by Aidan Chivers
Over the course of 2015, debates about imperial legacy and race relations within universities became a prominent topic of interest. Questions about the commemoration of Cecil Rhodes caught the world’s attention and attracted a huge amount of discussion in the media. Issues about black experiences in academic institutions and the impact of colonialism have undoubtedly been brought to the fore on a global scale. Meanwhile, on a local level in Oriel, the consequences of the Rhodes-related media frenzy of late 2015 were for a time extremely significant. The furore impacted both the college’s image and atmosphere, and resources were strained simply in responding to the press attention.
At the height of the media interest, by an obscure paradox Oriel was presented by the supporters of Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) as racist, imperialist and oppressive; and yet Oriel’s response to the discussion left it branded as weak, overly liberal, and unconcerned by issues of history and tradition. With over a year separating Oriel from its decision not to remove the statue, the college and its members can now have some perspective on the protests, discussion and consequences of December 2015.
Now that it has the space to breathe, Oriel has been holding a series of meetings and forums to establish how it should respond to and better contextualise Rhodes’s legacy. At this point in time it is worth reflecting on the events leading up to and surrounding the protests in Oriel Square, and the attention that they received across the world.
The RMF movement’s origins in the University of Cape Town (UCT) are both widely recognised and yet often misrepresented. Although the campaign shot to prominence in March 2015, it was not – as is often supposed – born out of a vacuum or simply from the whim of a small number of individuals. Unveiled in 1934, demands for the UCT statue’s removal date back to at least the 1950s.
There had long been discomfort at the enormous statue of the colonialist figure gazing proudly out over the land he had invaded, and debates had been ongoing for some time. The international media’s attention, however, was only really attracted to the issue when a group of students gathered around an activist named Chumani Maxwele, who triggered the modern wave of protests on 9 March 2015 when he threw human faeces at the statue. The gathering was small – reports suggest that scarcely ten people were in attendance – but the event prompted a surge in the issue’s prominence.
Within less than three weeks, following a series of increasingly aggravated protests, the decision was made to remove the statue. Unwilling to erase any evidence for its existence, students used black paint to create the impression of the shadow the statue used to cast.
The national and international publicity relating to the UCT protests was highly ambivalent, as increasingly hostile and aggressive tactics lost the movement much of the early favour it had won in the media. Reports of RMF’s apparent hatred of whites spread widely; practices such as impeding the entrance of non-blacks into the university cafeteria and using the anti-apartheid chant ‘one settler, one bullet’ often seemed to detract from the discussion they wished to provoke, leading to a frequently questionable presentation in the media. Nevertheless, interest in the movement grew rapidly. Protests quickly spread across South Africa in the universities of Stellenbosch (Pretoria, Free State) and, most notably, Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape Province.
Thousands of miles away, the anti-Rhodes feeling was also taken up in Oxford by Ntokozo Qwabe and others, causing a fascination on the part of the British media and sparking a range of discussion across the UK and beyond in relation to how the impact of colonialism should be represented and acknowledged. Yet despite the huge interest from the UK press, much of the journalistic response was critical of the movement in ways which consistently misrepresented its aims.
The issue of the statue’s removal was often focused on to the exclusion of all of the other issues that Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) intended to raise in relation to the lack of black students and tutors in Oxford, the under-representation of black culture in the more traditional syllabuses, and the broader experience of black students within Oxford colleges. Harry Mount’s article in The Daily Telegraph summed up much of the outrage amongst the traditional British media with his article condemning ‘our pampered student emperors’. It became popular for journalists to talk of the movement as aiming to ‘erase history’: a line endorsed by the University of Oxford’s own chancellor Chris Patten, who argued that RMF were attempting to ‘expunge the names (though not the endowments) of those who fail to pass the tests of today’s political correctness’, and argued that students should accept the statue’s place or ‘think about being educated elsewhere’.
These notions became popular despite RMFO’s wider campaign, which promoted fresh discussions about colonial legacies; recontextualisation of imperial history; and more visibility to many of the issues surrounding the experience of black people in 21st-century Oxford.
Whilst RMFO found itself victim to attacks from much of the mainstream press, the presentation of Oriel was also at times punishing. The more traditional and conservative response was to condemn not only RMFO but also Oriel for agreeing to discuss and consider the requests of the student protesters. On the other hand, supporters and sympathisers of the campaign – many of them among the student body – found themselves angered by the college’s eventual decision not to remove the statue and a perceived lack of student input.
The college found itself trapped between sides in an increasingly polarised debate, leaving it little chance to engage in any rational and sensible discussion around the statue. Further criticism followed when a ‘listening exercise’ on the statue (initially planned to be six months) was cut short on 28 January 2016 after just one month. While the early conclusion of this consultation was seen by some as a panicked response under the pressure of powerful alumni, others still condemned them for having begun such a process in the first place.
The perception of Oriel as a whole became a highly negative one. Some drew parallels between the Rhodes debate and other issues, presenting the college as sexist (the last to accept women); classist, conservative and elitist (summed up in the nickname ‘Toriel’); and finally, racist and unashamed by its colonial past (the Rhodes debate).
Even so long after the height of the media interest, the story still captures the attention of many. The protests continue – although in dwindling numbers – and RMF campaigner Joshua Nott’s acceptance of a place to study at Oxford with a Rhodes scholarship has also been widely reported on.
The aims of this special report are to give context to this complex issue, and analyse where RMFO and Oriel now stand. The report includes a perspective on Rhodes’s biography, and a summary of the history of the campaign. Also included is a feature on the recent contextualisation meeting held in Oriel. Finally, this report looks more widely at the context of other iconography and ‘safe space’ campaigns around the world which have been influenced by the debates about Rhodes – both in Cape Town and Oxford.
Our thanks to Professor Teresa Morgan for assisting us with fact-checking across this special report.
- News24: ‘Rhodes: As divisive in death as in life’ (Sipho Masondo, 22/03/15).
- The Guardian: ‘Cecil Rhodes statue row: Chris Patten tells students to embrace freedom of thought‘ (Damien Gayle and Nadia Khomami, 13/01/16).
- BBC: ‘Joshua Nott: Rhodes Must Fall activist wins Rhodes scholarship‘ (24/01/17).
- The Telegraph: ‘It’s time to say No to our pampered student emperors‘ (Harry Mount, 29/12/15).
- Project Syndicate: ‘The Closing of the Academic Mind‘ (Chris Patten, Chancellor of Oxford University, 22/02/16).
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