White backlash as colonial statue comes down in South Africa
As preparations were made to remove the statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town Thursday, white groups launched protests to protect what they see as their heritage.
South Africa’s oldest university voted Wednesday to remove the monument from its campus after a month of student protests against a perceived symbol of historical white oppression.
The government welcomed the move.
“It marks a significant… shift where the country deals with its ugly past in a positive and constructive way,” Sandile Memela, spokesman for the arts and culture ministry, told AFP.
He said the government did not encourage the violent removal of statues, and would host “a consultative conference in the next few weeks where the country can adopt an official position” on statues and other colonial symbols.
On Thursday morning, the youth wing of white Afrikaner solidarity group AfriForum handed a memorandum to parliament in Cape Town to “demand protection” for their heritage.
The Afrikaners are descendents of mainly Dutch settlers from the 17th and 18th centuries and dominated South Africa’s white-minority government before the end of apartheid in 1994.
– Symbols of history –
They are no supporters of Rhodes, who was on the British side in the Anglo-Boer war at the beginning of the 20th century, but have seen statues of their own heroes come under attack in the wake of the university protests.
Afrikaner men, some of them in quasi-military outfits, demonstrated on Wednesday at the statue in Pretoria of former president Paul Kruger — which had been splattered with paint — and at the monument to the leader of the first settlers, Jan van Riebeeck, in Cape Town.
“The Afrikaner is — from a historical perspective — increasingly being portrayed as criminals and land thieves,” Afriforum said in a statement.
“If the heritage of the Afrikaner is not important to Government, our youth members will preserve our own heritage.”
Their attitude is in contrast to that of the council of the University of Cape Town, which voted to remove Rhodes after accepting his statue made black students uncomfortable on campus.
The imposing bronze figure of a brooding Rhodes was due to come down later Thursday. A decision on its final destination is yet to be made, but it is likely to end up in a museum.
Its disappearance is unlikely to end the debate over the pace of racial transformation, which goes beyond symbols to encompass economic and social divisions 21 years after the end of apartheid.
Despite the appearance of white men in military-style garb and fiery rhetoric from the radical black Economic Freedom Fighters calling for all symbols of white rule to be destroyed, much of the public debate has been calm and thoughtful.
“No, there is not a race war coming,” Jonathan Jansen, the first black vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, wrote in South Africa’s The Times newspaper Thursday.
“The reason is simple: the overwhelming majority of South Africans, black and white, believe in a middle path somewhere between reconciliation and social justice.”
The grounds of parliament epitomise this view, which reflects the policy of racial reconciliation espoused by liberation hero and late president Nelson Mandela.
Mandela’s bust dominates the entrance to parliament, not far — for the moment at least — from statues of former Afrikaner prime minister Louis Botha and Britain’s Queen Victoria.