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…