Below are some of the most frequent questions the movement receives during its discourse on decolonisation, here are our answers…
1. Is removing the statue an erasure of history?
What Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) is doing is the opposite of erasing history. Nobody has done more to stimulate public engagement with – and the public visibility of – Cecil Rhodes’ role in history. We have brought the suppressed conversation about the history of colonialism, and how it plays out today, to light. Indeed, a key part of our movement is about education: we want to ensure far more people are aware of how brutal colonialists such as Rhodes not only caused untold devastation and violence in their lifetime, but instituted systems that continue to oppress and exploit the post-colonial world. We also want to highlight the specific role Oxford University played in this colonial history; many are unaware of the blood that Oxford is built on, and for many BME students, this is the blood of their ancestors. Without full recognition of the entirety of the past, there can be no transformative change or justice.
However, this is a story that should fill the pages of history books; it cannot be told in the inappropriate, glorifying form of a monument. Indeed, the statue is not an impartial preservation of history – it does not stand as a true reminder of our colonial past. In fact, the presence of the statue – with the sycophantic inscription “Out of the splendid generosity of Cecil Rhodes” – is an effacement of the histories of the millions of black Africans whose livelihoods were destroyed by Rhodes. The statue in fact stands in the way of a total, intellectually rigorous engagement with history. Indeed, it is RMFO, not its critics, that are asserting historical integrity in the face of sentimental attachments to murderous historical figures.
The statue is passively, uncritically adorning Oriel in a decorative function. It is not educational. Furthermore, context is everything – Oxford is structurally racist, and in a structurally racist context a statue of a racist colonialist has a very different meaning to for example, a museum, dedicated to memorialising the full, brutal history of Empire.
2. What about other historical figures with problematic pasts?
Both RMFO and RMF South Africa are emphatically not just about Rhodes. However, deconstructing how we remember Rhodes – as an archetypal symbol of European colonialism – is a first step to engaging with the colonial apologism that prevents us from learning from history’s mistakes.
Furthermore, this is not just a matter of an historical figure having some “controversial” views; his legacy is not limited to the past. It is enduring today in the form of the deep, racialised inequality and injustice faced by black South Africans today. Indeed, Rhodes is widely considered to be a key architect of Apartheid – his 1894 Glen Grey Act was instrumental in the severe disenfranchisement of black Africans that was to come. The implications of this are not just historical – they are in the visceral present. In the context of the injustices faced by black South Africans today – where the top 1-5% wealthiest individuals are 80% white (who make up just less than 9% of the population) is the valorisation of a man who laid the foundations for this inequality something we want done in our name? Who we choose to memorialise and honour says much about who we are.
3. The statue is to do with history, how will it deal with racism now?
Symbols matter. They are the means through which a community expresses their values. The normalised glorification of a man who was responsible for the most heinous, racist ideology and actions constitutes a tacit acknowledgement that we are not concerned with truly progressing beyond racism. Taking down the statue would be a momentous gesture, demonstrating some commitment to rectifying and atoning the colonial past; it will be a recognition that the welfare of BME students – for whom colonialism is a deeply painful history – truly matters.
Indeed, racism never ended. The legacies of colonialism never left us. The past is not in the past but is still determining existing patterns of behaviour. These are not historical issues for those who are still suffering from the legacies of British imperialism. The statue is a symbol of this. We cannot deal with racism as isolated acts – we must recognise the rich and bloody lineage that the current system – a structurally racist system – has come from.
It also goes without saying, that RMFO is not just tackling racism through the statue – we are also deeply invested in tackling the Eurocentric curriculum and improving the welfare and representation of BME students. However, iconography and the symbols we surround ourselves with cannot be separated from these broader aims.
4. But what about Rhodes scholarships?
Let us recognise where the scholarship money comes from. Let us recognise how Rhodes made his wealth. These scholarships were stolen wealth, raised through the systematic and brutal exploitation of African labour in mines in which thousands died, on land that he stole from indigenous peoples. It is unconscionable to suggest that any benefit Rhodes scholars have received since can ever justify or outweigh the magnitude of these crimes.
The Rhodes Scholarships were set up in order to educate the next generation of colonial administrators; they were explicitly for “young Colonists, to give breadth to their views….and the retention of the unity of the Empire.” In this context, is it not restorative justice for these scholarships to go to the descendants of Rhodes’ victims? If we were serious about condemning the violence of colonialism, we would be invested in rejecting Rhodes’ attempt to finance the future of colonialism, rather than using the scholarships as tactic to deflect legitimate criticism of his legacy.
Indeed, many of our supporters are Rhodes Scholars, who reject the dogmatic and silencing suggestion that this negates their ability to critique Rhodes’ legacy; the implication that they must only exhibit uncritical “gratefulness” towards a racist colonialist. As one of our Rhodes Scholar supporters, Natalya Din-Kariuki (Kenya and Balliol 2013), states: “Accepting the Scholarship does not mean that we do not have the right to critique and transform; on the contrary, as Rhodes Scholars it is our absolute responsibility to take on this project of restorative justice.”
Sign our Change.org petition to remove the statue here: