After months of student protests demanding that Oxford University remove a statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, the Rhodes Must Fall movement clinched a victory late on Tuesday with a telling vote from Oxford Union, the university’s famous debating society: 245 ayes to 212 nos.
The vote landed after proponents of the Rhodes Must Fall movement sparred for hours with detractors, including Oxford theology professor Nigel Biggar and Sophia Cannon, a well-known English barrister.
Proponents have argued that the statue glorifies Rhodes, a businessman who contributed to racial segregation in South Africa and supported policies that later manifested in the apartheid system.
Critics have condemned their desire to impose today’s cultural mores on historical figures like Rhodes. They maintain that expunging historical monuments promotes intolerance.
Ntokozo Qwabe, a South African undergraduate student who is himself a Rhodes Scholar, has been spearheading the Rhodes Must Fall movement since October and argued on its behalf Tuesday night. (They successfully campaigned for the removal of a plaque honoring Rhodes at Oxford’s Oriel College, which is also home to the contested statue.)
In December, Qwabe wrote on his Facebook page that “the open glorification of racist murderous colonialists in academic spaces is offensive & violent to students who are descendants of those who suffered at the crimes of these colonialists, and violates the university’s own policies on equality & inclusiveness.”
Qwabe did not return requests for comment from The Daily Beast.
Yasmin Kumi, a masters student at Oxford who debated alongside Qwabe on Tuesday, told The Daily Beast she supports the Rhodes Must Fall movement because it represents “a bigger cause, which is to find avenues to combat institutional racism and decolonize higher education at a prestigious institution like Oxford.”
Kumi stands behind the campaign to dismantle the Rhodes statue, but believes the escalating debate over the statue has detracted from the movement’s central message.
“At the end of the day it’s about the symbolic aspect of removing the statue,” said Kumi, who is president of Oxford’s Africa Society and is pursuing a double degree in African Studies and Business. “Taking down the statue is the first important step for the school to show students that they’re willing to engage and take action on issues like racism and decolonization.”
A recent poll by Cherwell, the university’s newspaper, found 54 percent of Oxford students were in favor of letting the statue stand. But Tuesday night’s vote suggests a majority of students stand behind Rhodes Must Fall.
During Tuesday night’s debate, Professor Biggar argued that if “Rhodes must fall, so must Churchill, whose views on empire and race were similar. And so probably must Abraham Lincoln.
While Lincoln liberated African-American slaves, he doubted they could be integrated into white society and favored their separate development—their apartheid—in an African colony.
“If we insist on our heroes being pure, we aren’t going to have any,” he added.
Unsurprisingly, Kumi disagrees. “There’s a difference between a lot of people having had the wrong idea about race at the time and those people who helped build an entire ideology,” she told The Daily Beast, “and I would definitely put Rhodes in the second camp.”
More importantly, she suggests that we “listen to the people who are around these statues in public places. If there is such a large number of people who have a problem with a statue—I don’t care whether it’s Rhodes or another statue like Churchill—it should be removed.”
What’s troubling about this line of thinking is that it places a pivotal, game-winning importance on the strength of numbers, rather than in a nuanced debate about history, and how we confront its more troubling and fraught legacies in the present day.
Kumi maintains it’s not just about following the wishes of the voting majority of pro-removal supporters.
“It’s also the ideology that is being supported [by people who want to keep the statue]. The fact that there are so many people who are against this ideology demonstrates that it must be wrong.”
Well, it demonstrates that the majority of Oxford Union voters believe what Rhodes embodied was wrong—and they are absolutely right.
Voters who dissented probably don’t think Rhodes’s racism is in any way acceptable, but they may have questioned whether expunging symbols of history is the best way to account for what Rhodes stood for, and what to teach future generations about him.
Removing a statue will not cancel Rhodes’s ideological perniciousness from history—and it won’t help eradicate racism from our future either.