The Cecil Rhodes statue is not the problem

Rhodes Must Fall campaigners are letting the past recolonise them.

The statue of Cecil Rhodes is seen on the facade of Oriel College in Oxford, southern England [REUTERS]
The statue of Cecil Rhodes is seen on the facade of Oriel College, Oxford [REUTERS]

It began as a campaign at the University of Cape Town to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes that stood in the campus. For the protesters, the statue represented everything that Rhodes himself stood for: racism, colonialism, plunder, white supremacy, and the oppression of black people. Last April, a month after the protests began, the university authorities removed it.

By then, the protests had moved to other universities in South Africa, before travelling abroad. Now “Rhodes Must Fall” has come to Oxford where, for the past two months, students at Oriel College, led ironically by a South African Rhodes scholar, Ntokozo Qwabe, have been campaigning to remove a statue of Rhodes that stands above the main entrance.

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Rhodes was an alumnus of Oriel, and bequeathed £100,000 to the college in his will. The statue is small, undistinguished, and often unnoticed. For the student protesters, however, it represents the racism, imperialism and white privilege that, they argue, still pervades the college.

Decolonisation, not diversity

“Our demand,” according to activists, “is for decolonisation, not diversity“. Another protester insisted: “Removing the statue… would address our colonial past in an effort to decolonise our collective conscience.”

Rhodes was a brutal racist and imperialist. His record is often whitewashed in Britain, as is the reality of Empire. Yet there is something preposterous in describing a campaign to take down Rhodes’ statue as an act of decolonisation, or to present it as a transformative act.

READ MORE: Neocolonialism, multiculturalism and settler states

Decolonisation was one of the defining transformations of the 20th century. It was driven by the great social movements that swept through Africa and Asia and challenged the might of European rule.

To compare a campaign to remove a statue with the momentous global dismantling of Rhodes' legacy is to diminish the very meaning of decolonisation...


To compare a campaign to remove a statue with the momentous global dismantling of Rhodes’ legacy is to diminish the very meaning of decolonisation and to demean all those who gave their lives to that transformative struggle.

At the heart of decolonisation was an insistence that the peoples of Africa and Asia could run their own lives. In 1887, Rhodes had told the House of Assembly in Cape Town that “the native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise”.

The struggles for independence shattered that view. They were assertions of the agency that had been denied to non-Europeans in the age of Empire. For the great figures of the anticolonial movement – from Toussaint L’Ouverture to Frantz Fanon, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Kwame Nkrumah – there was a determination that history should not be a barrier to creating a new world.

The Oxford “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign adopts a very different approach.

Basic moral worth

“When a black person looks on Cecil Rhodes’ statue, she sees a person who denied her basic moral worth, and would have justified enslavement, ruthless autocratic rule, and the sadistic treatment of her and her ancestors,” wrote Omar Khan, director of the Runnymede Trust, a leading British race equalities think-tank; this creates “a deep wound that isn’t merely in people’s heads nor in any way irrational”. Removing the statue is important to start a “conversation about the past’s continued effects on black and minority ethnic people“.

British colonial statesman and financier Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902) [Getty]
British colonial statesman and financier Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902) [Getty]

Of course, the past shapes the present. But the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaigners seem to believe that black and ethnicity minorities are trapped by their history; and that history is the cause of unending psychological trauma.

This suggests not an assertion but a diminishment of agency, a view of black and ethnic minorities as not so much the shapers of history as its victims. Whereas the real decolonisers sought to throw off the yoke of history, “Rhodes Must Fall” campaigners appear to have let the past recolonise them.  

Statues have frequently been the focus of struggle in defining the past. After the French Revolution, dozens of statues of monarchs were defaced or demolished. In post-independence India, many statues of Viceroys and British monarchs were removed and given a new home in Delhi’s Coronation Park. The fall of communism saw the destruction of statues of Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders.

READ MORE: ‘Decolonising’ South African universities

The monuments that Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi had built of themselves were publicly brought down after they fell from power. In all these cases the toppling of statues came as part of a great social upheaval or in the midst of a great change when the old oppressive regime came tumbling down.


Vulnerable and damaged

The Oxford “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign is very different. It is not so much the product of a great social movement as a substitute for one. It’s a campaign that bears resemblance not to the struggles for independence but to the current mania sweeping campuses for getting rid of “microaggressions”, imposing “trigger warnings”, creating “safe spaces” and “no platforming” those whose views are deemed unacceptable.

Such campaigns present the human individual as vulnerable and damaged and in need of protection. They seek not to transform the world but to shield people from anything that they might find troubling or offensive or difficult.

There are, of course, major issues of race and justice to be tackled both in universities and in wider society. The lack of black and ethnic minority and of working-class students in universities such as Oxford needs tackling. So does the way that we look upon empire and its legacies. But turning a statue of Cecil Rhodes into an invented psychological trauma, or demanding that it be removed as an act of decolonisation, will neither change the way that people look upon the past nor challenge the injustices of the present.

Once upon a time, student activists used to demand that capitalism must fall, or that apartheid must be crushed, or that colonialism must be swept away. Now, it seems, they just want to take down statues.

Kenan Malik is a London-based writer, lecturer and broadcaster. His latest book is The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics. Previous books include: From Fatwa to Jihad, shortlisted for the 2010 George Orwell Prize. He writes at Pandaemonium:

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.