Go back far enough, and you will see that behind every great fortune is a crime. But it takes a special kind of privilege to display the evidence of those crimes as a matter of collective cultural pride. Mwazulu Diyabanza, a Congolese national and the leader of a pan-African movement called Yanka Nku (Unity, Dignity, Courage) has been fined and charged with theft in multiple countries in Europe for “stealing”, publicly, stolen and pillaged African artefacts that have found their way into these countries’ museums. His protest is meant to draw attention to the iniquities of colonialism — he and his group chant “give us our riches back” and “we are taking it home” while committing their “crime”.
The First World’s defence for the plunders of colonialism has been, at least in liberal circles, that we are sorry, and hope gradually — and often merely symbolically — to address the injustices of history. But as Diyabanza told The Guardian, talk is fine, but “action is needed” and the injustices of colonialism can ultimately be addressed only through reparations.
Protests like Diyabanza’s are likely to remain on the fringe. Those with accumulated privilege are comfortable with academic explorations of historical injustice – as the British Museum has done – but not with bearing the financial burden of moral restitution. And to be fair, European countries are not the only ones that avoid a reckoning with their past. In the US, there’s race and the treatment of Native Americans, and in the Indian Subcontinent, there’s caste. In fact, even minimal measures — like affirmative action and international aid — are viewed as either pandering or charity. Historical injustice is relegated to, well, history. In the face of this certainty and the powerful interests that back the plunder in their museums as culture, perhaps a little bit of counter-theft is understandable if not forgiven.