The Rhodes Must Fall campaign: Who decides fate of a statue?

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WHAT’S in a statue? Many people have posed this question especially when students in South Africa and later, Oxford University students, took part in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign (Cecil John Rhodes), and demonstrated, urging the university authorities to remove Rhodes’ statues from their campuses.
In South Africa, however, the demonstration was successful and the statue was hauled from the university campus. In contrast, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford University, led by Ntokozo Qwabe, a South African student at the Oxford University who is himself a Rhodes Scholar, has so far not been successful although it has generated a huge debate on television, social media and some mainstream newspapers.
Notable are comments made by prominent international people such as former South African President F.W. de Klerk (last apartheid president), former Australian PM Tony Abbott who was a Rhodes Scholar himself and Trevor Phillips, former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the UK.
While students argue that Rhodes’ statue is a symbol of British imperialism which reminds people, especially Africans of southern Africa, of some painful history of racial oppression, others, however, think removing the statue from the Oxford University amounts to cultural vandalism and that people should celebrate Rhodes’ achievements, especially in setting up the Rhodes scholarship.
Many black people, Zimbabweans included, share divided opinion on whether Rhodes’ statue must be removed from universities.
Rhodes founded the British South Africa Company that colonised many countries in Southern Africa, including Zimbabwe, as Rhodes’ intention was to see the British flag flying from Cape to Cairo. But sadly due to his quest (to colonise Africa), many African people died while others lost their land and livelihood as cattle herders.
He did not hide that he preferred animals to Africans. Yet in some universities such as University of Cape Town, Rhodes University (South Africa) and Oxford University (UK), his statues have remained a preserve of history. Wars were fought in South Africa and Zimbabwe, including the First Chimurenga which claimed the lives of Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi; the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa (1895) and the Second Chimurenga which finally saw the birth of Zimbabwe.
Today, many people’s histories and lives have been affected by Rhodes’ imperialistic adventures. New countries were formed, new boundaries (borders) were defined while many African tribes and families were separated when the new boundaries were created. All because of Cecil John Rhodes.
Below is what some prominent people said.
Trevor Phillips (former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission), criticised the campaign, which he referred to as “simultaneously witless, wrong-headed and reprehensible” arguing that it “trivialises the memory of many millions who genuinely did suffer under colonialism and dishonours the work of those who fought apartheid, including many British students” (Daily Mail).
F.W. de Klerk, also weighed in the Rhodes Must Fall debate, suggesting that the statue must not be removed from Oxford University but the university would rather use the proceeds of the Rhodes Scholarship to help Rhodes’ victims in Southern Africa. He argued: “If Oriel now finds Rhodes so reprehensible, would the honourable solution not be to return his bequest, plus interest, to the victims of British imperialism in southern Africa?” But defending why the statue must not be removed from the Oriel campus, he said: “My people — the Afrikaners — have greater reason to dislike Rhodes than anyone else. He was the architect of the Anglo-Boer War that had a disastrous impact on our people. Yet the National Party government never thought of removing his name from our history.”
Tony Abott, former Australian PM, told the UK’s Independent that if Oxford University removed Rhodes’ statue from its campus, this would damage the university’s “standing as a great university”. He argued: “The students of Oriel should be clear-eyed about Rhodes’ faults and failings but proud of his achievements. The university should remember that its mission is not to reflect fashion but to seek truth and that means striving to understand before rushing to judge. Racism is a dreadful evil but we all know that now… It’s a pity that Rhodes was, in many respects, a man of his times. We can lament that he failed to oppose unjust features of his society while still celebrating the genius that led to the creation of the Rhodes Scholarship.”
But not everyone agrees with Tony Abbott, de Klerk and Trevor Phillips. Opinion columnist for The Times, Chi Chi Shi argued that the campaign to remove the statue of Rhodes from Oxford University’s Oriel College is part of “reckoning with the past… Popular history sanitises the brutal facts of colonialism and those who profited are recast as heroes…Much of Britain’s history rests on an unsavoury pile of native corpses, of lands pillaged by imperialist megalomaniacs. To maintain the rose-tinted myths of colonialism, its victims must be silenced,” Shi stated.
And a PhD student, Brian Kwoba, who was interviewed by The Independent, thinks Rhodes is the Hitler of southern Africa who was responsible for “stealing land, massacring tens of thousands of black Africans, imposing a regime of unspeakable labour exploitation in the diamond mines and devising pro-apartheid policies…Would anyone countenance a statue to Hitler?”
While the Rhodes Must Fall debate rages on in the media, drawing commentary from prominent politicians, it is important to highlight that when Saddam was overthrown in Iraq, there was celebration (and not condemnation) from some of these politicians when his statue was taken down by the US military. On October 9 2003, for example, the CBS Evening News reported: “One of the most symbolic images from the Iraq war was when the US military pulled down the statue of former president Saddam Hussein that stood in central Baghdad…”
Similarly, no Western politician condemned the Libyans when they attacked and defaced Gaddafi’s statue after he was killed.
So what’s in a statue? And who should decide which statue should be hauled to the ground and which ones should be preserved for cultural and historical purposes? To many people in southern African, the name Cecil John Rhodes alone is a curse, not a blessing.

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