By Simukai Chigudu
In 1993, Edward Said – the celebrated Palestinian literary theoretician and professor of comparative literature at Columbia University – gave the Reith lectures for the BBC. A quote from this series of talks, entitled ‘Representations of the Intellectual,’ is enshrined in the MPhil student handbook at the Oxford Department of International Development on the grounds that it captures the department’s philosophy of questioning and criticism. It reads as follows:
The central fact for me is, I think, that the intellectual is endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, a philosophy or opinion… And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by government or corporations and whose raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues who are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.
In many ways, this is what the debate about Rhodes Must Fall (RMF), both in South Africa and in Oxford, is about: whose history is told and whose is swept under the rug; whose issues matter and whose are routinely forgotten.
Born in relation to the RMF movement at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, RMF in Oxford is both an expression of transnational solidarity and a critique of institutional racism and the politics of exclusion at Oxford. While Oxford is certainly strewn with a range of tributes to the ‘great men of Empire’, the figure of Cecil John Rhodes has, at this historical moment, brought together diverse moral communities and has opened up an avenue for the articulation of shared grievances against imperialism and its legacies.
By now the story of Rhodes is a familiar one. The British businessman, mining magnate and Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896 was an ardent believer in British imperialism. Rhodes and his British South Africa Company founded the southern African territory of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia), which the company named after him in 1895. South Africa’s Rhodes University is also named after him. Rhodes set up the provisions of the Rhodes Scholarship, which is funded by his estate, and put much effort towards his vision of a Cape to Cairo Railway through British territory.
Let’s make no mistake about it, Rhodes’ imperialist pursuits were egregiously violent and continue to shape the distribution of resources and ideas about race in contemporary southern Africa. The motive of the invading force can be encapsulated by a letter written by an administrator, colleague, and friend of Rhodes – W. A. Jarvis – to his mother about their plans to invade the area north of the Limpopo river: “The last thing to do is to wipe them all out as far as one can – everything black … I hope the natives will be pretty-well exterminated … There are about 5,500 niggers in the district and our plan of campaign will probably be to proceed against this lot and wipe them out then move towards Bulawayo, wiping out every nigger and every kraal [house] we find. And then you may be sure there will be no quarter and everything black will have to die.”
The pattern of settler colonialism that prevailed in the region involved the establishment and maintenance of political, economic, and social structures predicated upon racial domination. As a Zimbabwean, indulge me as I say a few words about my country’s historical experience of colonialism. In Rhodesia, for much of the 20th century, 8 million disenfranchised blacks eked out a living at subsistence level or below it, while 250,000 whites, barely 3 per cent of the population, enjoyed a privileged existence that included, among other things, the highest per-capita number of private swimming pools in the world. The white minority owned more than half of the country’s available land, and virtually all of its business and industry. Education, health care, housing, were all segregated, with whites enjoying levels equivalent to those in Western Europe or the United States. Blacks were confined by law to black urban townships, barren rural ‘tribal trust-lands’ or the workers’ quarters of the white commercial farms – on which the World Bank found more than half of black children were undernourished. There was no minimum wage until 1979, when it was set at $20 per month.
Let us return to Oxford. What does it mean then to celebrate the munificence of the architect of such a system without acknowledging the injustice and suffering meted out to those from whom his wealth was extracted? Over the course of multiple debates at the university, it has been repeatedly stated that Rhodes’ actions should not be judged by today’s standards since Rhodes was a product of his time despite the fact that the peoples of southern Africa vigorously opposed Rhodes and colonialism through numerous protests, wars and insurgencies from the 1890s onwards. Moreover, RMF has been accused of trying re-write or, more ironically, to ‘whitewash’ history. The newly appointed Vice-Chancellor of the university, Louise Richardson, has made this precise claim; while the Chancellor of the University, Chris Patten, went as far as saying that students who don’t like Rhodes should consider ‘being educated elsewhere’. His criticisms went further. He charged that agitation to remove the Rhodes statue was tantamount to suppressing free speech and was a form of self-indulgent victimhood that was too afraid to face up to the historical record. Similarly, the celebrated Classicist and Cambridge Professor Mary Beard suggested that Rhodes Must Fall Students must become empowered enough to face the statue. The principal of Hertford College, Will Hutton – an ostensibly left-wing intellectual – said that if it were not for the legacies of empire such as constitutionalism, rule of law and free speech, then South Africa would descend into unaccountable despotism as embodied by Jacob Zuma. One wonders what history Mr Hutton has been reading that has lead him to think that apartheid embodied any of these values. One more comment that captures much of the establishment’s common sense, Oriel alumnus and conservative MP, Daniel Hennan, wrote an op-ed in the Telegraph in which he charged that RMF is a ‘cretinous mob’ made up of politically correct victims who are ‘too dim to be at university’.
For the writer Teju Cole, such commentary simply represents a white supremacist establishment’s hostility toward ‘post-colonial assertions of self’. For me, the irony of this exchange is that Oxford’s leadership has demonstrated the very Eurocentric thinking that RMF in Oxford is railing against, both in the popular imagination and in scholarly practice. Far from erasing history, RMF is challenging orthodox historical consciousness about the Empire in the British imagination. As social scientists, historians and scholars of material culture have long argued, statues are imbued with power and politics and remain subject to contestation and renegotiation. RMF thus invites us to ask questions on how we memorialise the past and whose narratives we privilege in doing so and why. Indeed, we would do well to ask similar questions about other legacies and statues at the university. These moments are productive and positive ones. They allow us the opportunity to debate the concerns raised by those who have been affected directly by these histories; they allow us to consider the ways in which these legacies continue to affect us all; and they force us to ask how best to publicly mark such histories. The idea that the RMF movement is trying to shut down debate or efface history entirely misses the point. It is the attacks on and threats against individuals involved in RMF (of which there are many), and it is the facile suggestion that RMF activists are born of a culture of victimhood, that has most clearly endangered an open debate about the past and its role in the present.
Ultimately, RMF was unsuccessful in its bid for the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes. Experiences at Oxford demonstrate just how fraught student activism is. Limited by a high turnover of students, the short-term horizons of the academic calendar, the intellectual demands of intense programmes of study and the inertia of a centuries-old university, it is a wonder that RMF gained the traction that it did. The statue may not have come down but calling for its removal was and effective strategy for provoking a national debate about how British institutions teach and memorialise the country’s imperial past and deal with racism in the present. Within Oxford University, various faculty members and departments have initiated the complex discussions about curriculum review and possible reform in part because of RMF. Furthermore, other universities in Britain – for example, the University of Edinburgh, the School of Oriental and African Studies, University College London, Queen Mary University of London – have hosted conferences and panel discussions about decolonizing the academy and several have invited RMF activists, myself included, to participate in such discussions.
The notion of decolonisation has proven to be a cogent idiom for the work of RMF. In this context, it serves as a manifold metaphor to mean questioning the hegemony of white, western thought in fields of study as diverse as history, politics, philosophy, modern languages, and literature. Far from erasure, this is about free speech in its truest form: it is about pluralising and complicating the ways in which knowledge is produced, disseminated and granted legitimacy. Following Said, it seems to me that as scholars we all share an intellectual obligation to push this endeavour forward.
Simukai Chigudu is a DPhil candidate in International Development at ODID, at the University of Oxford, where he holds a Hoffman-Weidenfeld scholarship.
Feature photograph: Monument to Cecil Rhodes in Alfred Street, Oxford