The colonialism debate could well be seen as outdated; it has been a couple of centuries now since Western countries marched into other continents considered to be ‘uncivilised’ and ‘savage’, planting flags where they chose without a second thought. Cecil Rhodes was one of these individuals who did not consider the people living on the land he claimed for his own to be a factor worth considering. Men such as he would later justify their actions, they ‘helped’ the native people by building infrastructure – but of course the natives themselves were forced to actually commit to the manual labour. Rhodes was convinced that by controlling the land that he’d taken he was somehow helping the natives, in his own words, “the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” This Western arrogance has led to discrimination against African peoples, a colonial hangover which has proved to be incredibly stubborn. Cecil Rhodes has come to epitomise white supremacy colonialism and racism. Unsurprisingly, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign has attracted a number of Oxford students who believe that a statue of Rhodes proudly looking down on students from a ledge hin Oriel College, must be removed. But the ledge on which Rhodes stands is a stable one, Oxford have recently announced that they will not remove the statue despite the campaign’s popularity.
Among the students who have campaigned for the statue to be taken down is a student of African origin, attending Oxford on a scholarship named after Rhodes himself. Critics have been quick to accuse this student of benefitting from Rhodes’ legacy, but as this student struck back, “Cecil Rhodes did not intend it [the grant] for us when he wrote his will.” It’s perhaps safe to assume that he’s right, Rhodes’ dedication to the white supremacist cause makes it rather difficult to believe that he would be delighted to know that a scholarship in his name was being awarded to non-white students.
Aside from this individual’s perceived hypocrisy, there has been a great deal of backlash against the students campaigning for the statue’s removal – most of it coming from middle aged white men. The Oxford University Chancellor, Lord Patten, serves as an example. His argument is ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so. He argues that to remove the Rhodes statue would effectively attack free speech and demonstrate intolerance. However, surely taking down the statue would serve to advocate free speech and attack the very idea of intolerance? As Rhodes has come to represent white supremacy and intolerance towards people of other colours, no visual commemorations to this figure should be permitted. In a society which is becoming increasingly xenophobic in the wake of the immigration crisis, it is dangerous to display any commemorations to white supremacy in one of the world’s most prestigious universities.
Last year Rhodes’ likeness which loomed over students of the University of Cape Town did indeed fall. The decision to remove the statue was far more welcomed than the prospect of removing its British counterpart has been. South Africa’s Arts and Culture Minister praised the decision and said “For far too long our heritage landscape has been viewed through the prism of our colonisers and we have got to challenge that.” Britain would do well to challenge it too.
Now, when students are finally brave enough to fight against this ideology, conservative middle-aged men are defending Rhodes. In their opinion their argument is justified, after all didn’t Rhodes help African natives? But the reality is that if Rhodes helped African people, and if he is helping students attain Oxford’s dreaming spires, helping people was never his intention – only a potential side effect.
Even those defending sculptural commemorations of him cannot argue with the plain fact that Rhodes was a racist who believed that white people, particularly British white people, should rule over all ‘inferior’ ethnicities. Rhodes referred to inhabitants of ‘uncivilised’ regions as “the most despicable specimens of human beings” who should be “brought under Anglo-Saxon influence…” Should a man who spoke of people in this way be defended and commemorated? Those who support Rhodes’ sculptural commemoration are standing for, consciously or not, racial inequality and intolerance.
We cannot afford to even subliminally support racist values in a society where people are discriminated against; where people are deemed terrorists because they appear Middle Eastern, where those with darker skins are more likely to live in poverty and less likely to be accepted to Oxford to see Rhodes’ statue for themselves. If we are to truly make progress, Rhodes must fall.