CityPress - - Voices - DEE KRÜGER voices@city­press.co.za

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

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