In defence of Rhodes Must Fall and the struggle for recognition at Oxford

03 March, 2016

In 1993, Edward Said – the celebrated Palestinian literary theoretician and professor of comparative literature at Columbia University – gave the Reith lectures for the BBC. A quote from this series of talks, entitled ‘Representations of the Intellectual,’ is enshrined in the MPhil student handbook at the Oxford Department of International Development on the grounds that it captures the department’s philosophy of questioning and criticism, which are the foundation of intellectual and indeed political inquiry. It reads as follows:

The central fact for me is, I think, that the intellectual is endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, a philosophy or opinion… And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be coopted by government or corporations and whose raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues who are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.

In many ways, this is what the debate about Rhodes Must Fall (RMF), both in South Africa and in Oxford, is about: whose history is told and whose is swept under the rug; whose issues matter and whose are routinely forgotten.

Born in relation to the RMF movement at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, RMF in Oxford is both an expression of transnational solidarity and a critique of institutional racism and the politics of exclusion at Oxford. While Oxford is certainly strewn with a range of tributes to the ‘great men of Empire’, the figure of Rhodes has, at this historical moment, brought together diverse moral communities and has opened up an avenue for the articulation of shared grievances against imperialism and its legacies.

To say a few words about Rhodes; he was a British businessman, mining magnate and politician in South Africa, who served as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896. An ardent believer in British imperialism, Rhodes and his British South Africa Company founded the southern African territory of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia), which the company named after him in 1895. South Africa’s Rhodes University is also named after him. Rhodes set up the provisions of the Rhodes Scholarship, which is funded by his estate, and put much effort towards his vision of a Cape to Cairo Railway through British territory.

Let’s make no mistake about it, Rhodes’ imperialist pursuits were egregiously violent and continue to shape the distribution of resources and ideas about race in contemporary southern Africa. The motive of the invading force can be encapsulated by a letter written by an administrator, colleague, and friend of Rhodes – W. A. Jarvis – to his mother about their plans to invade the area north of the Limpopo river: “The last thing to do is to wipe them all out as far as one can – everything black … I hope the natives will be pretty-well exterminated … There are about 5,500 niggers in the district and our plan of campaign will probably be to proceed against this lot and wipe them out then move towards Bulawayo, wiping out every nigger and every kraal [house] we find. And then you may be sure there will be no quarter and everything black will have to die.”

There is universal consensus among historians of southern Africa that the pattern of settler colonialism involved the establishment and maintenance of political, economic, and social structures predicated upon racial domination. These structures denied the local populace fundamental social, political and economic rights and put their fate in the hands of a white settler regime that was not only racist but also highly authoritarian. In Rhodesia, 8 million disenfranchised blacks eked out a living at subsistence level or below it, while 250,000 whites, barely 3 per cent of the population, enjoyed a privileged existence that included, among other things, the highest per-capita number of private swimming pools in the world. The white minority owned more than half of the country’s available land, and virtually all of its business and industry. Education, health care, housing, were all segregated, with whites enjoying levels equivalent to those in Western Europe or the United States. Blacks were confined by law to black urban townships, barren rural ‘tribal trust-lands’ or the workers’ quarters of the white commercial farms –on which the World Bank found more than half of black children were undernourished. There was no minimum wage until 1979, when it was set at $20 per month.

What does it mean then to celebrate the munificence of the architect of such a system without acknowledging the injustice and suffering meted out to those from whom his wealth was extracted? For some, it might seem that Rhodes’ actions should not be judged by today’s standards since Rhodes was a product of his time – that is an elite European perspective. For the people of southern Africa, Rhodes was opposed through numerous wars and insurgencies from the 1890s onwards. To focus on the former history without acknowledging the latter is precisely the kind of Eurocentric thinking that RMF in Oxford is railing against, both in the popular imagination and in scholarly practice. And as social scientists, historians and scholars of material culture have long argued, statues are imbued with power and politics and remain subject to contestation and renegotiation. RMF thus invites us to ask question about how we memorialise the past and whose narratives we privilege in doing so and why. Indeed, we would do well to ask similar questions about other legacies and statues at the university. These moments are productive and positive ones. They allow us the opportunity to debate the concerns raised by those who have been affected directly by these histories; they allow us to consider the ways in which these legacies continue to affect us all; and they force us to ask how best to publicly mark such histories. The idea that the RMF movement is trying to shut down debate or efface history entirely misses the point. It is the attacks on and threats against individuals involved in RMF (of which there are many), and it is the facile suggestion that RMF activists are born of a culture of victimhood (an evasion of debating the substantive issues), that has most clearly endangered an open debate about the past and its role in the present.

More importantly, and as repeatedly stated, RMF is a movement about ‘decolonisation’ and, as such, is about much more than a statue. The notion of decolonisation, in this context, is a manifold metaphor to mean questioning the hegemony of white, western thought in fields of study as diverse as history, politics, philosophy, modern languages, and literature. Far from erasure, this is about free speech in its truest form: it is about pluralising and complicating the ways in which knowledge is produced, disseminated and granted legitimacy. Following Said, it seems to me that as scholars we all share an intellectual obligation to push this endeavour forward.

Lastly, it is crucial to point out that there is extensive documentation from groups such as the Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality that black and minority ethnic students frequently face both subtle and overt racism in our university and often feel excluded within this space. I have encountered such instances first-hand and have heard a myriad stories to this effect, especially when I was vice-president of the Africa Society. Discussions about race and racism may be new to many at Oxford, but they are the reality for many black and minority ethnic people within and beyond these cloisters. When RMF talks about institutional racism, when it asks for the inclusion of ‘minority’ voices in the academic curriculum, and when it challenges the celebratory iconography of imperialists and genocidaires, it is not indulging in victimhood culture. Quite the opposite: it is demanding honour, respect and recognition.

(Last week, Joerg Friedrichs and Ryan Berg drew on their research to reflect on the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Here, ODID DPhil Simukai Chigudu, who is active in the campaign, offers his own viewpoint. In both cases, the views expressed are those of the authors alone and should not be taken as reflecting the view of the department.)

Subscribe to the blog

About the author(s)
Simukai Chigudu
Associate Professor of African Politics