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"It was intensely painful": The Story of Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford

Organisers of the original 2015 movement to challenge institutional racism at Oxford University speak to the New Statesman about that experience, and their hopes for the current resurgence.

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“We thought we might get a few dozen people to take interest. When it exploded, and became a full-blown national conversation, it was to our surprise as much as it was to anyone else’s.” 

It is 5pm on Tuesday 9 June, 2020, and thousands of people have gathered for the Rhodes Must Fall protest outside Oriel College, Oxford. Against a backdrop of international Black Lives Matter protests and inspired by the toppling of a statue of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston two days previously, the protestors are reviving calls for Oriel College to remove a statue of the 19th-century colonialist and white supremacist, Cecil Rhodes, and calling on Oxford University to decolonise its curriculum. 

At the same time as the protest begins, Dr Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh is speaking by phone to the New Statesman from his home in South Africa. Back in 2015, he was one of the students who founded the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford campaign. 

“The original hope and aim was just to generate a conversation,” he begins, reflecting on his experience of that movement in 2015, and his hopes for the revived campaign. “To spotlight the statue, but also what we thought it represented in Oxford.” 

In 2015, Mpofu-Walsh was one of a group of Oxford students who were closely following the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa, a campaign to challenge institutional racism at the University of Cape Town. The movement successfully resulted in the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes from the university campus, and sparked a wider move to decolonise education across South Africa. 

In Oxford, Mpofu-Walsh and other students with an interest in issues of institutional racism “sort of assembled, and took on the moniker Rhodes Must Fall inspired by the events that had been happening in South Africa,” explains Professor Simukai Chigudu, now an Oxford academic, who was another of the students involved in the Oxford movement at the time. 

“The Rhodes Must Fall campaign in South Africa generated this sense of energy and urgency, a sense that we could start to challenge our institution to take a much more self-critical look at questions of representation, of curriculum, and how we mark public space, including colonial iconography. That was how it came about.”

Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford was born. The group set up a petition, a series of peaceful protests, and various speaker events, campaigning for the removal of the statue of Rhodes from the front of Oriel College, accompanied by a wider set of calls for a more diverse curriculum and greater representation of black people and ethnic minorities among the staff and students at Oxford University. 

Explaining the origins and aims of the movement, Mpofu-Walsh “would ask people to put themselves in the shoes of various black students at Oxford,” he says. These students “have achieved a great deal to get to Oxford, because there are so few black students there. And then it slowly dawns on one that there is something wrong. The feeling of some kind of hostility and alienation becomes very palpable, very quickly.”

A report in 2014 uncovered a high level of social isolation among BAME students at Oxford, and found that 59.3 per cent of BAME respondents have felt uncomfortable or unwelcome at Oxford due to their race.

“Part of that is linked to Oxford’s colonial history, but not simply its colonial history, its uncritical veneration and idealisation of that history. What Rhodes Must Fall has simply asked for is greater critical engagement with the way public space is negotiated at Oxford, and the way that links to the very material problems of systemic racism that undergird it.” 

The Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford protest outside Oriel college, 9 June 2020

Some critics of the campaign, both now and in 2015, have suggested that it focuses too narrowly on the fate of the statue, and not enough on wider issues of curriculum and representation at Oxford. (In the year Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford was founded, for example, the university admitted only 24 black British undergraduates. The most recent admissions figures for the university show that only one UK black student was admitted for geography, two for physics, and none at all for biological sciences over a three-year period.)

But Mpofu-Walsh argues that the focus on the statue was a strategic move to amplify multiple concerns about systemic racism at the university.

“The key was how to leverage a wide range of conversations and centre them around one icon. Centring the debate around the statue made a whole set of questions that were not as prominent as they should have been more prominent, even as the statue became the most prominent question.

“Also, although the statue does represent a number of other reforms that are needed, we do think, and continue to think, that the statue itself is abhorrent. 

“Essentially what we tried to do was use the Rhodes statue as a litmus test. Our thinking was that it’s very easy to pay lip service to ambitions for racial equality. Whether you believe a white supremacist statue should exist or not, that’s when you really test the lip service.”  

Professor Chigudu emphasises that: “This protest concentrates a range of issues about tackling institutional racism. That’s the real object of contention here, symbolised by the Rhodes statue, but it’s about institutional racism."

The Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford movement quickly came to national and international attention, to the surprise of the student organisers, who had expected neither the attention, nor the backlash. 

Across a huge amount of coverage from the British commentariat, a consensus quickly emerged that removing the statue would amount to airbrushing history. The prominent classicist Mary Beard described it as a “dangerous attempt to erase the past”. She suggested that black students at Oxford should be empowered to look on the statue “with a cheery and self-confident sense of un-batterability”. 

One columnist described the campaign as the product of "a generation raised to believe that their feelings are all that matter". As Chigudu remarks, “It was a culture war distilled down into the fate of the statue.”

Swept up into a wider conversation about no-platforming and free speech on university campuses, Rhodes Must Fall was perceived to be “indicative of a wider culture of victimhood, of cancel culture,” he adds. 

“It was frustrating because the media caricatured our position,” Mpofu-Walsh says, “and our position was always very nuanced. We were always prepared to take public platforms and explain ourselves, as we did in various cases in Oxford: in fact, winning a debate at the Oxford Union, which is hardly a bastion of racial radicalism. That became extremely frustrating because it became clear we were being caricatured and the caricature was being villanised.” 

“It was a very stressful period of time,” adds Chigudu. “It was the feeling that we were having to make our case again and again, and arguing with points that just didn’t make sense, or were disingenuous. I remember at the time, just feeling so exhausted. 

“People would say, 'You’re shutting down debate', and we would say, 'No, actually, we’re opening up debate. We’re the ones who are saying that we need to debate Rhodes’ legacy.'

“They would say that we were intolerant of other views. We would say, 'No hang on, you’re the one who’s intolerant of hearing about the true history of Rhodes and colonialism, and the expropriation, not only of Africa but of the Carribean and other parts of the world, that has taken place and from which Oxford has benefitted.'"

Amid the huge amount of coverage and discussion, a large number of articles singling out individual students involved in the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford movement began to appear in the press.

“It was intensely painful,” Mpofu-Walsh says. “I was one of the people who was singled out. There were articles that told all sorts of lies about me. One was quite flattering, it painted me out to be this exceedingly wealthy party-goer. I haven’t actually been to a club in about a decade, but it’s nice to be caricatured like that,” he laughs. 

“There were articles about my parents, totally unrelated to anything that was happening with Rhodes Must Fall. And that was just me. There were various other hit pieces on various other people. Ntokozo Qwabe, one of the activists, had journalists sent here to South Africa to dig up dirt on him  British media publications. It was real media victimisation.” 

The students began to receive racist hate mail and online abuse. “The overall experience was one that left a lot of people very scarred,” Chigudu notes.

***

A demonstrator at the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford protest, 9 June 2020

In December 2015, Oriel College announced that it would conduct “a structured six-month listening exercise on the statue”. It accepted that the Rhodes statue, without context, could “be seen as an uncritical celebration of a controversial figure, and the colonialism and the oppression of black communities he represents”. It added that the statue and the building on which it stands are Grade II listed, and that any changes, including the addition of a contextualising plaque, would require planning permission. 

But the following month, the college announced that it had decided the statue should remain in place, and the listening exercise would consult on how best to re-contextualise the statue. Documents leaked to The Telegraph revealed that donors had threatened to withdraw gifts and bequests worth more than £100 million if it was taken down.

“The university’s response, I think, hasn’t really been appropriately analysed,” Mpofu-Walsh says, recounting these events. “Added to that, as the movement is increasingly caricatured, the Chancellor of the University takes to various national media platforms and attacks the Rhodes Must Fall students, saying that if they don’t like the Rhodes statue, that they should go and study in China. 

“There was a real failure to engage and to listen. In fact there was even an attempt to basically publicly attack the protesters, as opposed to take any steps towards engagement.” 

***

A particular criticism of the Rhodes Must Fall movement in 2015 was that at least one of the students involved in the movement was a Rhodes scholar, a recipient of the prestigious postgraduate scholarship for international students to study at Oxford University, founded by a large bequest from Cecil Rhodes for the purpose. 

Ntokozo Qwabe, one of the student organisers who became the subject of a huge number of articles over several months in 2015 and 2016, was accused of “disgraceful hypocrisy” for calling for the removal of the statue while accepting the scholarship. At the time, he argued: “I’m no beneficiary of Rhodes. I’m a beneficiary of the resources and labour of my people which Rhodes pillaged and slaved.”

Following the new Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford protest this week, this was a criticism made again by Chris Patten, who said there was an element of “hypocrisy” among the statue’s critics who have themselves benefitted from the Rhodes scholarship. A fifth of Rhodes scholarships, he added, go to students from Africa. (It is worth noting that black South Africans only began to be awarded the scholarships from 1991, the award having been founded in 1902.)

“To accept a Rhodes scholarship, and then be involved in Rhodes Must Fall, is totally logically consistent to me,” Chigudu argues. “There is an aspect of redress, of putting on the historical record clearly and accurately what Rhodes means to people today and of tackling institutional racism.

"I think that argument is trying to distract us and to undermine the force of the claims that are being made. The Rhodes scholarship is not the central point of argument right now. [Lord Patten] is the only one making that point. The conversation in Britain is much wider than that.” 

***

Five years on, Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford is trying again, ignited, as before, by events elsewhere in the world and spearheaded by a new generation of students. 

“The Black Lives Matter movement has equipped an entire generation of people with a vocabulary and momentum to say that we can demand change from the powers that be,” Chigudu says. “In the UK, we’re in the midst of a public reckoning about race relations, and statues have become a symbolic battleground for that conversation. It was inevitable that students were going to pick up the baton where we left off five years ago and start demanding change. The structural issues in Oxford haven’t changed, and yet the momentum has. The public mood has shifted, it feels much more acceptable to start to talk about this.”  

Then a doctoral student at Oxford and now one of the university’s only seven black professors, Chigudu spoke at the demonstration outside Oriel on Tuesday evening. “I just came to speak as a kind of voice of continuity and to support the students who are driving it.”

The event itself “was unbelievable,” he says. “It was hard to grasp. The streets were packed, I’ve never seen anything like it in Oxford, and I’ve been living here now for just over seven years.” The turn-out was “incredibly diverse”, “not only in terms of race, but across the town-gown divide, and across a wide range of ages. I think a lot of people who were agnostic about the debate last time were here in full force.” He felt a “certain sadness”, he adds, that so many of the students who were involved in getting Rhodes Must Fall off the ground in 2015, have, like Mpofu-Walsh, graduated and moved on, and “were not physically there and able to see what’s happened”.

The city’s two MPs, Liberal Democrat leadership candidate Layla Moran and Labour shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds, have both publicly supported calls for the Rhodes statue to be removed. At the time of writing, over 160,000 thousand people have signed the petition calling for its removal.

The University's Vice Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, is against the removal of the statue. "I don't think we can pretend our history is different from what it was,” she told The Telegraph on 11 June. 

She points to Nelson Mandela’s preparedness to work with the Rhodes Trust in order to improve the lives of South Africans. "I think he was a man of deep nuance who recognised complex problems for what they were. And I don't think he sought simplistic solutions to complex problems,” she said. 

Patten, similarly, said this week: “For all the problems associated with Cecil Rhodes’ history, if it was alright for Mandela, then I have to say it’s pretty well alright with me.”

On the wider question of representation at Oxford, Richardson said: "We've made progress. It's slow but it's steady. The number of BAME students, for example, has increased from 14.5 per cent to 22.1 per cent in five years. The number of black students, admittedly from a low base, has gone up 100 per cent." 

But the decision on the Rhodes statue ultimately rests, not with the Chancellor or Vice-Chancellor of the university, but with Oriel College. In a statement following the protest on Tuesday, Oriel said it “abhors racism and discrimination in all its forms. The governing body are deeply committed to equality within our community at Oriel, the University of Oxford and the wider world.

"As an academic institution we aim to fight prejudice and champion equal opportunities for everyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality or faith. We believe Black Lives Matter and support the right to peaceful protest.

"The power of education is a catalyst for equality and inclusiveness. We understand that we are, and we want to be, a part of the public conversation about the relationship between the study of history, public commemoration, social justice, and educational equality. As a college, we continue to debate and discuss the issues raised by the presence on our site of examples of contested heritage relating to Cecil Rhodes.

"Speaking out against injustice and discrimination is vital and we are committed to doing so. We will continue to examine our practices and strive to improve them to ensure that Oriel is open to students and staff of all backgrounds, and we are determined to build a more equal and inclusive community and society."

“I must say, I can’t quite explain how bitterly disappointing everything was at the time,” Mpofu-Walsh says, looking back. “I think many of us had resigned ourselves to the idea that it was a lost cause. So now to see this renewed wave, which is gaining far more momentum, far more sympathy and being treated with far more nuance than our original cause, it’s quite frankly miraculous. In many ways we already feel vindicated. I think it would be mad for Oxford to dig in its heels again. 

“But what I think this proves, which gives me great comfort, is that whether Oxford decides to remove the statue under this wave of pressure, or next month, or in some distant decade, this question is not going away. That was our fundamental aim at the time. We wanted to plant a seed, that may have borne fruition at the time, but would always haunt the Rhodes statue. It will be perpetually haunted until Oxford does something serious about it.”

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman