Inside The Movement Challenging Oxford’s Colonialist Legacy

In June 2015, Simukai Chigudu, a doctoral student in African Studies, was having a drink in the bar at the Oxford Union with some of his friends before a planned protest at a Union debate. The Oxford Union is an institution here in Oxford, a debating society that boasts prime ministers as members and brings in illustrious speakers each term. The Union was founded on principles of free speech in the midst of Victorian speech restrictions at the university. The Union is also known derisively by some in Oxford as a kind of privileged Old Boys’ Club, despite efforts on the part of the officers and the Union itself to stem this reputation.

The night Chigudu and his friends showed up at the Union bar to hear a debate on colonialism and British imperialism — and to silently protest the idea that such issues should be up for debate altogether — the bar had a drink special available: The Colonial Comeback, accompanied by an image of two black hands in chains.

The furor over the drinks and the impression of the Union as an institutionally racist society made British news, creating space for a new protest campaign to develop. The protest planned for that night in June was the first public action on the part of Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford, a transnational protest campaign at Oxford University inspired by and performed in solidarity with the Rhodes Must Fall protests in March 2015 at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

rhodes must fall
A Rhodes Must Fall protest at the University of Cape Town (Credit: YouTube)

For a lot of Americans, like me, who come to the UK knowing the bare minimum about British imperialism, Rhodes Must Fall and RMF in Oxford can be a confusing movement to grasp. For most Americans, the name Rhodes is usually simply associated with a massive scholarship to attend the University of Oxford. President Bill Clinton, for example, was a Rhodes scholar, as was MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow. But the Rhodes name is embattled in controversy, as present movements have made uncovering Cecil Rhodes’ legacy central to their cause.

Cecil Rhodes was a very rich British imperialist. He embraced imperialism to the point that, as Chigudu told me in an interview, “even within his own time, he was regarded as extreme.” The area now known as Zimbabwe, where Chigudu is from, was originally called South Rhodesia, and is still one of the most segregated and unequal countries in the world in terms of who owns property and wealth in the country. Rhodes worked mainly in Southern Africa and much of his legacy is still felt in the country. It can be argued that apartheid extended out of legacies and industry practices he left in place. He created the migrant labor system within the mining industry, which destroyed numerous black communities within South Africa.

The University of Cape Town was largely funded and built using land and money bequeathed by Rhodes. UCT is the premier University in South Africa and one of the top universities in the world. Cape Town is, itself, a very white and wealthy city in South Africa, and hardly any of the professors at the University are black. And until April of 2015, the campus had a large statue of Cecil Rhodes right in the middle of it.

Chigudu explains:

“The argument at the time [RMF at UCT began] was simply this: How can we possibly have a university that aspires to be progressive and inclusive and to take serious the dreams, aspirations, and realities of majority black South Africans when a statue of Cecil John Rhodes remains standing within the University?”

In solidarity with the work of students at UCT challenging the university to diversify staff and curriculum, black and African students here at Oxford started Rhodes Must Fall — targeting specifically the statue of Rhodes that sits above the entrance to Oriel College in the city’s High Street (the main thoroughfare in town). “We wanted to show the students in Cape Town that we believed in them and supported them,” Chigudu says.

The Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford’s Oriel College (Credit: flickr/mifl68)

More broadly, RMF seeks to challenge Oxford administration and departments on the colonialist legacy in their education. For example, at the time the RMF movement started here in Oxford, the entire professorate in the African Studies department was white. The efforts are also rooted in widespread efforts to challenge racist practices on college campuses; RMF was urged on by students not only at UCT, but at the University College of London, which recently launched the “Why Is My Curriculum White?” campaign.

Tadiwa Madenga is a Women’s Studies Master’s student from Zimbabwe via the United States, and is also involved in the RMF Movement. Her focus within the movement is on what’s called “decolonization,” which is a catch-all term for moving the focus of academia away from white people in ivory towers and toward the voices of people traditionally marginalized. It’s a matter of access and whose voices get centered in the public square. Madenga points out that the way subjects are taught throughout the Western world is this canonization of the history of white people, and white men specifically. “By the time you [get to the writings of people of color], there’s something that’s been imprinted in you that says ‘this is the way things go.’ It’s scandalous,” she says, “that African Studies here has no black professors.”

For Madenga, the Rhodes Must Fall movement focuses on the Rhodes statue as a matter of iconography — Rhodes is a symbol of the larger institutional biases, like the focus on whiteness within the university. “These conversations are not new, but there was something obvious about the fact that they’re talking about a statue at UCT and there’s statues here . . . Iconography is a problem at each university,” she says.

Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford has received a lot of criticism from numerous sides for the protests they’ve done against the statue at Oriel College. A Facebook page, run by some anonymous students within the University, declares that Rhodes Must Not Fall and the Union itself held a debate on the topic in January. Efforts to reach out to the Rhodes Must Not Fall people were not responded to. (NOTE: I reached one of the people from RMNF and he consistently no-showed to scheduled interviews and has stopped responding to any of my emails.)

Much of the criticism from these places is specifically about the statue itself — the defense of the icon of Rhodes as an important part of Oxford history characterizes much of the argument against Rhodes Must Fall. The movement has faced a messaging problem, in that the focus on attacking the statue has prevented, in some ways, the further message of decolonization and challenging whiteness to go unheard. Which is why, when Oriel College issued a statement that they would not be removing the statue, many students at the university not involved in Rhodes Must Fall thought that would be the end of it.

But, according to both Chigudu and Madenga, things are far from over. RMF is deciding now, Chigudu says, whether they want to continue being a protest movement or transition into being a reformist one. Right now, Rhodes is calling attention to the historical and ongoing injustices of racism and colonialization at Oxford, highlighting the impact these legacies have on African students within the academy.

Today, RMF in Oxford is planning a march through the city, highlighting colonist symbols at various places in the University. But the goals are not simply about the statues and icons — they are focused on representation and changing the way we teach in higher education. If Rhodes Must Fall succeeds, much more than just statues will be falling — entire universities will change. And that is what scares people the most.


Lead image: Wikimedia Commons

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