Belgian voters elected the first black mayor in their nation’s history on Sunday — a man originally from the huge swath of central Africa that Belgium brutalized for generations, in one of the harshest of the European colonial regimes.
Pierre Kompany, 71, who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo as a refugee in 1975, will be sworn in before the end of the year as the mayor of one of Brussels’s 19 boroughs, Ganshoren, where he was elected by an overwhelmingly white community.
“My success, my election, shows the direction of the march of history, which is towards a more peaceful history,” Mr. Kompany said on Monday. “I think one has to regard this as a victory for humanity as a whole.”
His election, he said, shows that Belgium has made significant progress in integrating a people whom, not so long ago, it systematically suppressed, exploited and almost annihilated.
For almost 80 years, until Congo won its independence in 1960, Belgium exercised a destructive colonial rule, extracting natural resources like ivory, rubber and minerals at a frightful human cost. Particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the Belgian King, Leopold II, wielded personal control of the colony, his forces relied on violence, terror and torture to turn much of the black population into a slave labor force, and they killed millions of people. From the 1920s onward, Belgium installed a de facto apartheid system.
But Belgium is, in fits and starts, reassessing its colonial past.
This year, a square in Brussels was named for the Congolese independence leader, Patrice Lumumba, whom Belgium helped overthrow. The government has fully opened its colonial archives on Rwanda, another former Belgian possession — the first step of its kind among Europe’s former colonial powers.
Later this year, Belgium will reopen its century-old Africa museum, which until five years ago presented a favorable image of colonialism. The revamped museum will tell a more critical story of European rule in Africa.
While his election is historic, Mr. Kompany, who has been a city councilor in Ganshoren since 2006, ran a decidedly local campaign, promising to help the elderly, expand day care availability and improve soccer fields.
His victory “marks the undeniable presence of the Congolese here in Belgium,” said Mathieu Zana Etambala, an emeritus professor of history at the Catholic University of Leuven, and an expert on African colonial history. “I’m especially proud, and so is the whole Congolese community, that a black man was directly elected by Belgians in a city like Ganshoren, which has maybe 100 people of Congolese origin.”
But Belgium still has far to go in reckoning with its legacy in Africa, said Mr. Etambala. “Most people don’t realize anymore what happened, I know of no politician who cares, colonial history is barely taught in primary school or even in high school.”
About 120,000 people of Congolese descent live in Belgium, which has a population of about 11 million.
Colonial policies that restricted migration and impoverished Congo kept the figure low for decades, “but prevailing racist views and systematic suppression in Belgian society should not be underestimated either,” said Maarten Couttenier, who researches colonialism at the Royal Museum for Central Africa.
As a university student in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, Mr. Kompany was imprisoned for more than a year for supporting protests against the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, he said, while dozens of his fellow students were killed.
Mr. Kompany fled to Belgium in 1975, completed his studies in engineering, worked as a taxi driver, and became a Belgian citizen. One of his three children, Vincent Kompany, is an international soccer star, who has served as the captain of both Manchester City and the Belgian national team.
A handful of people with sub-Saharan roots have been elected to other offices in Belgium, including two women who won seats on city councils on Sunday, said Elena Matundu, 50, the president of the Group of Integrated and Active African Women.
“This shows that we are part of this community,” she said, “that we are unerasable, that we are Belgian.”