The “Rhodes Must Fall” movement is driven by the desire to change Oxford’s attitude to race. In a university where privilege still has a part to play, the statue of Cecil Rhodes needs to fall to make way for a new outlook.
With an alumni which includes 26 British prime ministers and 27 Nobel Laureates, and being the oldest surviving university in Britain, Oxford is a global symbol of education and learning. This is often overshadowed by the overwhelming privilege, wealth and power that permeate many features of the university. For example, even today, 43.7% of Oxford students are from private schools – although only 7% of UK school students attend a private school.
To some looking at this representation, it is perhaps mystifying why the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement, a campaign beginning last March at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, would be so significant at Oxford University. After weeks of protest from students, a statue of Cecil Rhodes was removed from the University of Cape Town, and since then, the movement has spread to other universities, both South African and international. The alma mater of Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, still bears a statue of him, and the Oxford “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign has focused on its removal, as well as a change in the university’s approach to race.
Critics argue that Oxford, of all places, has not been affected by the actions of Rhodes in the way that Southern Africa has. After all, the work of Rhodes in southern Africa was over 100 years ago in the late 19th Century. Why now should a statue be removed? The actions of Rhodes reflect a time of colonialism for the British Empire, and as a significant political figure in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia) and South Africa, Rhodes helped bring about changes that still affect the region today. His desire “to draw a red line from Cairo to Cape Town” stemmed from an imperialistic belief in the superiority of the British people, and led the way for figures such as Churchill to assert their authority in the area. Furthermore, many in South Africa see Rhodes’ introduction of the Glen Grey Act in South Africa to be a stepping stone for apartheid by removing the rights of those who didn’t own land (overwhelmingly owned by white people). Britain’s contribution to southern Africa has led to racial tensions long after independence, and Rhodes was one of the first to begin this.
Removal of the statue would make a stand against these contributions at a university that has been at the forefront of British society for hundreds of years. Rhodes may have given money to the university in the form of grants and the Rhodes Scholarship – but this doesn’t rectify his views. The benefits drawn from the Rhodes Scholarship can still be brought about without the statue. Though many argue that removing the statue is just a way of the university “editing” its past, removing it would arguably be a stronger statement to make way for a more tolerant era.
In fact, “Rhodes Must Fall” addresses just that – it has become a platform to discuss and debate Oxford’s problems with race. Despite diverse admissions figures today (40% of its students are international students), once at the university, privilege still affects students who may not fit into the predominant stereotype of an Oxford student (usually white, male and wealthy). A degree of misunderstanding and misperception has led to some Oxford students experiencing casual racism (as projects such as “I too am Oxford” have also emphasised). It seems that whilst society has changed, attitudes in parts of Oxford haven’t. The Oxford Union recently declared the university institutionally racist after an incident where a drink titled “Colonial Comeback” caused outrage when it was served at a repatriations debate. A euro-centric curriculum across many subjects has led to the erasure of truly diverse academic texts, and whilst this is a high-profile issue at Oxford, it is something happening at many universities across the country.
Oxford’s recognition of such incidents only took place after the students spoke up, and for students who previously may have suffered in silence from regular and subtle dismissal, “Rhodes Must Fall” has given them this voice. Would the university be thinking about the issues surrounding Rhodes if it weren’t for campaigns such as this? Most likely not. “Rhodes Must Fall” tackles the general misconceptions about race that Oxford has often failed to grasp. Rhodes is a historical figure who has had a huge role in Oxford’s history – and removing him recognises Oxford’s commitment for a change in their attitude to race.