A Rhodes Must Fall protest in Oxford. Picture: KATE BARTLETT
A Rhodes Must Fall protest in Oxford. Picture: KATE BARTLETT

Oxford — “Take it down! Take it down!” thousands of students chanted at Oxford University in the UK on Tuesday, waving their fists at a statue of Cecil John Rhodes that presides over the entrance to prestigious Oriel College.

Protests in Oxford in 2016 inspired by the #RhodesMustFall movement in SA ultimately failed to convince the university to remove the statue, but have been regalvanised by Black Lives Matter rallies around the world, and after demonstrators threw a statue of a slave trader into the river in Bristol over the weekend.

“We’re tired of colonial iconography, we’re tired of white supremacy in our curriculums,” said Simukai Chigudu, an associate professor of African politics, who says he is one of less than 10 black permanent professors at Oxford.

“This movement started in Oxford not just ... because of our colleagues in SA, but because of many, many students of colour at this university,” the Zimbabwean-born Chigudu said. “The statue doesn’t enshrine history, it reframes Rhodes’s legacy as munificence and at the same time it erases Rhodes’s history of colonialism.”

Rhodes, after whom Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe was named, was an unrepentant imperialist who laid the groundwork for apartheid in SA. His colonial crusade saw thousands of Africans slaughtered and he made his fortune off the subjugation of others and their land at the Kimberley diamond fields, with his mining company De Beers becoming the largest in the region.

“I contend that [the British] are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race,” Rhodes once said.

We find it deplorable that Oriel College continues to glorify an international criminal
Part of a petition by the Rhodes Must Fall Oxford campaign

A graduate of Oriel College, Rhodes left his alma mater a hefty endowment in his will, and in 1911 a statue of him was erected there. The prestigious Rhodes Scholarships have since supported thousands of students — including many from SA, such as radio personality Eusebius McKaiser. Added to the calls to remove the statue in Oxford’s High Street, have been calls to rename the fellowship.

The #RhodesMustFall movement started at the University of Cape Town in 2015, with sometimes violent protests to remove the statue of the former prime minister of the Cape colony from the campus. Human excrement was famously hurled at the likeness in what was dubbed “the poo protest” and the university eventually capitulated and took the statue down.

That was not the result of the sister protests in Oxford, and reports at the time said the university had been warned about a substantial loss of endowments should the Rhodes statue be removed. Others opposed to removing the statue say it is an attempt to erase the historical record.

But after the death in police custody of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis last month, racial and historical injustice is in the news again and at a Black Lives Matter rally in the southwest English city of Bristol, protesters pulled down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and hurled it into the river.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesperson called it “a criminal act” and home secretary Priti Patel described it as “utterly disgraceful”. However, Bristol’s black mayor Marvin Rees sided with the protesters, calling the statue “an affront”.

There was a large police presence at the Oxford protest.

There have been similar protests elsewhere, with confederate monuments in the southern US desecrated and graffitied, as well a statue of notoriously cruel King Leopold of Belgium defaced with blood-red paint in Brussels. On Tuesday another Leopold statue was removed by authorities in Antwerp.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan also announced there would be a review of statues in London to see which ones were offensive and should come down. 

In Oxford, after the Colston statue was pulled down, a hand-scrawled red banner was tacked onto a door at Oriel College warning: “Rhodes, you’re next.” Other signs and placards at the protest read: “All Rhodes lead to the river”, also a reference to the Colston statue; “End of the Rhode, Cecil”; and “My history teachers lied to me”.

A petition by the Rhodes Must Fall Oxford campaign that had garnered more than 124,000 signatures on Tuesday reads: “We find it deplorable that Oriel College continues to glorify an international criminal ... The university is strewn with visible symbols of its colonial inheritance, and remains the intellectual heart of unjustly attained global privilege.

“At the University of Cape Town, the statue of Cecil Rhodes has fallen and uncritical memory of his legacy has been discredited. We see no reason why here ... at the heart of Oxford, Rhodes cannot also fall.”

One of the organisers encouraged protesters to chant “Amandla! Awethu!” noting that the Oxford protests were inspired by students in SA.

Twenty-six members of Oxford’s city council also released a statement calling for the statue to be removed. Oriel College has stuck to its guns, however, telling Business Day: “There has been no change to the college’s position.”

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