It’s the line that just won’t die.
Although the Rhodes Must Fall campaign has petered out in recent months and it’s leader’s Facebook posts have overtaken the movement in terms of media attention, critics of the movement continue to claim it designed to destroy history.
An Oxford Don has even compared the movement’s desire to remove a statue honouring the father of Apartheid to “Isil’s destruction of Antiquities”.
This could not be further from the truth.
The very purpose of the RMF campaign is not to distort history, but to put it in its proper context.
The campaign and its supporters argue that Britain and its educational institutions fail to adequately acknowledge the atrocities, brutalities and legacy of it’s Imperial past.
You may disagree with this, but it’s hard to ignore the irony that students at Oxford studying this colonial legacy do so in a building honouring and memorialising a man who told the House of Assembly in Cape Town “The native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism in our relations with the barbarians of South Africa”.
The RMF movement believes that removing the Rhodes statue will force Oxford University to acknowledge and adequately address its colonial legacy and start to make amends.
This is nothing new: for hundreds of years formally subjugated people have been toppling the statues and symbols of those who once ruled them. It is a valuable part of the healing process. It does not eradicate the memory of the injustice committed, but removes the means through which that injustice was honoured. It was an important feature of de-Nazification and continues to be employed by Eastern European countries formally under the boot of the Soviet Union. Last year, a statue of Lenin in Ukraine was replaced with a statue of Darth Vader. This is obviously not part of an Ukrainian effort to wipe the oppression they suffered under the Soviet Union from history. What it is actually designed to do is symbolically remove power from those who once dominated them and it helps them to move on.
Although the Rhodes statue in Oxford remains, in many ways the Rhodes Must Fall campaign have had a degree of success. A quick Google trends search makes it painfully clear that Cecil Rhodes was an almost unknown figure on few people’s radar before the campaign kicked off. If you recognised the name, it was far more likely to be as a result of the Rhodes Scholarship than of his involvement in the establishment of apartheid. Despite being accused of attempting to wipe Cecil Rhodes from history, the campaign has actually
There are plenty of issues you can take with the campaign. The campaign as a whole is arguably too focused on identity politics. It’s controversial figurehead Ntokozo Qwabe and his Facebook posts about making a waitress cry “white tears” are a tabloid journalist’s wet dream. Many critics have argued that modern students are too reluctant to be offended. This argument was made by Oxford’s first female vice-chancellor Louise Richardson on Desert Island Disks last week. Whilst this is debatable, it is arguably understandable as, unlike previous generations who were educated for free, millennial students are graduating with £45,000 of debt.
Regardless, despite the frequent comparisons to Islamic State and the repeated allegations that they are seeking to eradicate Cecil Rhodes from history, Rhodes Must Fall has done more to bring the reality of his ideas and ideals into the public eye than any of their critics had before. Rhodes full legacy is now common knowledge, and it is the Rhodes Must Fall campaign that has achieved this. Whether or not you accept their basic premise that education needs to be “decolonized” by removing colonial iconography, they are clearly not attempting to eradicate history, but are seeking to reveal it.