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Remove or keep a statue? South Africa also debates painful legacy

By Christopher Torchia/Associated Press | 1/11/2019, 6 a.m.
A hulking statue of a late 19th century white leader, with a cane and top hat, has been a flashpoint ...
A statue of the late Paul Kruger, president of the South African Republic from 1883 to 1900, remains a flashpoint as a testament to that nation’s racist past of apartheid and stirs deep divisions over whether it should remain or be scrapped. Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG

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 United States, including Richmond, Va., where some monuments to the Civil War-era Confederacy have been removed after public 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 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 in November at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Dr. Maurantonio questioned the rapid cleanup of vandalized monuments such as a statue in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, of Confederate Gen. Robert E. 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 in November, reflecting how uneven the effort to erase symbols of a nuanced past can be.

Mr. 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. Mr. 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.”