Let Rhodes Remain at Oxford and Britain Come Clean of its Inglorious Past

Oriel College Rhodes Building
Oriel College Rhodes Building

Written by: Ajibola Adigun

The Rhodes Must Fall Campaign that started earlier last year in South Africa and culminated in the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from the University of Cape Town has found its way across the Atlantic to Oxford University.

Mr. Ntokozo Qwabe, a South African recipient of the Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University, and some of his colleagues call for the same treatment to be meted out to the statue of Oriel College’s infamous alumnus, the British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes.

Oriel_College_Rhodes_BuildingOriel College and Mr. Qwabe should let the statue be and demand more from Britain’s colonial past. Not because he is a recipient of Mr. Rhodes’ largess. That is beside the point. It would be a disservice to the Rhodes Trust – whose aim it is to nurture public-spirited leaders by offering them a scholarship to Oxford – to accuse Mr. Qwabe of hypocrisy as some students have rushed to do solely because of that. That Mr. Qwabe disagrees with the legacy of his benefactor is not enough grounds for calling him two-faced. To disagree with one’s benefactor takes courage which is a quality that is to be commended. But to be disagreeable by seeking to erase Mr. Rhodes’ contributions to the imperial cause while pointing out his failings leaves much left to be desired. The evil that men do, after all, is what survives them.

Mr. Qwabe weakens his argument when he says that he is not a beneficiary of Mr. Rhodes’ attempts at remission of sins, but an entitled heir to a fortune made from the pillage of his forebear’s lands and labour. If Mr. Rhodes justifies his crimes the same way Mr. Qwabe reminds us of on the grounds of rights, whose rights should take prominence in this debate? Mr. Rhodes’ right of conquest in the 19th century or our 21st century rights of indignation? We would not have learnt much from the passage of time if we insist on erasing him from the grounds of his former college.

No doubt, Cecil Rhodes the imperialist is guilty of the many crimes he is accused of. As a true son of the British Empire, his statue should serve a more important purpose of rereading the self-serving history and the blind-spot that the empire unilaterally wrote. It is in the open display of Cecil Rhodes’ statue on the grounds of his alma mater that a beneficiary of the fruits of his plunder can reveal how acts in the services of queen and country can make one prejudiced to the merits of others as Rhodes was. To take the statue down is to deny others the lesson that Mr. Qwabe and his supporters have failed to learn from.

The Facebook page of the Rhodes Must Fall at the University of Oxford ambitiously seeks to decolonize the space, the institutional memory, and the intersectional oppression at Oxford. The language of the movement suggests a more fundamental conversation to be had in Britain than the toppling of a statue. Not only at Oxford, but at the Foreign Office at Hanslope Park where a lot of colonial files are still to be released to the British National Archive and to public scrutiny – and elsewhere the ugly versions of the colonial project are held. That is why the statue should stay, as a symbol of shame yet unspoken in the empire’s past.

Some past beneficiaries of the Rhodes scholarship have sought to have a more critical and honest engagement with the Rhodes legacy under the Redress Rhodes group.  Part of their efforts is a willingness to have a more open discussion about all the contested aspects of the Rhodes legacy. This is an avenue that Mr. Qwabe has not taken sufficient advantage of.

At the Rhodes house there is a statue of Nelson Mandela who added his name to Mr. Rhodes’ in the spirit of reconciliation and to put the bitterness of history to better use. The Mandela-Rhodes Scholarship affords young Africans, Mr. Qwabe included, the same opportunity. Let the statue of Rhodes at Oxford remain in the open to be a reminder of the unspoken crimes committed in the name of the empire.

Author: Ajibola Adigun is a recipient of the Mandela-Rhodes scholarship and a member of African Students For Liberty.