Tue, Dec 18, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Remove or keep a statue? South Africa debates painful legacy

Nearly 25 years after the end of white minority rule, the statue of Paul Kruger remains a symbol of the nation’s apartheid past

By Christopher Torchia  /  AP, JOHANNESBURG

Pigeons last week fly over a statue of the late Paul Kruger in Church Square, Pretoria, South Africa. The statue of Kruger stands testament to South Africa’s harsh past, but also stirs deep divisions about whether the statue should remain or be scrapped.

Photo: AP

A hulking statue of a late 19th century white leader, with a cane and top hat, has been a flashpoint for cultural conflict in South Africa for years. Black protesters threw paint on it. White supporters rallied around it. Authorities surrounded the statue with barbed wire and then ringed it with a more permanent fence.

Nearly 25 years after the end of white minority rule, the statue of Paul Kruger still looms in Church Square in the center of Pretoria, South Africa’s capital. The tussle over its fate goes to the heart of a discussion over whether relics of white domination should be scrapped or kept as reminders of a harsh past. It is also a test of Nelson Mandela’s dictum that the black majority’s former oppressors should be embraced, not punished an approach viewed as too generous by some South Africans.

The arguments echo similar ones in the US, where some monuments to the US Civil War-era Confederacy have been removed after protests and vandalism.

“The removal of a statue isn’t the end of the conversation” about legacies of the past, said Nicole Maurantonio, an academic at the University of Richmond in Virginia who is working on a book about how the Confederacy is remembered today. She spoke on the sidelines of a forum titled Falling Monuments, Reluctant Ruins, held last month at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Maurantonio questioned the rapid clean-up of vandalized monuments such as a Richmond statue of Confederate General Robert Lee that in August was smeared with red paint and the letters “BLM,” a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement. By quickly removing the protest graffiti, the city had engaged in a “strategic forgetting” of its past of white domination as well as ongoing racial problems, she said.

During 2015 protests in South Africa, excrement was thrown on a University of Cape Town statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes that was eventually removed. However, another Rhodes statue still stands in Company’s Garden, a city park. A South African foundation named after both Mandela and Rhodes announced 2019 scholarships last month, reflecting how uneven the effort to erase symbols of a nuanced past can be.

Rhodes, who died in 1902, was a segregationist who made a fortune in mining and grabbed land from the local population but was also associated with education and philanthropy. Kruger, who died in 1904, represented the Boers, who were mainly descended from Dutch settlers, at war with the British. The Kruger statue in Pretoria was unveiled in 1954 by D.F. Malan, a prime minister who championed apartheid, the institutionalized system of racial repression.

“What do we do with the detritus of apartheid, which has been a preoccupation of the last more than 20 years?’’ said Cynthia Kros, a heritage expert at the University of the Witwatersrand.

After white minority rule, she said, “there was not really an idea to destroy that, but to try and right the balance, to add the kinds of heritage that acknowledge other people in South Africa as well.’’

In its last annual report, South Africa’s state heritage agency said it was focusing efforts on sites relevant to previously marginalized people, including the wreck off Cape Town of a Portuguese ship that was carrying slaves when it sank in bad weather in 1794. Many of the more than 400 Africans on board died.

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