Black Lives Matter: the rejection of Rhodes and coloniality

Timothy RybackFriday 26 June 2020

On 17 June, the governing council of Oriel College, Oxford, United Kingdom, voted to remove a statue of college benefactor Cecil Rhodes, which has graced its High Street entrance for more than a century. The vote followed fierce debates, street protests, and an admonishment by the Chancellor of the University of Oxford. In January 2016, Lord Christopher Patten said that if students didn’t like the Rhodes statue, ‘then maybe they should think about being educated elsewhere.’ Four years later, it is Rhodes who is on his way out. But the protests are about more than the four-foot limestone statue in a building niche at Oxford, as the students at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, showed the world five years ago.

Contested histories

This article is authored by Timothy Ryback on behalf of the group of experts - convened by the IBA, The Salzburg Global Seminar, and IHJR – which is preparing a volume of eight case studies addressing the social, political and legal dynamics in facilitating or complicating the resolution of public disputes over contested historical legacies in public spaces. The project will be the product of three years of in-depth research. Find out more here

On Tuesday 9 March 2015, University of Cape Town student, Chumani Maxwele, staged a protest against racial discrimination on campus and the general slow pace of transformation at the university by throwing a bucket of excrement over a bronze statue of Cecil Rhodes. It was a shocking and clear message: Black student life at the University of Cape Town was likened to ‘the lowest form of human detritus’. Coloniality and white supremacy, embodied by the statue of Rhodes, had to go.

While the action was applauded by a large part of the student population, the university administration saw the protest as an unnecessary intrusion into a process that was already addressing the issues of transformation through established channels. The university had signaled its commitment to greater diversity the previous year with the appointment of Professor Sakhele Buhlungu, a professor of sociology, as the new Dean of Humanities. Deliberations also included the possible relocation of the Cecil Rhodes statue.

The object of Maxwele’s renegade action was the ten-foot bronze statue, created by the British sculptor Marion Walgate, in 1934, to commemorate the late businessman who had donated the land on which the university campus was built. When Rhodes died in 1902, he was one of the wealthiest men in the world, having established a vast mining empire that compromised 8.8 million square kilometres of land through the annexations that include present-day Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, which in the colonial era was called Rhodesia. Rhodes was a co-founder and chairman of De Beers, which in those years controlled an estimated 85 per cent of the world’s diamond market.

Depicted in a three-piece suit, with his chin in his hand, gazing into the distance, the Rhodes statue dominated a central square of the university campus. The granite pedestal on which the statue stood bore the inscription: ‘I Dream my Dream by Rock and Heath and Pine of Empire to the Northward. Aye, one Empire from Lion’s Head to Line.’

Lion’s Head is a mountain peak in Cape Town. The ‘Line’ refers to Egypt, suggesting a British colonial vision that embraced the entire African continent. The inscription preserved Rhodes’ sentiments as an unapologetic colonialist and brazen racist. ‘The native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise,’ Rhodes told the House of Assembly in Cape Town, in 1887. ‘We must adopt a system of despotism in our relations with the barbarians of South Africa.’

Concerns over Rhodes’ overt racism were expressed during his lifetime. In 1899, nearly 100 members of the University of Oxford community in the UK signed a petition protesting the university’s plan to award Rhodes with an honorary degree. As a young man, Rhodes studied at Oxford for one term, before setting off to seek his fortune. The London newspaper, The Telegraph, called him ‘a genius inspired by evil,’ in an article from 1911. The British writer Evelyn Waugh suggested in 1930 that the statue of Rhodes at Oriel College should be ‘dynamited.’

The University of Cape Town administration acknowledged the complexity of the Rhodes legacy. ‘He was a great man, did many things and did them well,’ the university Vice-Chancellor, Dr Max Price, said on 22 March 2015, amid rising student protests. ‘He was a great politician and an imperial governor of the Cape. What he achieved was unusual, and he was a self-made man. But the attitude and means he used to get there were not right.’

Price conceded that Rhodes was a ‘racist’ who ‘used power and money to oppress others.’ On balance, he said, Rhodes was ‘a villain.’ But Price did not see this as grounds for erasing the Rhodes legacy from the University of Cape Town. ‘The problem is that the statue is at the centre of campus and it acquires a meaning that he gave us all we have, we love him and we look up to him,’ Price said. ‘Actually, we don’t. Some admire him, some don’t, but I think he is part of our history.’

As the protests intensified, along with scrutiny by the national, then international media, the university was forced to act. On April 9, 2015, thirty days after Maxwele hurled a bucket of excrement over the statue, a mobile crane removed Cecil Rhodes from his plinth, to the cheers of hundreds of assembled students, faculty, and staff.

The university Vice-Chancellor and his administration had misjudged the depth of the resentment over tuition fees, faculty appointments, curriculum, accommodations - there were 6,680 beds for 27,000 students - and a sense of pervasive discrimination felt by Black students. By not providing serious and effective recourse, the university administration compelled students to seek alternative processes for addressing these issues, including public demonstrations, the dissemination of grievances through the mainstream and social media, and the sidelining of established processes for remedy. The Rhodes Must Fall movement was born.

The demands for equity expanded to calls for ‘decoloniality,’ in which students challenged the legitimacy of the very structures the university - based on colonial precedents - had in place for addressing student needs. The administration continually found itself in a reactive, defensive position. Forced to accelerate the decision-making process, the university was compelled to reschedule a Senate vote, violate heritage protection provision explicitly outlined in national legislation, and arrange for the removal rather than relocation of the statue, all within thirty days following years of internal, administrative deliberation.

This appears to be a lesson that Oxford has finally heeded.

Image: EQRoy / Shutterstock.com