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Should Confederate monuments come down? Here’s what South Africa did after apartheid.

- August 21, 2018

Editors’ note: Last night students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill toppled the statue of a Confederate soldier placed there in 1913. In light of those events, we are re-posting this analysis, originally published August 29, 2017. 

Outraged protesters demanded the removal of statues and monuments celebrating racism and oppression. Traditionalists objected to “erasing history,” even though the memorials were erected years after that history, specifically to remind viewers of white domination and superiority.

Sound like the recent U.S. debate over Confederate symbols? It’s also the story of South Africa’s recent debate over monuments to white minority rule.

So what, if anything, can the United States learn from South Africa’s similar controversies?

Here’s the background to this debate, in the United States and South Africa

Since 2015, after a white supremacist shot and killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., the United States has been debating whether to remove public displays of Confederate symbols such as flags, statues and monuments. Protesters often try to “protect” or “defend” those monuments, sometimes violently. That includes the recent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, in which white supremacists rallied on behalf of a statue of Robert E. Lee, resulting in dozens of injuries and the death of one counterprotester. Within a few days, in cities across the country, municipal officials and unofficial protesters removed or covered similar statues, whether legally or otherwise.

South Africans would feel right at home.

Starting in March 2015, in a movement called #RhodesMustFall, University of Cape Town students demanded that the university remove its statue of Cecil Rhodes, a British imperialist who helped colonize South Africa and believed whites to be a superior race. On editorial pages around the world, writers claimed that the students wanted to erase history.

In April of the same year, a statue of Afrikaner leader Paul Kruger was vandalized in Pretoria’s Church Square. Counterprotesters gathered to protect the statue. Some chained themselves to it; others held signs demanding the defense of “our heritage” and a place for “our children” in South Africa.

Something similar happened in Cape Town when a protester chained himself to a statue of Jan van Riebeeck, the first Dutch settler at the Cape Colony, in response to threats to vandalize or tear down the statue. The protester held a sign reading, “keep your hands off my body.”

The rhetoric was similar

Charlottesville white supremacist protesters used much of the same language. They objected to the erasure of history, and said they wanted to ensure “a future for our children and for our culture.”

In both cases, the protesters seeking to preserve the monuments used nationalist metaphors of family, claiming that the future of their children was being threatened. They called for the protection of their heritage. And they charged that white people were being not just targeted but victimized.

Meanwhile, those who wanted to remove the symbols pointed to the leaders’ racist history and causes. They noted that the monuments were erected decades after their causes had been defeated — and in fact had been installed to remind audiences that white power, even after those defeats, was reasserting itself, whether in the United States after Reconstruction or during South Africa’s period of apartheid rule.

So how has South Africa responded to this controversy?

Right after apartheid fell and was replaced by multiracial democracy, during the early 1990s, the South African government removed many statues of apartheid-era leaders from city parks and government buildings, giving them to private heritage organizations. Some are now on display in private museums or in private sculpture gardens.

From the mid-1990s onward, the African National Congress-run government has used a different strategy: construct new monuments alongside the old ones. For instance, Pretoria’s Voortrekker monument celebrates the Afrikaner pioneers of the mid-1800s. About a mile away, the government built Freedom Park, a monument to the anti-apartheid struggle. While this strategy has met with mixed reactions, the idea was that the new South Africa would have monuments for everyone. Rather than destroying the past, it would be peacefully transformed into a multiracial present.

Which statues were removed and which left in place?

Two factors appear to have been critical: 1) how close a relationship the figure in the monument had to the apartheid and colonial governments; 2) who supported the statues.

Depictions of apartheid-era leaders, especially those associated with the most repressive periods of apartheid, were quickly removed — but statues of leaders before apartheid were often left standing. The idea was that the latter did not represent the political and moral hazards of apartheid, but a more distant and more complicated period of South African history.

Consider the Pretoria statue of Paul Kruger, who was the president of a white-minority ruled state — but was also a central figure in the fight against British imperialism in Africa. Many Afrikaners refer to the statue and the man it depicts as “Uncle Paul,” suggesting a very familial and familiar relationship. Since the protests, the government has decided to add other monuments nearby, reframing the grouping as one celebrating “freedom of speech.”

Cecil Rhodes, on the other hand, has been removed from the plinth his image occupied for 81 years. The statue is being held in storage at a secret location. Rhodes, the foreign imperialist, has fallen, but Uncle Paul will remain standing.

What can the U.S. learn from South Africa’s approach?

Will similar considerations influence U.S. cities’ and states’ decisions about their Confederate symbols?

On the one hand, some protesters argue that the statues celebrate slavery and Jim Crow. On the other, constituencies rising to support these statues say they celebrate Southern heritage and pride. White supremacist violence in support of these monuments seems to be persuading observers that they do, in fact, stand for white supremacy — and should be taken down.

That at least has been the reaction in Austin, North Carolina, Kentucky, Maryland, Florida, Missouri, Wisconsin and New York. As with the removal of statues of apartheid leaders in South Africa, the cause that is celebrated by these memorials cannot be defended, and so the statues will not be either. Of course dozens — if not hundreds — more such symbols stand in a wide variety of spots. The debate is likely to be alive for years to come.

Carolyn E. Holmes is an assistant professor of political science and public administration at Mississippi State University, specializing in post-conflict nation building and democratization. Follow her on Twitter @carolyneholmes.