Recently Oriel College, Oxford announced it will keep a statue of Cecil Rhodes after its alumni threatened to withdraw funding of around £100 million to the college, despite the efforts of the Rhodes Must Fall Movement (RMF). RMF aims to take ‘direct action against the reality of institutional racism’, one of the manifestations of this direct action being the campaign to remove statues of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town and at Oriel College Oxford, where Rhodes studied in 1873.
Cecil Rhodes represented the very worst of British colonialism. His belief in the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race drove him to push for ever more aggressive expansion of the British Empire. His mining company, the British South Africa Company, founded and governed the territory of Rhodesia (modern day Zambia and Zimbabwe), and he also had a stint as the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony (modern-day South Africa). In his 1877 essay ‘Confession of Faith’, he wrote:
“I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence … Africa is still lying ready for us, it is our duty to take it. It is our duty to seize every opportunity of acquiring more territory and we should keep this one idea steadily before our eyes: that more territory simply means more of the Anglo-Saxon race, more of the best, the most human, most honourable race the world possesses”.
Rhodes justified the colonisation, murder and exploitation of South African people with the view that the “Anglo-Saxon race” was superior. The legacy of Cecil Rhodes is not one that should be celebrated. However, RMF has been met with objections that the removal of the statue amounts to some form of censorship of our free speech.
The idea that marginalised groups are prohibiting free speech by demanding the removal of a blood-soaked statue reflects something that has been dominating a lot of conversations around RMF. With this in mind RMF in Oxford adhered to this criticism and debated whether ‘Rhodes Must Fall?’ in one of the most prestigious (and institutionally racist) public forums: the Oxford Union, and won.
RMF has highlighted that the people prohibiting free speech are not marginalised people but the elite. Plans to remove this statue came about by a democratic process, which was halted by money and not by a counter campaign. Although RMF failed in removing this statue, I think this is a success for the movement. Decolonisation does not end with the removal of a statue. RMF has highlighted the insidious nature of institutional racism that continues today.