This country with a colonial history has a blackface problem

"The Savage" at August's festival in Ath, which attracted worldwide attention.

(CNN)When the festive figure Sinterklaas rolled through the Dutch town of Apeldoorn in November, he was greeted by TV crews, cheering crowds, and an inevitable round of furious protests.

The anger was not directed at Sinterklaas himself, whose annual "arrival" festival marks the start of the Christmas season in the country. It was aimed at his sidekick, Black Pete -- whose appearance in blackface, a curly afro wig and red lipstick divides the country on an annual basis.
But while controversies over the continued existence of Black Pete in the Netherlands have become as well-established a tradition as the character itself, one if its bordering nations is yet to hold a reckoning over its own relationship with blackface.
    Belgium has a blackface problem. The country shares in the Black Pete tradition, albeit less enthusiastically than the Netherlands. But around Belgium, few seasons pass without folkloric festivals revolving around characters in the racist garb -- and while its use has become polarizing around the world, Belgium has a casual approach to the tradition that is jarring to many outsiders.
    It's an attitude that goes back generations to Belgium's colonial era, say experts -- and a 21st century reappraisal seems some distance away.
    Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) in Antwerp.
    Even those in power join in; longtime Flemish Culture Minister Sven Gatz wore blackface at an event in 2015, before responding: "Engaged against racism all my (political) life. And now I'm an ordinary racist because I colored my face dark. Come on. Love. Don't hate." to critics on Twitter. 
    Former Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders even gave a TV interview while wearing blackface in 2015, attracting heat internationally but causing little damage to his career at home; earlier this year, he was the country's nomination to become President of the European Commission.
    Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders gives a TV interview while wearing blackface.
    And earlier this year, Belgium's controversial Africa Museum -- which has attempted to lead a re-education in the country about its colonial history -- was condemned for allowing an Africa-themed party in its grounds, to which a guest was seen in blackface and several others in stereotypical clothing.
    "You can talk about blackface in Belgium pretty much every day," anti-racism campaigner Mouhad Reghif told CNN. "I'm tired of trying to explain to hundreds of people that blackface is racist."
    Reghif has long led a fight against Belgium's relationship with blackface -- but that battle took an ugly turn on a sweaty, stifling afternoon earlier this year.

    'I could have been really harmed'

    Undeterred by a spell of oppressively hot weather, thousands of people clogged the streets of a medieval Belgian town in August. They had gathered to drink, dance and enjoy the annual folkloric parade that sweeps through Ath; a festival dating back centuries, held to commemorate the unlikely biblical victory of David against Goliath.
    It's a story Reghif felt he could relate to; but unlike the masses surrounding him, he was not there to celebrate.
    Dressed in a hat and sunglasses and surrounded by plain clothed police officers, Reghif instead tried to disappear into the crowd. "I was really scared people would recognize me," he told CNN by telephone. "If they did only part of what they'd promised me in their threats and messages, I could have been really harmed."
    The anti-racism activist was a target for one reason. He had spent much of the past year leading a high-profile and deeply controversial campaign against the parade's central character, "The Savage" -- a sinister villain, played by a white man in blackface, who appears bound by chains with a ring through his nose.
    "The Savage" during last month's festival in Ath.