Tue, Apr 07, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Colonial statues in the crosshairs

Activists in South Africa are demanding that statues symbolizing apartheid and white oppression be torn down or placed in museums

By Christopher Torichia  /  AP, CAPE TOWN, South Africa

A statue of British colonizer Cecil John Rhodes is covered in plastic bags as part of a protest by students and staff of the University of Cape Town last month. Student activists want the statue torn down, calling it a symbol of white oppression.


It began with a container of excrement.

On March 9, a South African student protester tossed feces on a statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, igniting nationwide calls to remove other statues of former white leaders. A statue of Britain’s King George V on a University of KwaZulu-Natal campus was splattered with white paint. Some activists want a statue of Paul Kruger, a white Boer leader in the late 19th century, to be shifted from a central square in Pretoria, the capital, to a museum.

The uproar is part of a larger discourse about change in South Africa, where the legacy of apartheid, the white minority rule that ended two decades ago, is often blamed for economic inequality, a struggling education system and other problems.

Mthunzi Mthimkhulu, a technology consultant and former student at the University of Cape Town, stood last week near the Rhodes statue, which had been wrapped in black garbage bags by protesters. Obscene graffiti covered the pedestal.

“We don’t need reminders of where we came from. We know our struggles,” he said. “What we need is things that will take us forward.”


By Sunday, the Rhodes statue was boarded up, its days apparently numbered. University Vice-Chancellor Max Price, who is white, described Rhodes as a “villain” and said the statue should be moved. Rhodes, who died in 1902, was “a kind of colonial warlord” and “ardent segregationist” who made a fortune in mining and grabbed land from the local population, said Paul Maylam, a history professor at Rhodes University in the South African city of Grahamstown. Rhodes was also associated with education and philanthropy, partly because of scholarships that carry his name, Maylam said.

There have been calls for Rhodes University’s name to be changed. University Vice-Chancellor Sizwe Mabizela said there should be a respectful debate.

Cape Town residents wonder about the fate of the temple-like Rhodes Memorial on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, overlooking the city. There is also a Rhodes statue in Company’s Garden, a central park. One statue arm gestures to the distance and, in a call for British territorial expansion, a pedestal engraving reads: “Your hinterland is there.”

There is more to the furor.

Some South Africans complain that faculties at universities are mostly white and that Western-based curricula ignore African culture. Some also assert that Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who was elected president in 1994, was too soft on a white minority that still commands enormous economic clout. Last Tuesday, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, the mineral resources minister, said there is “still some way to go” before most South Africans, particularly blacks, benefit from a mining industry forged many decades ago to benefit a “select few.”

South Africa is grappling with questions such as should the Rhodes statue and other perceived symbols of racial oppression be mothballed or displayed as warnings of what should never happen again? What, if anything, should take their place? Who decides? Where does it stop? One caller to a radio show mockingly asked whether the Union Buildings in Pretoria, which were designed more than a century ago and today house government offices, should be leveled.

Mthimkhulu, the former student, said he thinks the statue-targeting campaign is mushrooming now because, in the early years after apartheid, people focused on seizing jobs and other opportunities previously denied to them. Another theory is that South African blacks had directed their ire at symbols of the apartheid system overseen by the white Afrikaner minority, rather than the earlier British colonial period.

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