RHODES DIVIDES OXFORD
It has been a while since South African politics was flaunted at Britain’s top table. The #RhodesMustFall campaign certainly managed it at Oxford University a few days ago.
On a bitterly cold Tuesday night, three students and an academic favouring the destruction of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes led a highly charged debate at a crowded Oxford Union, leaving their opposition – two po-faced professors and a black-hipster London barrister – mealymouthed in the other corner.
“Down with the Hitler of South Africa,” thundered Ntokozo Qwabe, one of the leading members of #RhodesMustFall Oxford. He is a Rhodes scholar, reading for his master’s in African Studies, but there was no hint of irony.
#RhodesMustFall has been gathering momentum in these hallowed halls, and what started as a small protest outside Oriel College a few months ago, demanding that Rhodes’ statue be removed from Oxford’s High Street, is turning into a full-blown charge that even the mighty dons have not been able to ignore.
“This university must ask itself why it continues to glorify the racist Rhodes by parading his statue up there in the main street,” was how Athinangamso Esther Nkopo, a fellow organising member of #RhodesMustFall Oxford, put it to the gathering.
Professor Nigel Biggar, on the opposing side of the debate, maintained Rhodes was no more racist than Mahatma Gandhi, who claimed Indians were superior to Africans, nor more of a mass murderer than, say, King Shaka Zulu.
With a front row view of it all, I thought that if this had not been Oxford, he would have risked being pelted with excrement or silenced by howls of derision.
But a cloak of silence so deathly descended over the auditorium, you could cut it with a machete. When he tried to point out that Rhodes, like Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, was simply a man of his time, he was cut down by the #RhodesMustFall side, and what was left of him was then sliced and diced by Nkopo until he went quiet.
The South Africans from #RhodesMustFall went on about Oxford University’s institutional White supremacist attitudes, its natural-born aversion to cultural diversity, its efforts to cling to its status as a bastion for the privileged and its dearth of black professors.
Yet many of the students – black and Indian, as well as white – in the hall stood up to say that none of this seemed convincing, except for the clear shortage of black professors.
Oxford is one of the world’s top five universities because it is wide open to talent from absolutely everywhere. It would not be so phenomenally successful if it wasn’t.
Far too little of that talent is black, certainly, and much more needs to be done to make Oxford more representative. But institutionally racist, the way London’s police force, for instance, has been accused of being? I don’t think so.
When Qwabe claimed he had been called “a dirty little ni**er” for his views, I am not sure anyone believed him. That sort of thing is utterly foreign to Oxford. However, it has sat up and is listening to the #RhodesMustFall group’s message.
As for Cecil John Rhodes, to the dons of this great institution he is a mere Johnny-come-lately whose small, unremarkable statue had been largely forgotten about until they were suddenly forced to take another look at it.
They have been left bemused and bewildered by the fury it has caused a handful of students. After all, they say, if you took down the statues of the great men of the past on account of their being good people, there would be no statues left here.
About 500 students turned out for the debate. Their diversity in colour and class was remarkable. You might expect they voted to bring down Rhodes’ statue. They did – but only by a very narrow margin. Krüger is a BBC news and current
affairs producer based in Oxford
The statue of Mahatma Gandhi overlooking the square named after him in Johannesburg’s central business district
The statue of Cecil Rhodes on the façade of Oriel College
King Goodwill Zwelithini and President Jacob Zuma unveil the statue of King Shaka at the King Shaka International Airport five years ago. The statue was later removed