On #RhodesMustFall and what it means
Oriel College Oxford today announced that the statue of Cecil Rhodes will not be removed. It looks like Rhodes won’t fall just yet, but I still think and hope he should.
Just last week January, History Matters featured a post by Esme Cleall on why she felt the campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College Oxford wasn’t the answer because ‘removing a statue is the easy bit. Far more difficult is a sustained interrogation of our colonial past.’ I agree that we need to face up to our imperial past, but that is precisely why I think the statue must fall.
As to why the statue should not fall Cleall writes that she doesn’t want ‘our recognition of a violent colonial past to be reduced to this one figurehead’, so that we escape from box-ticking or labelling Rhodes as the sole face of evil without calling into question our imperialist history as a whole. This is, of course, a worthy aim but #RhodesMustFall (RMF) is not solely about the man.
As Cleall notes, RMF activists have called into question matters from ‘tuition fees, the under-representation of students and staff of colour at elite universities, and Eurocentric curricula’. In this sense, the statue falling must not be seen as the end-goal, but as the start. In their own words, ‘[Rhodes] is the product of an institutional culture and a colonisation of the mind that reaches far more deeply than the figure of one individual’, and so too does the campaign.
Removing the statue obviously will not right the wrongs of imperialism, but it acts against society’s amnesia toward our colonial past. The campaign has already begun to do this. Rhodes’ views and status have been brought under the scrutiny of the wider public, and the conversations now taking place about who Rhodes thought should receive a scholarship would not be taking place were it not for the campaign (Rhodes himself suggested that only males should be awarded them, and that “race” should be disregarded – because he viewed race in terms of a Dutch/English divide).
Nor, in fact, would questions about whether it was ever Rhodes’ money be asked so publically. Ntokozo Qwabe said in Oxford Union’s debate that he ‘will not be told I am a hypocrite for taking money that was stolen from my people. There is more public attention being given to the issues of colonisation, and indeed reparations, than they have received in a long time.
The campaign in South Africa which inspired the British movement did indeed attract the attention of the global media. It seems evident that were there not a campaign to rid Oxford of the vestiges of its violent colonial past, this attention simply would not have come. Nor would the same amount of light have been shed on Rhodes – and Britain’s colonial past more broadly – without it.
Removing the statues allows us to spark a truly public debate into our colonial past in a way that academic history often does not. And considering a recent YouGov poll suggests that 44 percent of people believe we should be proud of Britain’s colonial history, it’s clearly a debate we need to have. Further, considering the reaction of the right-winged press to #RhodesMustFall, we will have to fight to have the debate.
It is not without coincidence that Rhodes Must Fall has been linked to no platforming and – most ridiculously – iconoclasm by those that normally champion “free speech” and “civil” debates. This is because they address imbalances of power and have, ironically, sparked the debate against the racist foundations of our society. In this society “free speech” is only free when it attacks the marginalised of society: when we try to fight back, opposing sexism is labelled “censorship”, and dismantling racist structures “iconoclasm”.
We can’t take the RMF campaigns in isolation. They – like increasing tuition fees protests and anti-austerity marches – are taking place alongside a spike in the number, range, and scope of protests; all of which take an active role in re-imagining and re-creating the world. This is also why RMF’s critics have been so harsh, and the press so polarised: it’s part of a process of simultaneously calling into question the status quo (which celebrates and commemorates our violent colonial past) and providing us with a route to creating a better world.
Tearing down a statue of Rhodes is symbolic – so even is the suggestion. It both signals a desire to re-imagine society and raises a number of questions about the Rhodes scholarship, reparations, the commonwealth, the regard in which we hold genocidal murderers and whether there is actually anything British in the British museum.
When our aim is to fundamentally dismantle an oppressive society, we cannot simply rely on ‘syllabi and representation’. As per Audre Lorde, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house…they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.’ Toppling the statue of Rhodes itself will not do this either, but it’s a start. A plaque contextualising him, however, would not actively challenge why he has been honoured with a statue, much less the horrors of colonialism – it will, in fact, make it simply about the man and confine it to history.
Considering that even the suggestion of toppling Rhodes has brought forth conservative and regressive elites in full force, when we ask how should we deal with our colonial past we cannot simply just have the debate. Our strategy must be:
‘Not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe.’
Toppling Rhodes would give us the space to push on, to tell our own stories, to actively confront our colonial past and present – in order to create a better future.
Image: Oriel College’s Rhodes Building on the High Street, Oxford [Wikicommons].
 If we look at Google search trends as an indicator of interest in Rhodes over time we can see broadly very little, until two recent spikes, one in April 2015 when activists in South Africa brought down a Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town, and another now, which is currently rising while students in Oxford too aim to topple Rhodes
 Arundhati Roy, The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (Suffolk, 2004), p. 77.