White backlash as colonial statue comes down in South Africa

CAPE TOWN (AFP) - Black students celebrated the fall of a statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town on Thursday, as some white groups protested what they see as threats to their heritage.

Cheers went up as a crane removed the huge bronze statue from its plinth at South Africa's oldest university after a month of student demonstrations against a perceived symbol of historical white oppression.

Some students in the crowd of hundreds slapped the statue as it came down amid ululating and cries of "amandla" (power), while others splashed red paint on it and wrapped Rhodes' head in paper.

The government welcomed the removal of the statue, which was given the go-ahead by the mainly white university council in a vote on Wednesday night.

"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.

The university, which is regularly ranked as the best on the continent, was built on land donated by Rhodes, a notoriously racist mining magnate who died in 1902.

A decision on the statue's final destination is yet to be made, but it is likely to end up in a museum.

The protests began last month when a student flung a bucket of human excrement at the statue, prompting other attacks on colonial statues around the country.

Memela 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.

Earlier, 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.


They are no fans of Rhodes, who was on the British side in the Anglo-Boer war at the turn 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 university council, which voted to remove Rhodes after accepting that his statue made black university students uncomfortable on campus.

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.

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