“Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.” Spoken by Cecil Rhodes, a 19th century British colonialist described (by Rhodes’ biographer Anthony Thomas) as an ‘architect of apartheid’, these words hang heavy in the air as I stand on High Street outside Oriel College looking up at his figure immortalised in stone.
When speaking to many students, among them those who were unfamiliar with the movement or knew of it only by name, I have been asked the same question time and time again. “So you want the statue of Rhodes in Oriel removed? That’s what it’s about?” Plainly, yes. Do the collective body of students participating in the Rhodes Must Fall movement want the statue of Cecil Rhodes, who built his legacy, wealth and fame on the subjugation and bloodshed of the black Southern Africans, removed? Yes. Yet what we stand for in solidarity is the fall of something much greater; the toppling of colonial relics of the university, in its physical and intellectual spaces, its colleges and its curricula.
The General Assembly, held by Rhodes Must Fall on Friday 24 October, reads: “The statue of Rhodes has a literal and metaphorical meaning. Both must fall. Ours is a genuine intersectional struggle… We remain determined to decolonise this university and dismantle the imperialist legacy of white supremacy.” The General Assembly was held to discuss the direction of the movement and determine courses of action moving forward. Through a consent-based process of decision making, incorporating hand signals to express agreement or indeed the inverse, a strong consensus was reached reached on the initiatives proposed for decolonising Oxford. The list of demands and objectives settled on will be revealed in their finalised form at the next RMF Oxford event. This agenda is about freeing our curriculum and environments, decolonising them, and embedding them with essential mechanisms for awareness and acknowledgment of the atrocities of Colonialism and how its insidiousness ripples through our University today. Beyond the realms of this engagement RMF Oxford will also seek to create networks of support for students experiencing oppression as a direct result of these paradigms.
The statue itself was erected to celebrate, venerate, and commemorate Rhodes, a student at Oriel, and his financial contribution to the university in the form of the scholarship fund he set up. When we walk past it without condemnation, we legitimise such a celebration of a murderous white-supremacist. To this day the scholarship bears his name, its finances founded on the labour of those he exploited. The existence and contribution of those he exploited goes unmentioned, however, an inconvenience, erased by colonial historical narratives. The University of Oxford is built on their labour and oppression; it is an engine that continues to peddle a fictitious narrative of British ‘progress’. Do we, a diverse and aware student body, really want to privilege the narrative of white colonial oppressors like Rhodes, meanwhile silencing those of people of colour? Remaining silent will perpetuate this uncritical celebration of oppression.
Spaces ought to evolve according to the social landscape they reflect. We as a student body are obligated to reconfigure spaces as we see fit, to reflect our outlooks and identities. This University belongs to us all. As an institution, it cannot and should not alienate those who live and work within its remits.However,, this is not now the case for oppressed and marginalised groups in Oxford. Students who do not fit an antiquated and alienating narrative of typicality are not reflected in the institution, and are tired of this. Spaces like Oxford are a legacy of a student body; if we do not question the emblems, symbols, statues and names of such space, we legitimise them, we provide them with our implicit support. We forfeit our right to a say on the makeup of an institution that we, the students, ultimately characterise. We hold ourselves accountable to our explicit thoughts and our words, so how could we be so apathetic to the iconography that surrounds us?
The University and its members must recognise that colonial symbols and practices remain ubiquitous, and need to be dismantled as means of reparation and recognition of the University’s problematic history. These symbols manifest themselves in pernicious forms with the same trend of erasing the histories of peoples whose suffering they were predicated on. From the names of buildings, such as the library in All Souls College, named after the plantation owner and slave trader Christopher Codrington, to the vast array of Euro-centric, white-authored reading lists across academic disciplines, the reflection of colonialism are plain to see. The University must accept accountability for this history; doing so is essential to reconstituting an environment that reflects its student body, that does not alienate people according to race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, or religious beliefs.
Change is afoot, as students are no longer willing to tolerate colonial sycophancy. The start of an academic year of action in the RMF Oxford movement began last Saturday with the MatriculAction event, where students supporting the decolonisation of the University donned red ribbons, representing imperialist bloodshed, during their induction ceremonies. Thousands of pieces of ribbon were handed out at the event to both undergraduate and postgraduate students united in their condemnation of the University’s colonial relics. Last year, the 2014 class of Rhodes Scholars were the first ever to forgo the traditional ‘toast to the founder’.
The Rhodes Must Fall movement, both internationally and locally, has been characterised both by its action and the reaction that it has sparked. This is something the movement will continue to focus on as we stand in solidarity with those in South Africa as they stand up to brutally oppressive use of police force in the midst of their peaceful protests as a response to proposed rises in fees. The RMF movement in Oxford took its initial inspiration, in April of this year, from the Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Cape Town. The movement in Cape Town demanded that a statue of Rhodes be removed from campus. Their demands were granted, and the statue fell, giving students a voice in shaping the University and indicating a move away from a racist and oppressive past to a future in which all students have a voice.
Now we must do the same.
No longer will we stomach murderous colonial figures like Codrington, Pitt Rivers, and Rhodes being placed on pedestals. We must decolonise Oxford, we must decolonise education, and demand that Rhodes Must Fall.
Photo credit: Rhodes Must Fall Oxford