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South Africa

Rhodes statue goes but protesters take on other symbols of South Africa's past

In South Africa the colonial-ers statue of Cecil John Rhodes is removed from the University of Cape Town
In South Africa the colonial-ers statue of Cecil John Rhodes is removed from the University of Cape Town Reuters/Sumaya Hisham

South Africa’s statue controversy has been elevated to a new level, as the argument is taken out of the halls of the university of Cape Town and onto the front page across the country. News of other statues being defaced - including the "father of Apartheid", Paul Kruger - has sparked counter-protests within the country.


While the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue is a victory, it is only the beginning of a greater national dialogue against arrogance, Luzuko Buku, the Secretary-General for the South African Students Congress,  told RFI in a telephone interview.

“The fact that the discussion has been elevated throughout the country is a victory for students, “says Buku. But he says he does not believe the discussion should be centred only on the statues. “It should be centred on symbols and representations of white privilege and arrogance in South Africa.”

Alana Bailey is the deputy CEO of AfriForum, a Pretoria-based non-governmental organisation that protects the rights of Afrikaner minorities. She says the student concerns were legitimate but then things spiralled out of control. Now protesters are attacking poets.

“When the protests started, it was students at the University of Cape Town with really legitimate concerns, perhaps not addressing their concerns in a proper way by throwing around sewage but, well, it was a student protest. But, unfortunately, I think the whole debate has been hijacked by political parties now,” she says.

Bailey is referring to Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters party, which is calling on all members to deface statues throughout the country. The EFF claimed responsibility for throwing green paint on Paul Kruger’s statue.

Over the past week even Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, on his first official state visit to South Africa in 21 years, remarked on the statue issue. Rhodes’ statue at the University of Cape Town has been removed. Rhodes, a mining magnate, was a controversial figure and a former prime minister of South Africa. He’s buried in Zimbabwe, which was called Rhodesia in colonial times.

“So, well, you may have this statue because that’s where he began,” Mugabe said at a press conference earlier this week. “But he came to us and wanted to be buried and we have him down, down below,” he said, amidst laughter. He asked South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma, if Zimbabwe should dig him up.

“So we are looking after the corpse, you have the statue of him. I say to my people let’s let him down, down, down there,” said Mugabe.

But is part of the public statue discourse that there should be more black heroes prominently displayed in South Africa? Perhaps including Steven Biko, or Robert Sobukwe, who founded the Pan Africanist Conference and eventually went to Robben Island prison for expressing his beliefs of a Black South Africa?

Buku says it’s like putting framed photos of your ex-girlfriends in the living room.

“Here we're trying to create a common identity and a common culture in South Africa. There are many white heroes and heroines who fought for social justice and against oppression in this land,” says Buku.

“It is not proper to place King Shaka, Robert Sobukwe or Steven Biko or Nelson Mandela with people who enslaved people in this land and people who dispossessed land from our people. It is not a proper comparison,” he adds.

Bailey disagrees. She says that the past needs to be recognised, both the positive and the negative.

“South Africa is a country with a controversial past but I think we should recognise each other’s different opinions about times, leader and heritage and we should accommodate that and keep on discussing that as part of the never-ending story of history rather than rejecting certain figures and trying to wipe out their heritage.”

“No figure has an only positive or negative legacy. All of them have a part of controversy attached to them and we should rather accept that,” she adds.

For now, the battle continues. RFI tried to get a response from the ANC, South Africa’s ruling party, but received no response.

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