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Protests in South Africa over a statue of a 19th century diamond magnate and colonial conqueror set off a national debate two years ago about the remnants of apartheid. As part of his ongoing series, Culture at Risk, Jeffrey Brown reports on the symbols and monuments in South Africa’s past that are still being fought over today.
In South Africa in recent weeks, protests have once again erupted on campuses across the country.
The demonstrations, known as Fees Must Fall, aimed at reducing tuition costs, stem from the painful history of apartheid. And just as in the disputes here over Confederate monuments, the symbols of South Africa's past are being fought over today.
Jeffrey Brown was recently in South Africa for his ongoing series Culture at Risk.
High above Cape Town at the Southern Tip of Africa, a stately memorial to Cecil John Rhodes, the British-born 19th century diamond magnate and colonial conqueror.
But notice the bust of Rhodes. His nose has been hacked off. It was on the nearby campus of the prestigious University of Cape Town, with a historically white majority student body, that protests over another prominent statue of Rhodes set off a national debate in South Africa two years ago, when student activists started what became known as the Rhodes Must Fall movement.
The Rhodes monument is a practical symbol of the oppression of black people. At the end of the day, we are saying, we are not happy to just be at the university, while our sisters and brothers are still in squatter camps.
Chumani Maxwele, one of the protest leaders, recently accompanied us to an informal settlement in the Cape Town township of Khayelitsha, just a short drive from campus.
He pointed to the disparities that make South Africa one of the world's most unequal societies.
You won't see white kids like this, sitting like this. You won't see that. We're coming from here in the townships. And then we are claiming that we are educated. We must be able to take theory and practice and put it together and see what change we can make.
The Rhodes statue on campus was eventually removed by the university, but students continue to press on issues of school's costs and curriculum.
Alex Gotz was one of 12 students punished by the administration as the protests expanded.
I don't think we need statues to remind ourselves of what they represent. You can have it in a museum, if need be, but I think there are enough visible effects of apartheid and colonialism to last us a lifetime.
The head of the university, Max Price, acknowledges more needs to be done to address the remnants of apartheid.
It's still the case that a black student might say to me: I have never been taught by a black professor at UCT, 22 years after democracy.
And that's not something we're proud of. That's something we are trying to change. Instead of thinking this is an alien place on the hill that reflects empire, start feeling that this is their university, a university that they want to come to, they want to send their children to, and that they're proud of.
In South Africa today, visual imagery teaches, as at the entrance to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, where visitors are confronted with the history of racial divisions.
It honors, as in a memorial in Soweto, to Hector Pieterson, a 13-year-old killed by police in the 1976 uprising against apartheid. And it's also contentious.
There is a lot of polarization between race groups in South Africa.
Alana Bailey manages heritage issues at AfriForum, a civil rights group working on behalf of Afrikaners, the white descendants of predominantly Dutch settlers who arrived here in the 17th century, and who in the 20th century established the apartheid regime that only ended in 1994.
Bailey now works to protect monuments.
There's a bit of a dangerous situation that you can create by removing statues, because if you say that anything that memorializes a past contribution by a community is not welcome in the public sphere, then you might also be saying that people who represent that community are not welcome in the public sphere.
In the capital, still widely known as Pretoria, many street names have been changed from the white colonial and apartheid era figures to liberation struggle leaders, mostly black.
The larger municipality itself is now officially called Tshwane, after an 18th century indigenous chief. And still the most prominent face of the new South Africa, a huge statue of Nelson Mandela stands in front of the official seat of the national government. The statue that previously stood here, of an Afrikaner nationalist leader, was moved to a far corner of the gardens.
In Church Square in the center of the city, another contentious site is getting a makeover — the monument to 19th century Afrikaner leader Paul Kruger is now surrounded by fencing after being vandalized several times.
Mayor Solly Msimanga plans to keep the statue, but transform the whole square into a new kind of monument that's dedicated to free speech.
Mayor Solly Msimanga, Tshwane:
We are advocating that you tell a complete history, not only one side of our history.
So you are against taking down the old statues?
Mayor Solly Msimanga:
I am against taking down any kind of statue. I'm all for having all statues and using them to tell a part of history. I am not here because a certain part of history didn't exist. I'm here because that history happened. I am sitting in this chair right now because a certain history happened, and I am acknowledging that.
Outside the city, a different kind of accommodation of histories. The huge Voortrekker Monument is dedicated to Afrikaner pioneers who migrated inland in the 19th century, chafing at then-British colonial rule.
It opened in 1949, just a year after the official onset of apartheid. Nearby stands the much newer Freedom Park, a monument erected in the democratic era and dedicated to South Africans of all backgrounds killed in wars, as well as in the liberation struggle against apartheid.
Last year, directors Cecilia Kruger and Jane Mufamadi strengthened ties between their two adjacent monuments.
As in our democracy, we had to compromise. We had to make compromises.
A lot of people just wonder what a monument is, right, and what's it for.
It's about the message that you're sending to the nation through a particular monument. It's about the lessons that we need to learn and draw from our past, so that we chart a better future and leave a better legacy for our children.
All heritage is part of somebody's identity, somewhere. The minute you understand the monuments and what it symbolizes, you begin to understand each other's identity.
A fine hope, but how much difference can a monument make? Those frustrated by a lack of change after the end of apartheid say, not much, when black people are the majority, but mainly remain in segregated poverty.
Johannesburg-based architecture critic Mpho Matsipa.
Reconciliation without justice can only get you so far, and by that, at a very simple level, economic justice or spatial justice.
So, that's much bigger than any one monument. You mean like the entire city.
The landscape. The landscape of a city like Johannesburg remains, in my mind, a monument to apartheid spatial planning and apartheid spatial thinking.
Just the way it's laid out, where people live?
The way it's laid out, the way people live, the way that inequality is spatialized and continues to be spatialized in the city serves as a monument to that history.
In the meantime, student protests have picked up again in recent days, with the Fees Must Fall movement claiming that high tuition puts college attendance beyond the means of many.
Student activist Chumani Maxwele:
If you are giving us free education, we will be able to have cousins, sisters, brothers across and be able to work together because we have got skill. You are educated. You can be employed. That's the whole essence of the fight.
Today, the empty plinth of Cecil Rhodes on the University of Cape Town campus serves as another kind of monument, as a struggle in this young democracy goes on.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown in South Africa.
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