Inspired by the #RhodesMustFall movement of South Africa, a few hundred people descended on Oriel College, one of the oldest parts of Oxford University in England, on Friday, demanding the removal of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes from one of the buildings.
The group, led by Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh – son of advocate Dali Mpofu, is lobbying Oriel College to get shot of Rhodes and his hat. The statue stands 15 metres above a famous street in world academia, High Street, known as The High, and sports Rhodes with his trademark bush hat in his hand, surveying the towering glories of the university.
It was a typical student protest, evoking memories of past causes. Mpofu-Walsh toyi-toyied, his fist clenched, shouting “Amandla!” He taught the crowd to respond appropriately with “Awethu!” and “Viva!”, and did an impromptu bit of rapping: “...you betrayed a generation, now deal with the consequence/ Viva Rhodes Must Fall, Viva/ Down with Rhodes, down!”
But wouldn’t it be logical to demand that Oxford should get rid of Rhodes’ well-funded scholarships as well as his statue? Mpofu-Walsh said he didn’t want that.
He appears rational and mild-mannered, but mention Rhodes and words like ‘marginalisation’, ‘exploitation’ and ‘colonisation’ come tumbling out at speed.
“One of our unshakeable demands is that the statue of this imperialist terrorist must fall because we feel it is an affront to the dignity of those of us who must walk past it every day,” he said. “We will not rest until we achieve this.”
It’s a small statue, tucked away high above street-level; does it really matter? Mpofu-Walsh says it’s part of a bigger issue: the need for greater black representation at the university, and a curriculum that ought to be more representative. It’s being linked with wider issues such as Britain’s colonial conduct and the profits it received from slavery.
Charles Conn, the Warden of the Rhodes Trust that runs the famed Rhodes Scholarship programme, agrees, but only to an extent.
“I understand the frustration that the students feel about the need to broaden the university curriculums to include more diversity of voices in topics from history and philosophy,” he said. “I think this should be the focus of dialogue with the university. I do not understand the focus on buildings and statues. History is history. Nearly all historical figures held views that we find out of touch and even abhorrent. But we don’t serve the pursuit of knowledge if we agree to airbrush or bulldoze history. Nor, paradoxically, do we serve the students demanding that.”
Oriel College issued a statement that it would consider Mpufo-Walsh’s petition and give the Rhodes Must Fall group its full attention.
Krüger is a BBC TV news and current affairs producer and journalist based in Oxford