South Africa Strips Icons Of Painful Apartheid Past

NELSON MANDELA has finally made it to Parliament. Of course, South Africa's first black president has attended the assembly many times since being sworn in two years ago. But just last month, in another step away from the bitter past, his picture replaced that of the icons of apartheid on the hallowed walls of Parliament.

A bust of the white leader John Vorster has been discreetly removed. So has a painting of a group of other proponents of apartheid, former Prime Minister P. W. Botha and his last Cabinet.

Now the building where the formerly ruling National Party passed legislation giving all power to whites is adorned by an exhibit entitled ''Artists Against Apartheid,'' works that would have been banned as subversive just a few years ago.

Mr. Mandela is depicted various ways, including one painting in which he wears a crown of thorns. There is a huge portrait of Steve Biko, the black-consciousness activist who died under suspicious circumstances in police custody in 1977. In a country where symbols count, these and other images on display showing barbed wire, snarling police dogs, and massacres of blacks are a strong statement that the times have changed.

The new South Africa quickly adopted a new flag. It took a bit longer to change the names of major airports from apartheid leaders to cities. Robben Island, where Mandela and other political prisoners were jailed for many years, is being converted into a tourist site.

Now Parliament in Cape Town, the city where the Dutch colonizers first settled, is showing proof that the old era is over.

The exhibit was first put together several years ago. Most of the participating artists aren't South African. In fact, some of the works have nothing to do with South Africa.

The imposing Parliament building, with its lime-green walls and ornate chandeliers, is arguably an odd choice of venue from an aesthetic viewpoint. But for those who suffered under apartheid, it is more pleasing to the eye - and the heart - to see a painting of Biko or Mandela rather than Mr. Botha.

''It is infinitely an improvement on what was before. That evoked a bitterness, anger,'' says Mohammed Bhabha, a senator in Mandela's ruling African National Congress party, walking through the corridors on his way to a parliamentary session. ''This evokes something different. Nostalgia. Some of it is poignant. It is a good reminder of why we're here.''

A white Afrikaner guard who has worked at Parliament for a decade does not share Mr. Bhabha's enthusiasm. He looks wistfully at the empty walls where pictures of the old guard used to hang. But he is philosophical as he talks with visitors and searches for a key to show them the room where the apartheid-era paintings and busts are being stored and supposedly renovated.

''Sure, I miss them. But it's a new Parliament. It's what they want,'' he shrugs.

Like South Africa's Constitution and its government of national unity, the exhibit is an interim measure. After six months, the traveling exhibition will move on. It is undecided what will be put in its place and what will happen to the old artwork.

This has sparked some debate, including a reported telephone call to Mandela from P. W. Botha himself, who expressed concern about the message the removal of apartheid artwork would send out. Mandela, ever sensitive even to his former oppressors, issued a statement that he was pondering the matter after hearing from ''concerned citizens.''

He said the Parliament should reflect the diversity of South Africa, adding: ''The final decision will be informed by the views of the public on this matter.''

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