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Sunday, January 17, 2021

‘Colonialism had by no means actually ended’: my life within the shadow of Cecil Rhodes | Colonialism

Tright here was no single second once I started to sense the lengthy shadow that Cecil John Rhodes has solid over my life, or over the college the place I’m a professor, or over the methods of seeing the world shared by so many people nonetheless dwelling within the ruins of the British empire. However, wanting again, it’s clear that lengthy earlier than I arrived at Oxford as a pupil, lengthy earlier than I helped discovered the college’s Rhodes Should Fall motion, lengthy earlier than I even left Zimbabwe as an adolescent, this man and all the things he embodied had formed the worlds by which I moved.

I may begin this story in 1867, when a boy named Erasmus Jacobs discovered a diamond the dimensions of an acorn on the banks of the Orange river in what’s now South Africa, sparking the diamond rush during which Rhodes first made his fortune. Or I may begin it a century later, when my grandfather was murdered by safety forces within the British colony of Rhodesia. Or I may begin it as we speak, when the notorious statue of Rhodes that friends down on to Oxford’s excessive avenue might lastly be on the verge of being taken down.

However for me, it begins most instantly in January 1999, once I was 12 years previous. That was when my mother and father first drove me from our residence on the outskirts of the town by the imposing black gates of St George’s Faculty, Harare. Wearing a crimson blazer, red-and-white striped tie, khaki shirt and shorts, gray knee-high socks and a cartoonishly floppy crimson hat, I regarded like an English schoolboy on safari. As our automotive climbed in direction of the school, I peered up in awe on the granite citadel tower, topped with a full set of crenellations, that dominates the grounds. It was as if I had entered one of many final redoubts of Britain’s world imperium.

Saints, as I might study to name it, is among the many oldest and most prestigious faculties in Zimbabwe. It was based in 1896, simply 5 years after the British South Africa Firm colonised the inland area of southern Africa north of the Limpopo river. The colonists dubbed the realm Rhodesia, in honour of the corporate’s founder, Cecil Rhodes. Backed by the British military, Rhodes’s colonising forces dispossessed thousands and thousands of Africans of their land and created an apartheid state that endured for 90 years. Saints was established within the mould of the College of Oxford and public faculties like Eton to organize younger white Rhodesians to hold on the nation’s political and financial regime. For almost a century it was dedicated to educating the scions of the nation’s rich white settlers.

Starting in 1963, the school had additionally accepted a handful of boys from the nation’s small Black higher class, and after a 15-year liberation battle that received Zimbabwe its independence in 1980, the varsity started admitting choose sons of the nation’s new Black center lessons, like me. Once I handed the exacting admissions examination – 4 papers, in maths and English, notoriously tough to finish – I felt, in my juvenile manner, that I had earned my place on the planet. However once I arrived, in January 1999, I used to be instantly adrift in a Zimbabwe in contrast to any I had identified earlier than.

At 7.25am on my first day, the varsity bell rang, and I joined the opposite boys of their crimson blazers submitting into the Beit Corridor. The corridor was named after an Anglo-German gold and diamond magnate who employed Rhodes when the latter first arrived in southern Africa. As I glanced upward to an inside balcony, I observed a sequence of polished mahogany panels with gold lettering bearing the names of Outdated Georgians who had received the Rhodes scholarship, which sends about 100 worldwide graduates to review at Oxford yearly. I may see that a lot of the names belonged to white college students.

In the course of the meeting, new pupils have been knowledgeable that we had a two-week grace interval during which to grasp the school’s peculiar traditions and hierarchies. We might then be examined on college historical past and anticipated to comply with native customized to a T. Over the grace interval, I anxiously crammed the school mottoes, the names of all of the prefects and captains of sports activities, the historical past of the founding fathers and the primary six pupils to attend the school, the numbers of Outdated Georgians who had died within the first and second world wars. At Saints, this was the previous that appeared to matter most.

Self-discipline was essential, too. I shortly realized to stay in worry of the prefects, senior boys entrusted with meting out punishments for even essentially the most minor transgressions. A careless misstep may lead to guide labour – a routine punishment the place we needed to dig fields and carry bricks for hours within the warmth of an unforgiving solar. Even worse was the specter of being despatched to the headmaster for “cuts”. I imagined the headmaster’s cane whipping throughout my tender buttocks, elevating a nice welt of swollen tissue. No, thanks.

Saints’s rituals of dominance and sadism have been solely a number of the ways in which it taught its boys to just accept the logic of colonialism. Wasn’t it solely pure that older college students should wield energy over youthful ones, or that those that excelled at sports activities or schoolwork be granted privileges, like the flexibility to tread on sure school lawns, that have been denied to lesser youngsters? Wasn’t it proper that those that stepped out of line be compelled to labour, and even whipped? These have been excellent classes for a world during which one race thought itself worthy of violently subjugating one other. After independence, Saints’s methods have been embraced by a Black center class that had imbibed colonial tradition and internalised that tradition’s sense of superiority.

For my mother and father, the choice to ship me to this former imperial coaching floor was a fraught one. My mom was a girls’s rights advocate, born in 1957 to a big working-class household in what was then the British Protectorate of Uganda. My father, born six years earlier, grew up below the total weight of racial segregation in Rhodesia, the place 250,000 white folks, barely 3% of the inhabitants, had usurped greater than half of the nation’s agricultural land and owned virtually all of its commerce and business. Black folks have been denied the franchise, their actions have been managed by a punitive inside passport system, they usually died at heinous charges from power malnutrition, excessive toddler mortality and restricted entry to primary well being providers. In the meantime, white folks in Rhodesia loved the best per capita variety of non-public swimming swimming pools anyplace on the planet.

Radicalised by the situation of Black folks, my father fought towards the Rhodesian authorities within the liberation battle that started within the early 60s. In the course of the battle, my uncles and an aunt have been incarcerated by the Rhodesian state, my father was almost killed on the battlegrounds bordering Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and my grandfather was lynched by Rhodesian safety officers.

Following independence, my father joined Zimbabwe’s civil service, and he and my mom started a suburban life that was modest in means however not in aspiration for his or her son. St George’s appealed to them, because it did to many Black households like ours, due to the cultural and social foothold it offered. Boys from Saints commonly went on to review at Oxford, or play on Zimbabwe’s celebrated nationwide cricket crew. However inside the cloistered world of the school, the battle of independence my father fought appeared to be solely half-complete.

Formal segregation in Zimbabwe had ended almost twenty years earlier, however even in 1999 the school signalled its status by its racial make-up. We had a white headmaster and a white rector. The lecturers with the strongest reputations for excellence have been white. We additionally had a excessive share of white college students, about half of the scholar physique in a rustic the place white folks made up lower than 1% of the inhabitants.

With out fairly realising it, this was a racial logic I readily accepted. In his memoir of rising up white in Africa, the Zimbabwean author Peter Godwin recollects assembly a handful of Black college students at Saints within the 60s: “They didn’t need to talk about African issues. They wished to be like whites. They spoke English with out a lot of an African accent.” I suppose I used to be a lot the identical. I barely spoke Shona, the language my father was raised talking, however had a fluent command of English. I resented white racism however aspired to the cultural capital of whiteness.

It was apparent, although, how conservative white Zimbabweans – “Rhodies”, Black folks name them – noticed me, whether or not I wore Saints’s crimson blazer or not. “Chigudu,” one white classmate stated to me, “what’s the distinction between a nigger and a bucket of shit?” I checked out him blankly. “The bucket,” he chortled.

Early on, I dedicated myself to the artwork of survival at Saints: mine was a two-pronged technique of conforming to expectations and by no means questioning authority. I stored a low profile all through my first 12 months, sustaining a gentle, mediocre efficiency in all elements of college life. My mom anxious I’d cede no matter skills I needed to this technique, and urged me to be extra formidable. I took heed and, across the time I turned 14, I began to use myself severely in my research. I refused to be defeated by Thomas Hardy’s dense prose, I agonised over the distinction between ionic and covalent bonds, I memorised Latin noun declensions. I started to excel academically, and located the success intoxicating. However as I grew in enthusiasm for Saints, I failed to note one other manner that colonialism was nonetheless working on the school: we have been studying virtually nothing concerning the troubled nation that lay past these black gates.


Ignorance of historical past serves many ends. Typically it papers over the crimes of the current by attributing an excessive amount of energy to the previous. Maybe extra usually, it covers up previous crimes with a view to legitimise the way in which society is organized within the current. As an adolescent, I noticed these dynamics play out within the former colony of Rhodesia. I might later uncover how way more potent they have been in Britain, the metropole.

By the flip of the millennium, outdoors the walled-off kingdom of Saints, Zimbabwe’s colonial legacy was unfolding in dramatic and violent methods. Though formal segregation had resulted in 1980, the world that apartheid constructed had by no means totally ceased. By the start of my second 12 months, the nation was descending into what would quickly be known as “the disaster”.

All through the 90s, the federal government of Robert Mugabe, who had been in energy since independence, had misplaced common assist. Corruption, financial austerity, the nation’s involvement in a battle within the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and a failure to totally deal with the elemental downside of who owned Zimbabwe’s land – white settlers or Black Africans – all threatened Mugabe’s energy. A brand new political get together arose that claimed to face towards Mugabe and for the values of democracy and civil rights.

Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe at an electoral rally in 2000.
Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe at an electoral rally in 2000. {Photograph}: AFP/Getty Photos

Mugabe responded by blaming all of Zimbabwe’s issues on its historical past of colonialism. And no determine was extra foundational to that historical past than Cecil Rhodes. In 1877, Rhodes known as for the British, “the best race on the planet”, to rehabilitate “essentially the most despicable of human beings” by bringing them below British dominion. 20 years later, he paid for the conquest of Rhodesia with the earnings he had extracted from Black labourers in his South African gold and diamond mines. After seizing land from Africans, Rhodes’s British South Africa Firm compelled them to toil on it as indentured labourers. As one early biographer put it, Rhodes “used blacks ruthlessly … giving them wages that made them little higher than slaves”. This was the premise for the apartheid regime that existed in Rhodesia till political independence.

It was true that Rhodes was a racist and imperialist who constructed a society based mostly on racism and exploitation. However Mugabe used this historical past to disclaim the corruption of his personal regime. He made white farmers the scapegoats for the nation’s financial issues and tarred the opposition as un-African. He argued that the values his political rivals stood for have been a canopy for neoliberal insurance policies that, like colonialism earlier than them, would solely serve to use Zimbabwe on behalf of the west. Actual nationalism, Mugabe stated, was about ending the anti-colonial liberation wrestle by taking again the land.

In 2000, bolstered by Mugabe’s rhetoric, Black battle veterans started occupying business farmland owned by white folks. The occupations unfold extensively throughout the nation. They have been sponsored by the ruling get together, whereas partisan militias carried out evictions on the bottom. In lower than 5 years, the variety of white farmers really farming the land dwindled from about 4,500 to below 500, whereas as many as 200,000 Black farm staff misplaced their jobs, and sometimes with them their houses. About 10 white farmers have been killed by militias, whereas the variety of black farm staff killed by the identical militias was slightly below 200, with many hundreds extra struggling violent assaults.

The international and white media quickly launched its personal distortions into the disaster, portraying the occupations as a racially motivated assault towards white folks, and never as a violent political rebellion rooted within the advanced historical past of colonialism. At residence, my father praised Mugabe and lambasted western powers as hypocrites who preached democracy however practised imperialism. He had no persistence for the opposition get together, whose members he noticed as stooges serving the pursuits of white capitalists in Zimbabwe and Britain. I later got here to see the land seizures as acts of political and financial grievance that answered on to Zimbabwe’s colonial historical past, and to really feel that, in some ways, Mugabe and my father have been proper: actual emancipation from that historical past couldn’t be completed if white folks nonetheless owned greater than their share of the land.

On the time, although, I accepted their arguments partially as a result of I related the goals of the land wrestle with my distaste for the racist Rhodies I used to be surrounded by at Saints. However then Mugabe took purpose at faculties. He argued Saints and its ilk represented a refusal of former colonisers to totally acquiesce to African management (once more, not solely incorrect). His Ministry of Schooling tried to implement a state-controlled curriculum that will train Mugabe’s model of historical past. I panicked. I used to be supportive of decolonisation if it ended with farms, however faculties have been one other matter. I anxious that I might be compelled to sit down native exams that lacked the credibility to earn me college admission abroad. The considered going to college in Africa had not even occurred to me.

The tutorial reforms I dreaded had not come to go in non-public faculties by the point I accomplished my O-levels in 2002, however Zimbabwe was going through financial and political meltdown. Sanctions have been quickly imposed on the nation and Mugabe was condemned by western governments, the media and NGOs for human rights violations. My comprehension of “the disaster” was rudimentary, however I noticed its results in my day by day life. Even within the rich bubble of Saints, textbooks and chemistry units have been instantly in brief provide. Inflation and due to this fact college charges spiralled uncontrolled, forcing workers and college students to depart the school in droves. The headmaster was arrested after accusing Mugabe, in racist phrases, of rigging that 12 months’s election.

Although my mother and father believed in redressing the colonial theft of African land, like many different Black mother and father of their class, they recognised that their youngsters would have higher instructional alternatives outdoors Zimbabwe. So in 2003, I joined a wave of younger Zimbabweans emigrating for training overseas. My mom travelled with me to England and deposited me at Stonyhurst Faculty, a 400-year-old Jesuit boarding college in rural Lancashire on which a lot of Saints’s structure and pedagogy had been based mostly. She cried all the way in which down the varsity’s close to mile-long driveway.


It wasn’t till arriving in England that I started to understand that colonialism had furnished not solely Zimbabwe however Britain, too, with fiercely held nationwide mythologies. In each nations, colonialism had left behind concepts and establishments that stood in the way in which of a extra trustworthy reckoning with the previous.

At Stonyhurst, I felt like I had stepped out of Saints’s pantomime model of English boarding faculties and into the true factor. However I used to be bowled over by the view of Zimbabwe I quickly encountered. If Mugabe preferred to say that colonialism was the reason for all of the nation’s issues, a lot of my new classmates have been equally simplistic in blaming them solely on Mugabe. One even prompt that recolonising Zimbabwe may finish its woes. To a big extent, they have been parroting the British and worldwide media, which portrayed Mugabe as an icon of evil fixated on murdering white folks. Even Whats up! journal devoted a five-page particular on Zimbabwe to masking the loss of life of a white farmer. Little to nothing was stated, within the media or elsewhere, of Zimbabwe’s colonial legacy, or of the struggling of Black folks below Mugabe’s regime.

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On the similar time, it was dawning on me how little I actually knew about my very own nation. I started to learn extra about Zimbabwe’s historical past, and was startled by what I discovered. Particularly, I had identified nothing concerning the Gukurahundi massacres perpetrated by the state following the battle of liberation. Within the worst case, as many as 20,000 civilians from the Ndebele folks have been murdered by the Zimbabwean military over a interval of 5 years within the mid-80s. It was a double shock: not solely on the measurement of the atrocity, however on the scope of the ignorance I had been inspired into at residence and at college.

Having as soon as been happy with my success at Saints, I used to be instantly ashamed at how sheltered and privileged my life had been. Motivated by an uneasy mixture of guilt, idealism and a eager for residence, I resolved to develop into a physician and return to Zimbabwe to assist heal the nation. After ending at Stonyhurst I took up a spot at Newcastle College to review drugs. I used to be considered one of only a few Black faces within the medical college, and the one one from continental Africa. Racism was no much less widespread than it had been at Saints, however it took a wide range of varieties. Typically it was direct: I used to be known as a “golliwog” by sufferers whereas on scientific rotation and informed to “fuck off again to Africa” on nights out in Newcastle metropolis centre. Extra usually, it was delicate and patronising: white college students touched my hair with out my consent or expressed incredulity on the eloquence of my spoken English. One even known as me “the whitest Black man I do know”.

The extra my white buddies made it clear that I didn’t match their notions of what it meant to be Black or African, the extra I, too, questioned the authenticity of my Blackness. On the similar time, in Zimbabwe, folks like me have been solid as sellouts who most well-liked their former coloniser to the motherland. I felt as if I used to be shedding my grip on who I used to be. For some time I sustained myself with my fantasy of returning residence to deal with the sick. However, as Zimbabwe’s disaster grew bigger and bigger, my scientific coaching felt insufficient. Again residence, inflation was uncontrolled. On a go to in 2008, I purchased an ice-cream sundae in a Harare suburb for 38 billion Zimbabwe {dollars}. Public providers, together with healthcare and sanitation, had largely disintegrated. Main shortages of primary commodities – comparable to gasoline, cooking oil, bread and water – compounded the results of political turmoil and violence. Cholera was competing for lives with one of many highest HIV charges on the planet.

A 500 million dollar Zimbabwaen bank note in 2008.
A 500 million greenback Zimbabwaen financial institution notice in 2008. {Photograph}: Getty Photos

By the point I certified as a physician in 2010, I commonly spent my quiet evening shifts within the hospital studying books about Zimbabwe and Africa. Many of the ones I may discover in native bookshops have been accounts by western journalists and memoirists who decried elements of colonialism however thought African politics was ineluctably despotic. In mild of what Mugabe had achieved to Zimbabwe, many of those authors argued, perhaps colonialism wasn’t that dangerous.

Not all the things they stated about colonialism or Mugabe or Africa was solely incorrect, however little of it struck me as solely proper both. In a way, I used to be shedding the world and the worldview I had been inducted into at Saints, however I wasn’t fairly positive what I ought to substitute it with. As soon as once more, I felt at sea. I made a decision to commit myself to finding out African historical past and politics, within the hopes not essentially of serving to my nation, however merely of higher understanding it. After three years of practising drugs, I left the NHS and took up a scholarship on the College of Oxford, the place I as soon as once more discovered myself instantly within the shadow of Cecil Rhodes.


When I arrived at Oxford within the autumn of 2013, I used to be stunned to find the ghosts of Zimbabwe’s colonial previous throughout me. None haunted the place greater than Rhodes, who had been a pupil at Oriel school within the 1870s, and later gave £100,000 – about £12m in as we speak’s cash – to the college by plenty of items and bequests. Most putting of those to me was Rhodes Home in central Oxford, a gathering place for recipients of the scholarship. (To my nice unease, the Rhodes students I met usually referred to themselves with the identical time period Black Zimbabweans seek advice from racist white folks – “Rhodies”.) Rhodes Home is a grand constructing within the model of a Cotswold manor, with one conspicuously incongruous function: on high of the constructing’s copper-clad dome perches an unlimited soapstone carving that I recognised instantly – the Zimbabwe fowl.

The sculpture is a duplicate of considered one of a half dozen or so 11th-century fowl carvings stolen within the late 19th century from the traditional metropolis referred to as Nice Zimbabwe, within the nation’s south-eastern hills. Rhodes believed the sculptures too subtle to have been customary by an African tradition, and attributed them as a substitute to a Mediterranean civilisation. In time, I got here to see the carving atop Rhodes home because the unfavourable picture of what would quickly develop into a way more well-known statue: a larger-than-life likeness of Rhodes that friends down on to Oxford’s Excessive Road from a distinct segment excessive up Oriel school’s facade, above a Latin inscription thanking him for his munificence. If the statue of Rhodes portrayed him as a terrific benefactor, the Zimbabwe fowl stood for the wealth extraction and human exploitation on which Rhodes’s fortune was constructed, in addition to for the racist ideology that helped him justify his colonial programme.

Colonialism continued to form Oxford in much less concrete methods, too. I wasn’t there lengthy earlier than I realized that the dim view of Africa and Africans held by Rhodes had been shared by a lot of Oxford’s most esteemed historians. Hugh Trevor-Roper, who for 1 / 4 century held Oxford’s most prestigious historical past chair, infamously pronounced within the 60s that there was no African historical past, “solely the historical past of Europeans in Africa. The remaining is darkness.” Earlier than Europeans introduced historical past to Africa and locations prefer it, Trevor-Roper went on, there was merely “the unedifying gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque however irrelevant corners of the globe”. This was solely a contact crasser than what a Fellow at Balliol Faculty stated to me at a dinner in my second 12 months at Oxford: “African politics? What a large number. How may you presumably repair that?”

Among the many handful of Oxford students who really studied Africa, nevertheless, most had a nuanced understanding of the continent and shared my disgust at Rhodes. William Beinart, who was then the Rhodes Professor of race relations, quipped that his title was a humiliation, like having the place “Goebbles Professorship of Communication”. However though my professors on the African Research Centre have been rigorous students, I couldn’t assist however discover that they have been all white. That is true all through academia: there aren’t an enormous variety of Black folks within the UK – solely about 3.3% of the inhabitants – however there are far fewer Black tutorial college (abouyt 2%) and about 140 Black professors in the entire nation.

The Cecil Rhodes statue on the facade of Oriel College in Oxford.
The Cecil Rhodes statue on the facade of Oriel Faculty in Oxford. {Photograph}: Andy Rain/EPA

My research and my household’s historical past as colonial topics got here collectively most painfully in a seminar on the historical past of political imprisonment and punishment in Africa. My father had informed me little about his incarceration in a Rhodesian jail through the liberation battle, besides to say that the circumstances have been “inhuman” and that the jail guards caned his buttocks so badly that they streamed with blood and he couldn’t sit for weeks. Now, in Oxford, I spent each Friday morning in a sterile seminar room the place Prof Jocelyn Alexander guided my classmates and me by a dialogue about how colonial states – most dramatically, settler states like Rhodesia – employed corporal and capital punishment, mass incarceration and labour detention on a big scale as a way of making social order in Africa and shoring up white political domination.

In fact, white domination and colonialism wasn’t simply one thing that occurred in or to the colonies. The extra time I spent in Oxford, the extra I realised how colonialism had remade your complete materials and mental world of the British empire, particularly its most elite college. Oxford is strewn with tributes to males of empire who’ve scholarships, portraits, busts, engravings, statues, libraries and even buildings devoted to their reminiscence. Christopher Codrington, a slave plantation proprietor, bequeathed £1.2m in as we speak’s cash to All Souls Faculty to erect one of many college’s most opulent libraries (which, till final 12 months, bore his identify). George Curzon, the viceroy of India who presided over the Indian famine of 1899-1900 during which about Four million folks died, is memorialised at his alma mater, Balliol. Augustus Pitt Rivers, a 19th-century colonial officer, based Oxford’s archaeological museum, which lengthy doubled up as a storage facility for loot stolen through the British empire.

From the beginning, the search for information of Africa was motivated by the purpose of conquest. Even as we speak, African research has an air of the 1884 Berlin Convention, which heralded the “Scramble for Africa” – however as a substitute of European powers claiming and buying and selling completely different elements of the continent, it’s largely white students staking out their territory and asserting experience over ethnicity in Kenya, democracy in Ghana or refugees in Uganda. After I stayed on at Oxford to pursue a doctorate, I started attending African research conferences all through the UK, solely to seek out largely white students speaking to predominantly white audiences.

In different phrases, I used to be surrounded in Oxford not by the ghosts of colonialism, however by its dwelling useless. As at Saints, colonialism at Oxford had by no means actually ended, and couldn’t. It wasn’t a interval that had handed, however a historic mass that bent all the things round its gravity. As I had in Newcastle, I started to query the unusual place I occupied on this contorted world. Day by day, I left Africa extra utterly, whereas changing into extra intimately concerned with the colonial venture that the college represented. In a way, I used to be complicit in that venture – however I used to be additionally alienated and angered by it. I used to be at a loss about easy methods to navigate the ambiguities of my place.

Then, on 9 March 2015, a pupil on the College of Cape City hurled a bucket of human shit at a statue of Cecil Rhodes. All of the sudden, all the things that I and lots of of my fellow Black college students had been feeling about Oxford got here into sharp focus. A motion to redress the colonial legacy of neglecting and denigrating Black college students was afoot in South Africa. Earlier than I knew it, I might develop into a frontrunner in a struggle to remake Oxford, too.


We known as our work decolonisation. There have been a number of dozen of us – Black and brown college students who have been born in Britain or its former colonies, African American college students who noticed hyperlinks between decolonial politics and anti-racism work within the US, and plenty of white college students. Our aim was to slay the racist ideologies that also held sway in numerous disciplines, to convey extra Black folks into academia at each stage, and to finish the glorification of the boys who had devoted their lives to advancing the colonial venture. The size of those ambitions was core to our politics. We weren’t involved in half measures or compromises with institutional racism. We knew it might be an uphill battle. As considered one of my buddies cautioned me, “You understand what they are saying about Oxford, Simukai? ‘Change is sweet. However no change is best.’”

To attract consideration to the struggle, we determined to give attention to a single object, the statue of Rhodes on Oriel school’s facade, borrowing the identify of the scholar motion in South Africa: Rhodes Should Fall. I had initially opposed this tactic, worrying that specializing in the statue would obscure our bigger mission. However my buddy and fellow organiser Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh ultimately satisfied me that the struggle over the statue could be an essential litmus check, revealing simply how dedicated – or resistant – the college and its numerous members have been to ending racism in all its varieties.

The primary motion of Rhodes Should Fall in Oxford was to protest a debate on the Oxford Union Society on the legacy of colonialism in Could 2015. We wished to press the purpose that colonialism was not a factor of the previous. Once we arrived on the debate, we found to our astonishment that the Union had inadvertently crushed us to the punch: the bar was promoting a cocktail known as the “Colonial Comeback” with a flyer depicting Black fingers in manacles. Racist attitudes have been clearly alive and properly. We posted photographs of the flyer to social media, they usually quickly went viral, prompting nationwide outrage.

A protest calling for the removal of the Rhodes statue at Oriel College in Oxford in 2016.
A protest calling for the removing of the Rhodes statue at Oriel Faculty in Oxford in 2016. {Photograph}: David Hartley/Rex/Shutterstock

A number of months later, in November, Rhodes Should Fall organised a 300-person robust protest outdoors Oriel school. Ten occasions that quantity had signed a petition demanding that the statue of Rhodes be taken down and housed in a museum. Protesters condemned the statue as “an open glorification of the racist and bloody venture of British colonialism”, and other people chanted in call-and-response, “Rhodes Should Fall! Take it Down!”.

I tracked the protest from Harare, the place I used to be researching my PhD, gathering harrowing testimonies from human rights activists, politicians and the city poor about how that they had suffered through the nation’s 2008 cholera outbreak, during which 100,000 folks have been contaminated and greater than 4,000 folks died. I wished to grasp how a easy bacterial an infection turned a public well being catastrophe and a political scandal in a rustic that when boasted one of the best healthcare system in Africa. Numerous western critics laid the blame for this disaster on the ft of Robert Mugabe. Mugabe’s authorities hit again with an absurd counternarrative claiming that the cholera outbreak was racist, terrorist, organic warfare from the west to undermine African sovereignty. I requested one physician, a buddy of mine from Saints, whether or not he believed within the authorities’s anti-colonial rhetoric. “I’m anti-colonial and anti-neo-colonial,” he stated, ruefully. “I do know that Nice Britain is rich partially as a result of it has plundered nations like ours. However, our management has failed us.”

Once I returned to Oxford in January 2016, I started debating Rhodes Should Fall at pupil society conferences, faculties, different universities and within the press. Had been we traditionally illiterate, making an attempt, as a few of our opponents satirically charged, to “whitewash” historical past? In contrast to a lot of our critics, we at the very least recognised that the statue of Rhodes didn’t really exist previously. It isn’t a sterile historic relic, or some correct document of prior occasions. It’s a piece of self-conscious propaganda designed to current an ennobled picture of Rhodes for so long as it stands. (Mugabe was utilizing the same technique when he tried to rewrite Zimbabwean historical past.) If anybody was attempting to erase the previous – particularly the historical past of subjugation and struggling on which his fortune was constructed – it was Rhodes. I needed to surprise why many eminent white commentators have been so hooked up to him.

The final word level was by no means to weigh the soul of Rhodes, and discover out whether or not he was “actually” a racist. It was to attempt to uproot the racism within the soul of the establishments in-built his picture. It was obvious that a lot of our critics, even a few of those that knew one thing about colonial historical past, couldn’t respect how Rhodes and the colonial venture had intimately formed lives like mine. They couldn’t fathom the methods during which colonialism had by no means actually ended.

As a collective, we thought we have been making progress on our goals when Oriel Faculty pledged to launch a six-month listening train to collect proof and opinions to assist resolve on the way forward for the statue. However, a mere six weeks later, in late January 2016, the school reneged on this pledge, stating that it might not take away the statue of the imperialist on the grounds that there was “overwhelming” assist to maintain it. It was later revealed Oriel stood to lose £100m in donor items have been it to take down the statue. I used to be crushed, and for a very long time it appeared like Rhodes Should Fall had failed.


Four years later, in Could 2020, I sat alone in my flat in Oxford watching the video of the brutal torture and homicide of George Floyd on the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin. After my shock got here anguish and rage. For days on finish, I consumed the information and commentary on the killing, till my thoughts was foggy and my physique ached. I can’t inform you if I thought of my father’s father, who was murdered by the Rhodesian state earlier than I used to be born, however I do know that, like many Black folks, I skilled Floyd’s loss of life as an intimate and private trauma. If in case you have ever been on the sharp finish of anti-Black racism, it’s not tough to determine with the struggling of different Black folks below every kind of racist regimes.

Ten days after Floyd’s loss of life, the heads of all of the Oxford faculties – each single considered one of them white – wrote an open letter within the Guardian claiming that they stood in solidarity with Black college students and affirming their dedication to equal dignity and respect. I instantly considered Gary Younge’s piercing statement that white folks periodically “uncover” racism “the identical manner that youngsters uncover intercourse: urgently, earnestly, voraciously and carelessly, with nice self-indulgence however treasured little self-awareness.”

Simukai Chigudu at a protest in Oxford in June last year.
Simukai Chigudu at a protest in Oxford in June final 12 months. {Photograph}: Binta Zahra Diop

It had been 4 years since Rhodes Should Fall had seemingly dissipated. There had been just a few small adjustments on the college – Hugh Trevor-Roper’s identify was stripped from a room within the historical past college – and at the very least another substantive reversal: the Pitt Rivers Museum started repatriating a few of its stolen works. (Dan Hicks, one of many museum’s curators, has since written that Rhodes Should Fall “shattered the complacency” on the establishment.) However the primary goals of our work had not been far superior, and the statue of Rhodes nonetheless stood.

I had remained in Oxford, finishing my doctorate earlier than being appointed to the school as an affiliate professor of African politics. As one of many few folks from the primary wave of Rhodes Should Fall who was nonetheless on the college, I used to be requested to talk at an antiracism protest on 9 June. I stood earlier than a crowd of hundreds gathered on Oxford’s excessive avenue outdoors Oriel Faculty, beneath the Rhodes statue. As quickly as I took the microphone, the phrases “Rhodes Should Fall!” got here out of my mouth with a guttural drive that I couldn’t comprise. The group responded with thundering applause.

On 17 June, Oriel Faculty’s governing physique expressed its want to take away each the Cecil John Rhodes statue and a plaque commemorating him. To implement this, the school launched an unbiased Fee of Inquiry tasked with contemplating the Rhodes legacy and wider considerations about inclusivity, entry and experiences of Black and different minority ethnic college students on the school. A proper determination to take away the statue is predicted later this 12 months. In the meantime, All Souls Faculty eliminated the slaver Christopher Codrington’s identify from its iconic library, and College Faculty appointed the primary Black head of a school in college historical past, Valerie Amos. Progress is gradual, and by no means inevitable, however it will probably go to even Oxford.

I’m usually requested how I really feel about being an affiliate professor at Oxford, specialising in African politics. Do I see any contradiction in working for the establishment that I’m agitating to alter? Who’s the target market of my writing – privileged, usually white college students, or my fellow Africans? The solutions to such questions are lengthy. Nevertheless, there’s a fallacy in pondering that Africa is the place I’m wanted most. Sure, I stay dedicated to writing concerning the flamable politics of the nation of my delivery, and I hope the true guarantees of liberation will probably be totally realised sooner or later. However Oxford, Britain, and the west should be decolonised, too. Important to that is advancing a richer, extra advanced view of the imperial previous and its bearing on the current. Zimbabwe is just not Britain’s troubled former colony – it’s its mirror. As the good Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe humbly put it: “I might counsel from my privileged place in African and western tradition some benefits the West may derive from Africa as soon as it rid its thoughts of previous prejudices and started to take a look at Africa not by a haze of distortions and low-cost mystification however fairly merely as a continent of individuals – not angels however not rudimentary souls both.”

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