Cecil John Rhodes is viewed by some as a capitalist pioneer and benefactor of higher education and others as the colonialist magnate who acted as the architect of apartheid in colonial Africa. The man whose memorial statues have been the center of controversies on two continents has an undeniably complicated place in history. How he is defined often depends on where and to whom one raises the question of his legacy.
In early 2015, a student protest movement acting under the name “Rhodes Must Fall” agitated for the removal of a statue of Rhodes from a campus square at The University of Capetown in the Western Cape Province of South Africa. As Brian Kamanzi reported for The Postcolonialist in March of last year, the action was the first of a series of moves by the organization whose stated goal was to “decolonise education.”
After much debate and the travails that can beset any institution that attracts international attention for what may be considered all the wrong reasons, the statue was removed in April. The act was symbolic, but it sent the message that Rhodes’ ideas regarding the subjugation of indigenous people to create wealth and the assumption of ethnic superiority no longer held currency in South Africa, even in vestigial form as an historic or cultural artifact.
Acting under the same banner, a group of students at Oxford University raised similar questions about the statue of Rhodes at Oriel College. The discourse that followed drew in policy makers at the college, as well as representatives from the governing body of the university at large. The the two-tiered approach to the question was required because Oriel is a constituent college within the university.
Beyond the paneled chambers where dons and deans argued about the value of Rhodes’ stony presence and legacy on British soil, students demonstrated, pundits added their two pence, and donors made their feelings known. Despite of the intensity and sheer volume of input into the matter, it might have been the smallest group, in other words, the alumni donors, who had the most influence.
The Telegraph cited documents obtained from the college revealed the hardest hit was indeed a financial one. Over a million pounds in donations have been withdrawn so far in protest of the statue’s removal. Javier Espinoza reported the college has cancelled a six-month impact study into memorials and preservation of the place where Rhodes lives as a student at Oriel. The college has decided to keep the tributes to Rhodes, statue and all, adding legends and notes regarding Rhodes’ influence in historical context.
“The decision satisfies critics of the move to take down the statue of Cecil Rhodes. Lord Patten of Barnes, acting chair of The BBC Trust, was supportive of the decision.”
“One thing we should never tolerate is intolerance. We do not want to turn our university into a drab, bland, suburb of the soul where the diet is intellectual porridge.
“Education is not indoctrination. Our history is not a blank page on which we can write our own version of what it should have been according to our contemporary views and prejudices.”
“Because we value tolerance, we have to listen to people who shout – at a university, mark you – about speech crimes and ‘no platforming’. We have to listen to those who presume that they can re-write history within the confines of their own notion of what is politically, culturally and morally correct.”
Lord Patten added that many of the benefits enjoyed by today’s students were established under conditions that would not pass any tests of acceptability by contemporary standards. Patten’s words were supported by academics at other colleges within the Oxford system. The consensus among many who support keeping the statue was the removal could cause a dampening effect on higher education’s ability to provide critical analysis of ideas. It was further suggested that this measure takes political correctness and the perimeters of creating safe spaces for all to an extreme level where history is no longer evaluated, but erased.
The ultimate question goes beyond the symbolic effort. In an interview with BBC Radio, Denis Goldberg, an anti-apartheid activist who spent time in jail with Nelson Mandela expressed the view that such gestures distract from the real problems.
“Reshape your campaign to expose what Rhodes did and how the legacy continues in South Africa today. That’s what you must fight.”
“This hasn’t changed the systemic exploitation.”
“The removal of it takes away the right to expose, to debate. We cut into our right to free speech.”
Supporters of #RhodesMustFallInOxford have declared this is a cowardly move and a temporary setback. In response to the decision, the organization released a statement on their official Facebook page.
“This recent move is outrageous, dishonest, and cynical.”
“This is not over. We will be redoubling our efforts and meeting over the weekend to discuss our next actions. We can also announce that we will hold a press conference at 10am on Monday next week (1st February) to outline the steps we will be taking in response to Oriel’s statement, with further details to follow.”
“The struggle continues!”
The Cecil Rhodes statue stands for now, but the debate about his place in modern academic life will continue.
[Photo by Schalk van Zuydam/AP Images]