It’s less of a press conference and more of a wake. In a crowded room at Regent’s Park, a small Oxford college of limited means, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign meets to announce its next move.
The students have been arguing for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British businessman and mining magnate who donated considerable sums to Oriel, an Oxford college some distance wealthier than Regent’s Park. It is part of a movement to “decolonise” the university: to put a greater number of non-white faces on the curriculum and in the classroom.
The campaign against statues of Rhodes has gained prominence in Britain thanks to the work of a handful of Oxford students, but it started in South Africa, where Rhodes was an ardent colonialist and landgrabber.
Just under a year ago, in April 2015, activism at the University of Cape Town led to a prominent statue of Rhodes being removed, sparking copycat protests across South Africa. It arrived later in the UK. For a few weeks, the campaign appeared to be heading in the right direction: eight undergraduate common rooms voted to bring down the statue and Oriel itself, usually regarded as a bulwark of conservatism (of the upper- and the lower-case varieties) declared that it would review the placement of the statue in a “listening exercise”.
However, money talks. A few days later Oriel declared that, following pressure from donors, the statue would remain in place. “Oriel sold out,” says Andre Dallas, one of the organising committee and a student at St Edmund’s Hall.
“We don’t accept that we lost the game,” says Max Harris, a fellow at All Souls College. “The game was never fair.”
Regardless, the Oxford campaign seems unlikely to emulate the successes of its Cape Town parent, barring a sudden influx of donations from anti-Rhodes billionaires. Yet it may be a Pyrrhic victory for the statue’s defenders. One student, who asks not to be named, tells me they were in favour of the statue remaining where it was but opposed the financial pressure being used to keep it there. The campaign continues for now, and in front of the nation’s media (as well as the New Statesman, reporters from the Times, Channel 4, Sky and the BBC are all in attendance) the group announces seven demands that it will take forward.
As in all student protests, the demands range from the achievable and somewhat small-minded – a student union sabbatical officer for race and diversity – to the laudable but remote: an immediate end to all racism on campus. But the tone is measured and surprisingly good-humoured. One speaker announces that the campaign has secured the support of “100 per cent” of Oriel’s black British first-year students – before revealing that there is just one.
Among the activists, there is impatience and some anger with the press for largely ignoring the wider campaign to broaden the curriculum and increase student diversity, focusing instead on the statue.
I ask one student, Femi Nylander, if he believes that the campaign was mistaken in going after it at all. He points out that the British press probably wouldn’t have arrived to discuss the curriculum. But the same symbol that gave the movement its voice may end up drowning out the rest of the message.
There is a historic irony here, in that Rhodes, who was almost as controversial in his own time as in ours, bought his statue with a substantial gift to Oriel, donating what would be almost £36m today. He has been kept in his place once again thanks to capital. But the irony probably comes as scant consolation to the defeated Oxford campaigners.
This article appears in the 03 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war