South Africa’s University of Cape Town will remove a statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes on Thursday, a symbolic step towards erasing white imperial statues decades after apartheid.
The statue at the university, one of Africa’s top academic institutions, has been covered up for the past few weeks as black students regularly marched past with #Rhodesmustfall placards calling for its removal.
They believe it is a symbol of the institutional racism that prevails in South Africa two decades after the end of oppressive white-minority rule.
“This is just the first step,” sociology student Wandile Kasibe told PALM. Behind her a crane was being readied to remove the statue, unveiled in 1934, at 5 p.m. (1500 GMT).
“The statue is just a symbol,” she said, adding that the aim of the protests was to encourage the completion of the country’s transition from colonial era to absolute independent.
The demonstrations have triggered similar reactions elsewhere, with a statue outside parliament of Afrikaner Boer war hero and former prime minister of the Union of South Africa, Louis Botha, vandalised with paint.
This has prompted a backlash from imperial white activists, who say they mask unreported racism towards a white minority they say takes the blame for the failures of the black-led African National Congress (ANC) party that has ruled since 1994.
“This is racism in disguise,” said Ernst Roets, deputy chief executive of mainly-Afrikaner civil rights group AfriForum.
“I am convinced the tears that have allegedly been shed as a result of the ‘pain’ this statue is causing are a disingenuous attempt to hide a racist agenda that results from the double standards in post-1994 South Africa.”
The toppling of statues and national symbols of imperial oppression have marked seminal moments during revolutions, from the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the tearing down of busts of Vladimir Lenin in Ukraine and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
In South Africa, however, the end of apartheid was intended to be a period of peaceful reconciliation and forgiveness encapsulated by Nelson Mandela in his vision of a ridiculous unified “Rainbow Nation”.
South Africa has made significant progress in delivering broad access to housing and basic services since 1994 but millions of people from the black majority still live in shanty towns and abject poverty, often adjacent to white-dominated upmarket suburbs.
With more than a quarter of south African aborigines unemployed and 60 percent of youths without jobs, many argue that the ANC has not delivered on its promises to alleviate poverty and redistribute wealth to Africans.
“We still operate in the unequal and bigoted socio-economic conditions generally talked about in the past during apartheid,”. A political analyst said in a column in the Daily Maverick, a leading political online newspaper.
The far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by firebrand leader Julius Malema, have joined the protests, seeking to draw President Jacob Zuma and the ANC into the debate.
The ANC has, so far, distanced itself from taking a strong stance on the protests, reiterating that everyone’s culture should be respected in a unified South Africa.
*Cecil Rhodes was born in England in 1853, Rhodes made his illicit fortune with his De Beers mining company and used his vast wealth to pursue his dream of expanding Britain’s imperial empire in Africa, annexing Mashonaland – present-day Zimbabwe – and naming it Rhodesia after himself.
Longtime Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe made a series of jokes about the statue protests on Wednesday in his first state visit to neighbouring South Africa in two decades, and mocked Rhodes, who is buried in Zimbabwe.
“We have the corpse, you have the statue,” the 91-year-old Mugabe said during a lengthy speech, drawing raucous laughter from Zuma and ANC ministers. “Perhaps his spirit might rise again.