Must Rhodes fall?
If we were looking for an historical figure with whom a contemporary university would want to be associated, Cecil Rhodes probably would not be on the shortlist. He is strongly associated with the colonisation of Africa (often conducted very aggressively), and from time to time expressed views that we would have to regard as racist – though he also stated that it was unacceptable ‘to disqualify a human being on account of his colour’.
Last year a movement began to have a statue of Rhodes located on the campus of the University of Cape Town taken down. Of course this movement had a hashtag, #RhodesMustFall. The university took down the statue and is re-locating it elsewhere. Shortly afterwards a similar movement, initiated by South African Rhodes scholar Ntokozo Qwabe, demanded that Oriel College Oxford remove its statue of Rhodes (who was one of the College’s major benefactors). Mr Qwabe may have slightly muddied the waters of his campaign by including in its objectives the banning of the French tricolour national flag.
But how should one see such campaigns? There have been vocal contributions to the debate, both for and against the removal of the Oxford statue. But how should one treat the issue? Is it good enough to say that historical artefacts must be retained because they are of their time and may help us to illustrate our contemporary evaluation of history? Would anyone suggest, for example, that if we found a statue somewhere of Hitler it should stay put? And not just Hitler, though actually there are still statues of Stalin, who was responsible for a good deal more aggression, violence, oppression and death than one could ever associate with Rhodes.
In the end, the key in all of this maybe does not lie in what we do with statues or other symbols, but how we ensure that our words, our vision and our actions reflect an ethos and values that are in keeping with the spirit of higher education. Oxford may, as some have argued, have a racism problem – but this has little enough to do with whose likeness is on the outside wall of Oriel College. The university may need to take action to correct this; but thinking that the main objective is about what it does with statues is a distraction.
For myself, I would leave statues where they are, but would want to be reminded from time to time that the values of learning, integrity, tolerance and equality need to be stated and restated in every generation; and that the symbols we erect today should be beacons of those values.