Around 200 protesters gathered at Oriel Square last Friday to protest the statue of Cecil Rhodes on Oriel College’s High Street façade.
The gathering was arranged and led by ‘Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford’, who aim to further the work of decolonisation started at the University of Cape Town, where a statue of Rhodes was removed earlier this year. The Oxford protesters want the statue at Oriel to see the same fate.
Cecil Rhodes was a student at Oriel College, and left 2% of his fortune to them on his death in 1902. This was used to fund the construction of a new building on Oxford’s High Street, including the statue which commemorates his benefaction.
Starting at midday, the protest was described as a ‘great success’ by organisers, despite persistent drizzle and cool temperatures. The official Rhodes Must Fall statement following the event claimed a turnout of 250, though independent estimates tended to approach 200.
As with the movement’s demonstration at this year’s matriculation ceremony, attendees were handed red ribbons as they arrived, symbolising the bloodshed in South Africa at the hands of colonialists. Some came with their own banners and placards, while others heeded the advice on the group’s Facebook page to come with pots and pans to create a ‘carnival atmosphere’.
Chant sheets were circulated to ensure wide participation in the protest. Along with ‘Black lives matter!’ and calls to ‘Take it down!’, a rallying cry originating from the days of apartheid featured heavily, with the speakers chanting ‘Amandla!’, to a crowd response of ‘Awethu!’, meaning ‘power to us’ or ‘power to the people’ in Xhosa.
Also featuring on the chant sheet was ‘El pueblo… unido… jamas sera vencideo [sic]’, a chant originally used by supporters of the socialist transformation of Chile under Salvador Allende, but which later became known as the anthem of the Chilean resistance against General Pinochet. Translating as ‘the people united will never be defeated’, the chant helped to align the rhetoric of decolonisation with that of other revolutionary left wing movements.
Amongst other key members of the movement, Kiran Benipal, Brian Kwoba and Ntokozo Qwabe gave speeches and led chants which excited the crowd, and made clear the range of views which exist under the banner of Rhodes Must Fall. The official statement called for ‘a more diverse curriculum and greater representation of BME communities amongst student and staff’, while Kiran Benipal began her speech by making a distinction between ‘diversify’ and ‘decolonise’, claiming that they ‘are not seeking to diversify Oxford’ and that the protest was ‘not about asking your coloniser to make space for you in his framework’.
Around an hour after the protest began, the Vice-Provost of Oriel College Prof. Annette Volfing arrived to officially receive the petition of over 1,900 signatories, which called for the statue of Rhodes to be removed, and condemned Rhodes as an ‘architect of apartheid’ and an ‘international criminal’. Former Rhodes Scholar Ntokozo Qwabe, in charge of the handover of the petition, asked the officials to sit down along with everyone else taking part.
Condemning the language used by Oriel in their official statements as ‘violent’ and ‘offensive’, Ntokozo passed over the petition while looking the other way, explaining: ‘To Oriel, I am invisible. I have no interest in looking at them because they have no interest in looking at me.’
The Vice-Provost did not address the protest after being given the petition, with Ntokozo adding: ‘until they have made a commitment [to bring down the statue of Rhodes], we refuse to give them a platform to speak’.
In a statement released on the Friday of the protest, Oriel College reaffirmed their commitment ‘to make Oxford University more diverse and inclusive of people from all backgrounds’, and claimed that the college’s governing body ‘is reviewing how Cecil Rhodes’ donation to Oriel is marked, given the way his political legacy is now understood’.
They added that the college ‘draws a clear line between acknowledging the historical fact of Rhodes’ donation and in any way condoning his political views’.