The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign is has really come alive, in the UK at least, in recent months. The statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College, Oxford, has caused an uproar, with many people demanding its removal. In the University’s student newspaper, a recent survey revealed that 37 per cent of students wanted the statue removed permanently, with this figure rising to 48 per cent of black and minority students. This issue has engulfed the university in recent months, with the arguments for and against Rhodes growing louder. On the surface, it seems like Rhodes was a tyrant, but if we delve deeper, we can find reasons to let the statue stay.
Firstly though, we should address who Rhodes was. Cecil Rhodes was a British businessman and imperialist who moved to Southern Africa in the 19th century, establishing a mining dynasty. His influence led him to become the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1890 and he and his British South Africa Company went on to colonise and rule ‘Rhodesia’, now known as Zimbabwe and Zambia. Rhodes has been a controversial figure because of his white supremacist ideology and his role in founding the apartheid segregation system in the region.
Last year in South Africa, the hashtag #Rhodesmustfall began trending on Twitter as part of a campaign to remove a statue of Rhodes from the University of Cape Town. The protesters said that the statue represented an era of white dominance in the country, which they felt was still present so they wanted symbols of that time to be removed. The campaigners in Oxford want the same outcome for their statue, and have already succeeded in removing a plaque honouring Rhodes, however, removing the statue has proved much tougher.
protesters said that the statue represented an era of white dominance in the country
But why should Rhodes stay? Firstly, there are a series of scholarships for students from a range of countries which are presented in Rhodes’ name. It could be argued that this is the main reason that the university has found it hard to back the campaign. The Rhodes scholarships come from money donated by Rhodes in his will and enable 83 non-British postgraduate students to attend Oxford University each year. These scholarships are considered the most prestigious at Oxford due to their long history. Surely they should be taken into account when deciding upon Rhodes’ legacy?
The statue of Rhodes serves as a symbol and tribute of the good work that he did for the university and its students. Even Nelson Mandela endorsed the scholarships when he partnered the Rhodes Trust in 2003 to create The Mandela Rhodes Foundation to give funding to students from Africa with the aim of cultivating young African leaders. This part of Rhodes legacy has been ignored by campaigners. Mandela showed generosity of spirit towards Rhodes, which should be repeated by his critics today.
Secondly, Rhodes represents past mistakes. The white supremacy established in Africa was in no way a good thing, causing fractures and tensions in society that are still felt to this day. We need the statue to serve as a reminder about the mistakes of the past so they are not repeated. If the statue were removed, the racism that Rhodes represented may be forgotten and could creep back into the university community. There is a consensus among scholars and the public alike that the likes of Hitler should be remembered so that their past atrocities are not forgotten. This should be the same for Rhodes, but by wiping his memory out, we will not remember the past problems he caused.
we need the statue to serve as a reminder about the mistakes of the past so they are not repeated
In addition, despite Rhodes representing racism, he is an important figure for white people in Southern Africa because he played a fundamental role in them establishing themselves in the region. Rhodes is to white Africans what Washington is to Americans. He represents their heritage, and removal of the statue would be a way of say their heritage doesn’t matter.
Although their past is problematic, white Africans have the right to commemorate it in the same way as others do. This is exemplified by the Afrikaans singer Sunette Bridges, who chained herself to the statue of Boer leader Paul Kruger after the statue of Rhodes was removed from the University of Cape Town. She wanted to prevent its removal because she felt that it represented a part of her identity, and her identity was being threatened. Acknowledging the negativity surrounding the statue, she thought it should remain because it commemorated an important part of her personal history.
Finally, we have to ask ourselves where all of this will end? We are on a slippery slope. If we say that Rhodes must be removed because of his imperialist attitudes, then surely we should remove statues of other imperialist figures like Queen Victoria. The removal of Victoria from the Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace would be unthinkable. Removing Victoria would be like removing Rhodes. Both are historical and both did great things, both good and bad. People have fixated on the bad side of Rhodes, but when considering whether he should fall, we should consider if him staying would actually be such a bad thing.
Rhodes should stay.
You can read Hayden Cooper’s alternate perspective here.