Current Affairs

Rhodes Must Fall: Oriel’s decision is “a slap in the face”

Rhodes Must Fall have signalled their intent to continue campaigning for removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes, declaring Oriel College’s decision “a slap in the face with the hand of white supremacy”. They have said, “We will continue to fight for the fall of this statue and everything it represents”. This follows Oriel’s decision to retain the controversial statue.

In a statement, the group declared “Oriel College has chosen to reinscribe that violent colonial vision onto our community”. They further state that “allowing the statue to remain is an act of institutional racism”. They also accuse Oriel of making “a choice to glorify genocide and imperialism …  a choice to protect white supremacy”.

Rhodes Must Fall further declare: “We will continue to push for the removal of this harmful iconography as a critical step in the decolonisation process of this institution and city”. They conclude “A luta continua; vitoria e certa” (the struggle continues; victory is certain). This was the slogan of Mozambican anti-colonial group FRELIMO and has been a slogan of the international Rhodes Must Fall movement.

In a statement on their website, Oriel College stated: “The Governing Body has carefully considered the regulatory and financial challenges, including the expected time frame for removal, which could run into years with no certainty of outcome, together with the total cost of removal. In light of the considerable obstacles to removal, Oriel’s Governing Body has decided not to begin the legal process for relocation of the memorials”.

Oriel has instead declared its intent “to focus its time and resources on delivering the report’s recommendations around the contextualisation of the College’s relationship with Rhodes, as well as improving educational equality, diversity and inclusion amongst its student cohort and academic community”.

As part of this process, the Governing Body of the College has decided to take steps including the creation of a Tutor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and to “Enact a 2016 decision to have an annual lecture on a topic related to the Rhodes legacy, race, or colonialism”. Oriel further declares intentions to “Fundraise for scholarships to support students from Southern Africa” as well as introducing further “outreach initiatives targeted at BME student recruitment”.

This decision is despite the College acknowledging “The Commission backed the College’s original wish (made in June 2020 and reaffirmed again by the College yesterday), to remove the statue”.

The reasons given for not removing the statue relate to “the regulatory and financial challenges, including the expected time frame for removal”. Cost is also given as a reason.

The College also noted: “any application for planning permission to remove the memorials is not only likely to face considerable costs, but also complex challenges in the planning process, particularly since the Government’s policy, in relation to historic statues and sites which have become contested, is to ‘retain and explain’ them”. The Commission’s report notes any decision to remove could be blocked by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. It also notes the current Secretary’s intent to introduce legislation “which could remove the power of decision-making from the College and the City Council”. Mr Jenrick has previously declared his intent to “save Britain’s statues from the woke militants who want to censor our past”.

The College has instead committed to contextualise the statues. A task force is to be created to consider the recommendations made in this regard by the Commission.

Rhodes Must Fall have called for the College to show full transparency in the written submissions to the Commission and transparency in the cost analysis process. They have particularly called on Oriel College to reveal whether government or donor pressure influenced their decision.

The decision may be welcomed by those like Mr Jenrick who have declared intent to defend such statues. The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has praised it as a “Sensible & balanced decision”. Commentator Toby Young called it “a victory for common sense over the woke Taliban”. But it will come as a disappointment to students who have campaigned for the statue to be removed.

 The original Rhodes Must Fall movement began in Oxford in 2015, following a movement in South Africa against monuments to Rhodes. At that time Oriel College also decided not to remove the statue. The Telegraph reported this decision came as a result of alumni and donor pressure. Protests were renewed last summer following Black Lives Matter protests and the removal of the statues of Edward Colston and others. A banner warned “Rhodes You’re Next” and a large protest was held on Oxford’s High Street.  This led to Oriel setting up the Commission to inquire into removal of the statue.

Oxford City Council leader Susan Brown has criticised Oriel College for not removing the statue, saying “I am personally deeply disappointed … For people in our city this was the most important action that Oriel College could have taken to show an acknowledgement of the discrimination of the past and they have failed to act”.

Oriel Provost Lord Mendoza said: “We understand this nuanced conclusion will be disappointing to some, but we are now focused on the delivery of practical actions aimed at improving outreach and the day-to-day experience of BME students. We are looking forward to working with Oxford City Council on a range of options for contextualisation.”

Simukai Chigudu, an associate professor of African Studies, told the Guardian that “The statement from Oriel College is shocking and, quite frankly, embarrassing. It exposes the insincerity of the college’s stated commitment to change, which was made last summer during the anti-racism protests”. Mr Chigudu has previously written about his experience of Rhodes legacy.

Photo Credits: Illustration by Iona Shen