congolese and help African museums strengthen their capacities. The time of hiding behind technical arguments has passed.

From now on, we must ensure that we protect [cultural artefacts]. This return also comes at the request of the Congolese, who want to recover objects linked to certain ethnic groups in the country, and thus fill in the “holes” still missing in their cultural heritage. More than a restitution, it is a reconstitution.

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