Behind the statues, European colonialism persists in Africa’s diamond mines
Didier Reynders said sorry on Wednesday, of sorts.
The European Commissioner for Justice was being pressed by journalists on his decision to don ‘blackface’ make up as part of a 2015 ‘Zwarte Piet’ festival.
While the Belgian said “it is possible to apologize,” for the faux pas, he also expressed hesitancy at the idea of historical statues commemorating the lives of Belgian slave owners being removed in the country.
“I’m not sure the best way is to try to have a new version of the historical past,” he said.
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But this debate over the removal of historical statues, fabricated so as to appear that such actions could actually have a systemic impact on everyday manifestations of oppression experienced by ethnic minorities, completely misses the point.
It is indeed vital for our European cities to be disrobed of these cloaks of colonial tyranny, but the preoccupation with symbols and immaterial representations of slavery will not yield a tangible impact for those currently embedded in a wider ecosystem of suppression in Africa.
For Europe to sincerely devolve itself from any complicity in the ongoing subjugation of millions of Africans today, the time has come to relinquish our mad, feverish and self-indulgent obsession with diamonds.
Mechanisms thus far put in place including the 2003 Kimberly process, which attempts to prevent trade in ‘conflict diamonds’ – stones traded by rebel groups to finance conflicts with democratic governments, act as mere superficial scaffolding to the wider issues at play, with certain liberation movements, including the African People’s Solidarity Committee, claiming that trade in any diamonds emanating from Africa should be considered iniquitous.
For its part, the Kimberley Process introduced a certification scheme that aimed to distinguish between ‘conflict diamonds’ and diamonds produced under fair, sustainable and humane conditions.
“There should be no distinction between a conflict diamond and the diamonds certified under the Kimberley Process,” Penny Hess, Chairperson of the African People’s Solidarity Committee, told me, adding that she fears the weighty industrial support for the agreement has only served to exacerbate the exploitative conditions under which miners in Africa are subjected.
“Kimberley is nothing more than an attempt to conserve the diamond trade, which is unethical at its core.”
“It merely qualifies the operation of a genocidal industry which helps to maintain the spectre of European colonialism in Africa,” she said, referring to how some mining companies – including De Beers, which had an erstwhile monopoly on the market in the early 20th century, have exploited the Kimberley mechanism as a way of preserving the longevity of the diamond trade, despite a myriad of human rights concerns.
Since its inception, the Kimberley Process has provoked the ire of rights groups, some of which have argued that the agreement doesn’t provide adequate assurances that rough diamonds mined from Africa have been extracted under fair working conditions.
In 2016, Human Rights Watch distanced themselves from becoming involved in the program, saying that the group’s definition of conflict diamonds is far too narrow, and the Canadian NGO ‘Impact’ rescinded its membership in 2017, noting that as part of the scheme, consumers were being given ‘false confidence.’
Since then, to its credit, the EU has come out in support of reforming the 54-member-strong process.
At the end of April, the EU’s foreign affairs chief Joseph Borrell reiterated his commitment to rebuilding the accord, “in particular on the issue of broadening the definition of conflict diamonds,” adding nonetheless that “any decision on the definition of ‘conflict diamonds’ requires consensus among all Kimberley Process participating countries,” which, frankly, looking at some of the members, will not be easy to do.
The EU itself, a ‘major centre for the diamond trade,’ according to the European Commission, counts as one member of the scheme, and has its own internal spoils with regards the diamond business. Indeed, the world’s largest diamond trade centre is right here in Belgium.
Before the coronavirus outbreak hit Europe, Antwerp had been receiving an average of up to 500 shipments per day, totalling approximately $250 million according to the Antwerp World Diamond Center (AWDC), as reported in Reuters.
Take a brief saunter in Antwerp’s famous diamond district and you’ll subject yourself to an encyclopaedic history of Belgium’s chapter in this enterprise – you may perhaps come across a statue (would you believe it?) of 15th century Flemish jeweller Lodewyk van Bercken, who in 1456 invented the diamond polishing wheel, which revolutionized the commercial potential of the industry.
More recently, while exports to Belgium have been severely hit as mines across Africa went on coronavirus lockdown, their gradual reopening means that the trade is again likely to rise to previous levels – that is, unless there manifests a paradigm shift in term of how we perceive diamonds in general.
“Hundreds of thousands of people in Europe are walking around with blood on their hands – literally,” Hess says, “but there is a burgeoning awareness among consumers in the West about these issues – people are waking up to the fact that all diamonds are blood diamonds.”
“Europe is key. Over a million workers in African mines make less than two dollars a day and child workers are treated horrendously.”
The current debate in Brussels and beyond concerning the vulgarity of ‘Zwarte Piet’ and the statues of historic slave owners is by all means a legitimate deliberation.
But at its core, this level of discussion is shallow, rudimentary and, dare I say it, insulting to the millions of Africans who are currently submerged in a suffocating cesspit of exploitation – a trade built and maintained by European hands. I’m sure these people would much prefer our attention to be invested in causes that could make a material, tangible and enduring impact on their lives. Along this axis, the diamond game should be at the forefront of our minds.
“Africa must have full control over its continent,” Hess says – an impassioned dispatch in her voice pursuing a crescendo. “It’s time, once and for all, for the West to put down its diamonds and step away.”
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.