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World

In Africa, Colonial-Era Statues Began Coming Down Decades Ago

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Across the U.S., protesters have been taking down statues of Confederate leaders. Scholars hear echoes of this current social movement in Africa, where citizens have been taking down colonial-era monuments for several years. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: It started as a small protest at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. In 2015, a student threw excrement at a statue of Cecil Rhodes. Soon it was a movement called Rhodes Must Fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)

PERALTA: Rhodes was a white supremacist who pillaged his way through southern Africa, building a vast diamond empire and, at his death, founding the Rhodes Scholarship. A month after being pelted with poop, however, his statue was removed by a crane.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)

PERALTA: Students rejoiced. They sang. They punched and kicked the statue. At Oxford University, where a ton of the Rhodes fortune ended up, Brian Kwoba, a graduate student at the time, was entranced. Statues are usually brought down by revolutions.

BRIAN KWOBA: So, like, you know, the statues of communist leaders that fell in Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall came down or the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq - you know, like, usually we think there must be some massive, massive social event to bring down a statue.

PERALTA: Kwoba, who now teaches history at the University of Memphis, co-edited a book about the statue movement. He says what happened in South Africa inspired students at Oxford to try to remove their Rhodes statue. He says the movement jumped the Atlantic and inspired Black Lives Matter activists to deface Confederate statues.

KWOBA: Bringing down the statue in Cape Town was a massive lesson for everybody in the world that social protest matters and protests can accomplish things.

PERALTA: Nicholas Mirzoeff, who studies visual culture at New York University, says through the independence struggles, statues in Africa fell like dominoes. Their purpose was obvious. Sculptures of colonial rulers, he says, represented white supremacy.

NICHOLAS MIRZOEFF: It's racial theory incarnate. And so it's not surprising at all, then, that this statue movement begins in Africa because they have the most to gain by turning the damn things over.

PERALTA: In Kenya, the statue of King George that stood in the middle of downtown was removed shortly after independence. A decade later, Kenya's first president Jomo Kenyatta unveiled a new one of himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PERALTA: Patrick Gathara, a political cartoonist in Kenya, says unfortunately, Kenya's black leaders have adopted many of the same tactics as their colonial rulers.

PATRICK GATHARA: Oppression of Kenyans, the denial of voices and the extraction, the looting - that continued.

PERALTA: The toppling of a statue of an old regime, he says, is rarely more than a symbol. But Kwoba, the University of Memphis professor, says symbols are important. In Cape Town at least, black students are no longer walking underneath a symbol of white supremacy.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUJO'S "KING OF JAZZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.