How South Africa confronts symbols of its difficult past are being discussed in newspaper columns, television talkshows and mainstream politics.
A 112-year-old statue of Queen Victoria has become the latest colonial or apartheid-era monument to be vandalised in South Africa, raising fears that a racially charged debate over the country’s heritage could spiral out of control.
Splashes of green paint over the likeness of the former British monarch, which stands outside the city library in Port Elizabeth, were discovered on Friday and condemned by local officials as illegal and “absolutely disgraceful”.
The attacks began a month ago when a student at the University of Cape Town flung a bucket of excrement over a statue of the British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes, which had enjoyed pride of place on campus since 1934. This sparked a vocal “Rhodes must fall” campaign, involving marches and sit-ins, that led to the huge bronze being removed from its plinth on Thursday before ululating crowds, some of whom splashed it with red paint or held placards saying “more than a statue”.
By then the debate about how South Africa should confront symbols of its difficult past had spread far beyond the student union to national newspaper columns, television talkshows and mainstream political parties. Protesters spray-painted a statue of King George VI at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and tore down a bronze British soldier from his horse on a Boer war memorial in Port Elizabeth.
The radical Economic Freedom Fighters party, led by the firebrand Julius Malema, vigorously joined the movement. Its followers daubed paint over statues of the former South African leaders Paul Kruger and Louis Botha in Pretoria and Cape Town respectively.
An illustration by South Africa’s leading political cartoonist, Zapiro, in Friday’s Mail & Guardian newspaper showed a student defacing Rhodes’s statue, causing it to topple backwards and knock over statues of Kruger, Victoria and the Dutch pioneer Jan van Riebeeck like dominoes.
The drive has sparked protests from white minority parties and the Afrikaans singers Steve Hofmeyr and Sunette Bridges, who sang the former apartheid anthem Die Stem in front of Kruger’s statue, watched by an audience of white people, some dressed in quasi-military uniforms. Bridges chained herself to the monument.
AfriForum, a white civil rights group, warned that strong emotions around the debate meant that communities were becoming dangerously polarised. It added: “The Afrikaner is, from a historical perspective, increasingly being portrayed as criminals and land thieves. But apartheid freedom fighters are certainly not the untainted heroes government is making them out to be.”
The Afrikaners are descendents of mainly Dutch settlers from the 17th and 18th centuries, and they dominated the white minority government before the end of apartheid in 1994.
Some white activists claim they are victims of “reverse racism” from the African National Congress government. Concerns have been raised that Nelson Mandela’s principle of racial reconciliation, and archbishop Desmond Tutu’s dream of a “rainbow nation”, are unravelling.
Bryan Rostron, an author and journalist, wrote in the Business Day newspaper: “After excrement was thrown at the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, they [students] have forced into the open what folk on all sides tend to say only in the safety and privacy of their own social circles: South Africa is still largely defined by race.”
Max du Preez, a veteran journalist, added: “I think we have to accept that the dream of a rainbow nation now lies in pieces at our feet.”
There has also been a sober national discourse involving judges, politicians, scholars and concerned citizens. Some have drawn comparisons with Germany, saying a statue of Adolf Hitler would be unthinkable, while others have called for new statues to be erected to stand “in dialogue” with those that already exist, which they say are an integral part of the national story. Many have observed that such changes are no substitution for deep and far-reaching transformation of the economy, where the black majority remains disadvantaged.
Jonathan Jansen, the first black vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, wrote in South Africa’s Times newspaper: “No, there is not a race war coming … This turmoil will pass. The reason is simple: the overwhelming majority of South Africans, black and white, believe in a middle path somewhere between reconciliation and social justice.
“Our repeated mistake is to overreact to the extremists on each side of the political spectrum. They do not represent the heart of this beautiful country. They will spew hate speech to flag down public attention but that is the only weaponry they have.”
For its part, the government has attempted to steer a middle course, acknowledging the need for change but condemning acts of vandalism. Nathi Mthethwa, the arts and culture minister, said on Thursday: “For far too long our heritage landscape has been viewed through the prism of our colonisers and we have got to challenge that.
“But to come up with a blanket ban is not helpful. Each statue has to be examined on its own merits because each history is not the same. We want to keep them in a museum, not destroy them, because our policy of reconciliation is that we should forgive each other, but never forget.”
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