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What Rhodes Must Fall Really Means

Rhodes Must Fall is about more than a statue, it's about getting Britain's universities to confront the legacies of colonialism – and that fight will continue whether or not Cecil Rhodes comes down in Oxford.

When I heard the good news that Oriel College had voted to take down their statue of Cecil Rhodes, I was sitting at my desk in my home in East Oxford. My window looks out onto another college’s gleaming new undergraduate accommodation building. Unlike many of the buildings and streets in Oxford, this one is not named after a prominent colonial administrator or slave trader. It was only opened last Autumn, but it is as implicated in Oxford’s colonial present as any of the university’s statues. 

This building is cleaned and maintained by workers who are almost exclusively Black and Asian, many of them first or second generation migrants. They are not paid the Oxford Living Wage, set by the local council at just £10.21 per hour. Most of these cleaners are forced to hold down two, even three, additional jobs in order to feed their families and pay their rent. The exploitation of their labour is just one of the living legacies of the colonial order that Cecil Rhodes was instrumental in constructing.

Inside the building itself, we see the continued application of British colonial policing strategies in the use of the government’s Prevent Duty. Across the education sector, from pre-school to post-graduate courses, students are surveilled by administrators and “welfare” advisors. The Prevent Duty turns university officials into vigilantes, under a legal duty to spy on students, and to provide officials with regular reports on locating possible signs someone is “vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism.” According to the government, dangerous features to look out for include “migration” and “having a sense of grievance that is triggered by personal experience of racism or discrimination or aspects of government policy.” 

Throughout the 20th century, brutal counter-insurgency policies designed to monitor and repress a hostile population were instituted across the British Empire. Today, the government uses this experience to target those who oppose Britain’s ongoing colonial interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and its active support of settler colonialism in Palestine. They encourage and institutionalise a fear and suspicion of non-white people, especially those racialised as Muslim. At Oxford University, many students of colour report being unable to speak out on a variety of important issues of injustices at home and abroad, for fear of being targeted by Prevent; one related how they were marked as at-risk of radicalisation after confiding in senior staff that they were suffering from depression. 

Rhodes will not fall so long as these injustices continue. Those of us who have been involved in the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign in its various iterations over the years have always understood Rhodes as a symbol of the university’s continuing role in existing colonial practices, both at home and abroad. Achieving meaningful justice will require a commitment first to learning about, and then to ending, colonialism’s living legacies. These are plain to see at every level of the university – from the underrepresentation of Black students and faculty, to the university’s extensive relationships with companies and individuals who propagate present day colonial repression and exploitation in the Global South.

Even if the statue of Rhodes does eventually come down, as was reported in recent days, his legacy will be cemented by the research carried out at his old university that is sponsored by arms companies including BAE Systems, Leonardo and Lockheed Martin. At least eight military contractors who sponsor research at Oxford possess export licences to the murderous regime in Saudi Arabia. The University remains at the centre of a network of colonial militarism which stretches across the world, from the streets of Oxford to the famine-stricken towns of Yemen, all the way to the besieged cantons of Kurdistan.

On June 16th, the day before it was announced that Rhodes might fall, Black residents of Oxford led a thousand-strong march, calling for the material decolonisation of our city. The march was held on this day to mark the 43rd anniversary of the Soweto Uprising, when the youth of South Africa rose up against apartheid and took up the torch of Third World liberation. Oxford’s ancient institutions, from its buildings to its books, maintain the same tradition that Rhodes upheld, making invisible people of colour and our history.

A truly decolonised curriculum is an anti-colonial one, more than the addition or replacement of authors and texts on reading lists. By contrast, an anti-colonial curriculum requires us not just to learn about Rhodes’ crimes, but about those, like the youth of Soweto, who rose up against colonial regimes across the Third World. It requires us not just to read about the horrors of slavery, but to understand the humanity of slave revolts. It requires us to honour the rich traditions of resistance that characterise our collective histories. 

An anti-colonial curriculum would also centre an interrogation of the relationship between the forms of knowledge we value in the academy, and exploitation that persists in the wider world. It is only when we have learnt about the racism of our own culture that we can start to approach the histories of other cultures with understanding and respect. The key to this lies in the restoration of our agency and the elevation of our history. After all, it is British history too. 

In 2015, Will Hutton, the principal of Hertford College, wrote that “what stands between South Africa and wholly unaccountable despotism are the legacy institutions of Empire.” If Mr. Hutton walked five miles down the Cowley Road, to the ward of Blackbird Leys, he might see the real legacy institutions of Empire. Here, in Oxford’s most ethnically diverse community, workers – many of them employed by the university – can expect to live for an average of 15 years less than those born in the north of the city. He might meet Jabu Nala-Hartley, the South African mother who organised Tuesday’s march, and who has taught us more about colonialism and the fight for workers’ rights than any Oxford degree. 

If the Rhodes statue falls in the coming weeks, it will have been toppled by a magnificent, years-long mobilisation of Oxford’s residents and its students. But it will only be the beginning of a reckoning with those colonial injustices that are not just Britain’s past, but Oxford’s present.