What will it take to decolonise Belgium’s universities?

Nozizwe Dube is on a mission to decolonise Belgium’s universities, starting with her own. Taking down the statue of King Leopold II is just the first step.

“Justice is like a train that is nearly always late,” reads one of the signs from a protest condemning the death of a Black student from KU Leuven in Belgium. Another one reads: “We will not remain silent until there is justice for Sanda.”

In 2018, Sanda Dia, a 20—­year old civil engineering student, died after being “hazed” at the initiation ceremony of KU Leuven’s Reuze­gom fraternity—a group of predom­inantly rich and white members that has since been dismantled. But a recent investigation is cast­ ing doubt on whether Dia’s death was accidental, or whether it was a hate crime. It has sparked a new wave of protests on the universi­ty’s campus.

“The university needs to ac­knowledge its part in allowing the normalisation of racism and elitism within its institution. If KU Leuven were truly inclu­sive, then Sanda Dia would have never died,” says 25­—year old Nozi­zwe Dube. She is a law student and the coordinator of Undivided, a plat­ form for minority students at the university.

Dube’s organisa­tion has staged several demonstrations to seek justice for Dia after the 2018 inci­dent. It also gathered signatures to remember him and wrote an open letter to KU Leuven rector Luc Sels demanding that those involved in his death be brought to justice.

She has noticed how the Dia tragedy has brought out the un­ easiness many Belgians feel when discussing racism, even if they are aware of their country’s colonial past. At the same time, she feels the Black Lives Matter protests have increased the willingness of many Belgians to dismantle struc­tural racism in their country.

“Europe has this tradition of mis­treating Black lives, which stems from the continent’s colonial past. What we see now in Belgium however is not just Black activists criticising the display of colon­isers’ statues in the country, but also white people taking a stance on the matter and saying that celebrating a coloniser like King Leopold who was a mass killer is not okay.”

She adds that challenging struc­ tural racism starts in educational institutions. “I want to decolonise curricula. The university’s approach to teaching Belgium’s history is very Eurocentric. Colonisation is seen as something that brought the colonised countries hospitals and roads, but the horrors of slav­ ery are never really discussed.”


Dube tells an example from her friend’s medical course. “They would literally read in their text­ books that Black people are more likely to complain that they might be feeling sick, but that they’re usually exaggerating,” says Dube. “In philosophy courses, philoso­phers like John Locke are painted as progressives while many of them helped establish modern race theory, which was used to justify racism,” she adds.

Dube will never forget when, on her first day in high school, she was leafing through her history textbook when she came across a photo of half­naked Black people in a chapter on Congo’s history. They had white sheets wrapped around the waist, and their hands had been chopped off. To her surprise, when the chapter was discussed in class, the teacher focused exclusively on King Leop­ old II and his mining efforts—there was no mention of how Belgian colonisation had actually affected the Congolese people. The current relationship between Belgium and Congo was also ignored.

But decolonising a curriculum goes much further than just changing how history is taught. “European thought is taught as universal, when there are also ways to challenge it. For instance, European scholars could be ana­lysed from a non­white perspec­tive,” she explains.

Another problem is that history
teachers themselves are often not 18 representative of Belgian society.
University staff and lecturers—as well as researchers and students— are predominantly white, making it hard for students of colour who ac­ tually do manage to get into higher education to feel understood.

Undivided, Dube’s initiative, has been mostly met with defensive­ess on the part of KU Leuven’s faculty. “Some professors viewed us as extremely radical students. The term decolonisation was per­ceived as a threat.”


Dube’s mission to decolonise aca­ demia is highly personal. Originally from Zimbabwe, she migrated to Europe at the age of fourteen, after her mother arrived in Bel­gium as a refugee. Eventually, the family settled in their new home­ town of Tervuren.

By the age of 18 she was already the president of the Flemish Youth Council, and made regular appear­ances in Belgian media on issues ranging from voting rights to Brexit. But throughout her school life, she faced structural racism.

Many Afro­Belgian students are the first ones in their families to attend a Belgian university, where they are still a very small minority.

“Sometimes during lectures I look around the hall, and I’m the only Black person in a room of 200 people,” Nozizwe Dube says. “It’s a lonely feeling. The only time I might see other Black people during my day at the university, is when I enter the cafeteria where they work in the kitchen or in cleaning jobs.”

But Undivided is helping many Black students feel less alone. “Be­ ing part of a collective has helped me feel less fearful when calling out the university on the racism, sexism and elitism manifested in its structures,” Dube explains.


Over the course of 2020, several statues of Belgian King Leopold II, whose rule in Congo claimed the lives of an estimated 10 million Congolese, were taken down around the country after drawing criticism from anti­racist groups.

At Dube’s university, the bust of the king was removed in June. “Although historically important to our country, [King Leopold II] is not the kind of personality that we as the KU Leuven community want to assign such a place to,” KU Leuven rector Luc Sels said in a statement released on the university’s website.

It’s a start, but Dube’s mission of decolonising her university is far from over. She thinks universities across Belgium urgently need an anti­racist policy. “Claiming to be an inclusive university won’t make the university inclusive. It would need a clear anti­racism policy that is implemented by students and professors alike.”

It’s clear that Belgium still has a long road ahead when it comes to decolonising education. But Dube is optimistic. “When I moved to Belgium there were times when I felt I wasn’t being heard and I couldn’t find the right person to help me. Being a lawyer, I hope to support someone who needs it,” she says.

“If KU Leuven were truly inclusive, then Sanda Dia would have never died.”

Nozizwe Dube

“Claiming to be an inclusive university won't make the university inclusive.”

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