“All shall be equal before the law” – graffiti in Cape Town, South Africa
On January 29, 2016, Oriel College at the University of Oxford announced that the statue of Cecil John Rhodes that adorns its Rhodes Building would not be removed. The statue had in recent months become a focus of Rhodes Must Fall Oxford, an offshoot of the Rhodes Must Fall movement that began at the University of Cape Town in March 2015. The movement was spearheaded by Ntokozo Qwabe, a South African student studying at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship for a Bachelor of Civil Law degree. Although Qwabe has borne considerable criticism for his supposed ‘hypocrisy’ in criticising Rhodes as a Rhodes Scholar, the support the movement has acquired at Oxford – the Oxford Union recently voted 245 to 212 and the Oxford University Student Union Council 81 to 5 in favour of the statue’s removal – demonstrates that the importance of this movement is recognised even at one of the most historically elite institutions of the United Kingdom, the country that once colonised South Africa with the help of Cecil John Rhodes.
Rhodes was a British imperialist and a mining magnate who made his fortune in Southern Africa. Together with Charles D. Rudd, he founded De Beers Mining Company – which would control 90% of the world’s rough-diamond production and distribution by the time of his death – and the British South Africa Company, which assisted the Crown in illegally and brutally colonising what are today known as Zimbabwe and Zambia. Rhodes became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in July 1890, and in 1894, introduced the Glen Grey Act, a document seen as a precursor to the future apartheid regime, which called for the geographical separation of native Africans from European settlers and the disenfranchisement of almost all native Africans. Upon his death, Rhodes left behind £6 million – approximately £648 million today – most of which would fund the Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford.
Rhodes’ legacy first came under fire on March 9, 2015 with the promulgation of the Rhodes Must Fall Movement at the University of Cape Town. Since then, critics have bemoaned the ‘politically correct’ culture of the modern youth for its ‘oversensitivity’ and supposed altering of history to suit ‘hurt feelings.’ These myopic criticisms of the Rhodes Must Fall Oxford movement suffer from the same intellectual poverty as did criticisms of the movement in South Africa: believing that the sole purpose of these movements is the removal of a statue, after which protestors will join hands and sing “Khumbaya.” These movements are and have always been about much more than removing statues, and perhaps now that Oriel’s statue of Rhodes is staying put, this reality shall finally be recognised.
Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, a South African political party that has shown strong support for the Rhodes Must Fall movement since its naissance, has his own favourite analogy to convey the importance of movements such as Rhodes Must Fall:
“…you have an abusive husband who rapes you, beats you up, beats your children up and at the end of the day, God helps you and takes him away or you divorce and then you are told you must hang the picture of that rapist on the wall because that’s your history. You’re not going to allow that and that’s what happened to us. Rhodes raped our land, raped our mineral resources, encouraged black genocide. We cannot be told this is a history you must celebrate in public places.”
Malema’s analogy, loaded as it may be with triggering language, is far more apt and complex than it may first appear. The parallels drawn between colonialism and rape are plentiful; this latest manifestation of the comparison, however, is more than a simple evocation of a popular metaphor. Just as no humane individual would force a rape victim to be confronted with the image of their rapist every day, nor should victims of of colonialism be forced to see images of colonial conquerors honoured in public. It is at this point that most critics of Rhodes Must Fall chant the common diatribe that removing the statute constitutes ‘erasure of history’, yet Rhodes Must Fall isn’t asking for anything of the sort. From the beginning, Rhodes Must Fall movements have asked for the movement of these statues to museums, not for their complete destruction. Statues, murals, and other such public works that glorify oppressors and tyrants have continually been removed, yet this does not mean that knowledge of these individuals or their actions simply disappears: how this knowledge is framed and approached is the main concern.
Understanding this difference also allows one to deal with another popular criticism of Rhodes Must Fall: the issue of free speech. Many argue that as universities focus more on creating “safe spaces” for students, freedom of speech is stifled because people are not allowed to make up their own minds about issues such as the Rhodes statue and are thus unable to engage in discussion with others over the matter. Yet the statue, its history, and its legacy will not simply disappear: they will be – and already are – entombed in museums, textbooks, creatives works, and so on, ad infinitum. No one is attempting to silence debate over Rhodes’ legacy: those oppressed to this day by Rhodes and his legacy are, in fact, seeking for their own voices to be heard on an equal footing in this debate. Such an equal footing cannot exist when an Oxford college chooses to glorify a man such as Rhodes, and thus to define itself as an institution that takes pride in Rhodes’ legacy. This is not a neutral ground for debate, especially not when students attempting to engage with Rhodes’ legacy are silenced by the money of a few rich benefactors. Oriel lost £1.5 million worth of donations just for agreeing to even consider the propositions of Rhodes Must Fall. The fact that the threat of a single donor to withhold their proposed gift – even if that proposed gift is £100 million – carries more weight than the outcries of thousands of students is disturbing. It seems that money is allowed to speak more freely than are people.
The distinction between reframing the manner in which the Rhodes statue is being discussed and removing the statue from public discussion entirely is at the heart of the misunderstanding about the Rhodes Must Fall movement: it’s about more than just removing a statue. A rape victim would not simply seek to remove triggering reminders of their rapist from their life: they would also seek in many other ways to heal and strengthen themselves; they would seek out and participate in the creation of a safe and loving community; they would attempt to help other rape victims or individuals who have suffered similar trauma. So it is with Rhodes Must Fall: the movement, both in South Africa and at Oxford, has very real demands that go beyond the removal of statues. In South Africa, the Rhodes Must Fall movement snowballed into the Fees Must Fall movement, which helped secure the support of government not to increase university fees, along with supporting the insourcing of labour at South Africa’s tertiary institutions. The stated aims of Rhodes Must Fall Oxford are to “decolonize the space, the curriculum, and the institutional memory at, and to fight intersectional oppression within, Oxford.” The Rhodes statue forms an important part and symbol of this mission, since its continued presence demonstrates a lack of institutional memory in regards to Rhodes’ heinous role in the colonisation of much of Southern Africa – and yet it is not the ultimate purpose of the movement.
The ultimate purpose of Rhodes Must Fall is to ensure that Oxford exists for, espouses, and celebrates voices of oppressed peoples, the reality being that “oxford remains colour-coded white.” The university has only one full-time black professor – how are the history and realities of racial oppression and empire to be truly integrated into the Oxford curriculum if those affected by it are not in the position to teach and guide students? In 2010/1011, 25.7% of white applicants to Oxford received an offer as opposed to 17.2% of students from ethnic minorities, while only 24 black British students were admitted last year. How can complex matters of racial oppression and empire be discussed when the almost entirely homogenous student population is composed of a demographic that knows nothing of what it means to experience racial oppression or the crushing heel of empire? Given the lack of professors to teach these matters and of students to engage with them, it is highly doubtful that many – if any – instances of academic and social engagement with these issues at Oxford succeed in representing the realities of racial oppression and the history of empire. Hence the broad aims of the Rhodes Must Fall movement to combat this reality. However, not all of the blame for oversimplifying the movement can be laid at the foot of the media. As one student, Femi Nylander, pointed out, “the British press probably wouldn’t have arrived to discuss the curriculum” – the removal of Rhodes statue would be a flashpoint for the media, and Rhodes Must Fall Oxford knew it.
Now, however, the matter has been settled: the statue is to stay put. The movement has the attention of the media and the public, and is free of the baggage of the virulently negative response to the statue’s removal. Lord Patten, chancellor of the University of Oxford, has said that the supporters of Rhodes Must Fall “should think about being educated elsewhere.” However, Qwabe’s assertion that Oxford is as much his – meaning his as a black South African, one powerfully affected by the historical legacy of Rhodes – as anyone else’s must continue to ring as a rallying cry for the Rhodes Must Fall movement. The press may not have come before to discuss the curriculum, but one way or another the press has come. It is time for the curriculum to change and for the university to decolonise itself in concrete ways. Those contemptuous of Rhodes in his time – including at Oxford – have been silenced since his death by the power of his money. Money must not be allowed to suffocate yet more dissidents.
Adrian Jennings is a sophomore at Wheaton College, studying Chinese and Mathematics.
Image Attribution: “All shall be equal before the law: justice graffiti in Cape Town, South Africa” by Ben Sutherland, licensed under CC BY 2.0