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World

South Africa Debates Future Of Former Leader Statues

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's been an ongoing debate in America about whether to take down statues to Confederate generals. But the U.S. isn't the first country to face this dilemma with history. South Africa has wrestled with what to do with its apartheid-era era monuments. Peter Granitz reports from the capital, Pretoria.

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: Dozens of people eat lunch in central Pretoria's Church Square. The Palace of Justice rises high into the sunny sky. It houses the court where Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison for trying to overthrow the apartheid government. But there isn't a statue to him or any other anti-apartheid veteran here. Instead, there's one to Paul Kruger, a president to the white Afrikaans-speaking community that left the Cape of Good Hope to escape British rule in the 19th century. He's revered by Afrikaners, descendants of mostly Dutch, German and French settlers, but to many black South Africans, Kruger is the face of land grabs that dispossessed them of their homes.

GIVVEN MAGELLA: It really reminds me of apartheid.

GRANITZ: Givven Magella (ph) gazes at the Kruger statue as he eats lunch. The statue is surrounded by a fence more than 6 feet tall and tipped with sharp points to protect it from vandals. A left-wing political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, has doused the statue in paint before, and it promises to remove statues like this if it ever wins power. Magella wants the government to take it down.

MAGELLA: The government should bring something that will unite us as a human being and something that will bring the spirit of Ubuntu, the spirit of Ubuntu meaning humanness.

GRANITZ: And while Ubuntu has been a rallying cry for social cohesion since independence, it has not brought equality. More than half of the country lives in poverty. The inequality has young South Africans frustrated, like 24-year-old Nkosazana Nkosi (ph), a student activist at the University of Pretoria. Nkosi never lived under apartheid, but she says the promises made at the birth of democracy failed, and statues to past white rulers represent the causes of inequality in South Africa today.

NKOSAZANA NKOSI: Poverty is still rife. Inequality is still rife. Access to law, access even to schooling, you know, is very unequal in our country.

GRANITZ: In 2015, following weeks of vandalism and protests, the University of Cape Town removed a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, the 19th century businessman who made his fortune off the backs of black South Africans in his mines. Nkosi says colonial statues send the wrong message to the black majority in South Africa, one that says, you do not belong here.

I'm standing outside the Union Buildings, South Africa's seat of government. It's got these beautiful, manicured gardens, and at the top of this long, sloping lawn is a massive statue of Nelson Mandela. Student groups are taking pictures in front of it, and he's got a smile on his face and wide, outstretched welcoming arms. It's where he was inaugurated as South Africa's first democratically elected president. The statue was erected in 2013, nearly 20 years after the fall of white minority rule. It displaced a much smaller statue of J.B.M. Hertzog, a prime minister who led the party that instituted apartheid. However, Hertzog wasn't removed from the public eye. Instead, he was moved to a less prominent position. The country is drafting new guidelines on how to manage cultural sites. Among the options is to leave historically oppressive statues in place and juxtapose them with monuments to freedom fighters.

Alana Bailey, an historian with the Afrikaner rights organization AfriForum, opposes removing statues or housing them in museums because taking figures out of the public eye removes their role in history.

ALANA BAILEY: We can pick up some mistakes that were made in the past and try and improve on that if the statute reminds the - as a talking point as well.

GRANITZ: The draft regulations are perhaps years away from becoming law. Until then the government will weigh each statue on a case by case basis. For NPR News, I'm Peter Granitz in Pretoria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.