Despatches: Blacks chip away at monuments to Afrikaner power

Monuments come and monuments go as the new South Africa struggles to forge a common cultural identity. Three years after the ANC came to power not everyone wants to party on the National Heritage annual holiday. Mary Braid finds out why.
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The towering bronze statue of the late Steve Biko did not remain unscathed for long. Just hours after it was unveiled by President Nelson Mandela, the signature of the AWB, the right-wing Afrikaner paramilitary organisation, was spray painted at the feet of the liberation hero.

The timing made it a particularly vicious act. For as Biko's image was being defaced the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was hearing the testimony of five security policemen who have confessed to causing his death 20 years ago. Now its threats that blood would flow before Afrikaners relinquished power have come to nothing, the extreme right seems to have turned towards more petty forms of resistance.

Mr Biko's memorial, unveiled earlier this month, is part of what Themba Wakashe, an arts ministry director, describes as the levelling of South Africa's lopsided heritage; a cultural terrain, which after four decades of Afrikaner nationalism, is still carpeted with monuments and memorials to "Volk" heroes and dead National Party presidents.

"There was a time when you drove through this country and looked at what was preserved and you would never have guessed you were in an African country," says Mr Wakashe, who is at the forefront of the campaign to redefine South African culture. It is a delicate business because the resentment of the deposed, as the rare act of vandalism shows, simmers just beneath the surface.

As Biko went up this month, John Vorster, the late former National Party leader, came down. On Monday, his bust, overshadowing the entrance to the notorious Johannesburg police station which took his name, was removed to a police museum in Pretoria to claps and sarcastic shouts of "go well" from a crowd.

Today, to mark National Heritage Day, the John Vorster tower block, from which a succession of black activists "fell", will be renamed Johannesburg Central.

But such removals have been few. The ANC is deliberately tip-toeing through the cultural minefield. In the interests of reconciliation the President has opposed wholesale toppling of the symbols of the past.

In the early days, some blacks wanted to storm Pretoria's austere Voortrekker Monument, erected as testament to the Afrikaners' conviction that they were God's chosen people. Today, many blacks still believe there has been too much pussyfooting around. This week the grandson of Enoch Sontonga, composer of the liberation anthem "Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica", said it was time for the music to stand alone as the National Anthem and that the Afrikaans' "Die Stem", which was tagged on for the sake of unity, be dropped.

But, so far, that has not been the ANC way. In parliament, portraits of the old NP leaders have been removed from the main foyer but they have been rehung in siderooms. And although there have been provincial skirmishes over the removal of busts of Hendrik Verwoerd, apartheid's architect, most Afrikaner symbols have been left alone. Most remarkable perhaps, there has been no mass manufacture of Mandela statues and attempt to make a cult of his personality.

Instead the government is simply adding to a past it may detest but accepts; resurrecting black writers like Sol Plaatje and honouring black heroes.

Today, President Mandela opens Robben Island as a national monument, and the island on which he was imprisoned for much of his 27-year incarceration will take its place alongside the Voortrekker.

But the right wing and Afrikaner cultural organisations which have mushroomed since 1994 seem unmoved by the softly softly approach. They argue that while their symbols survive they are under constant threat and that their culture is wilting as schools and universities are forced to forsake Afrikaans for English. Yesterday the National Party said it still supported Heritage Day, the holiday introduced after the country's first democratic elections. But their support is hardly wholehearted. And while they condemn Biko's defacers, the Freedom Front and Conservative parties, further to the Afrikaner right, can see nothing to celebrate.

They admit that President Mandela has offered their culture some protection, but insist the pressure will increase once the "Great Reconciler" goes. "You don't throw a frog in boiling water," says Freedom Front MP Dr Pieter Mulder. "He would jump right out again. You put him in cold and slowly turn the temperature up."