On Tuesday evening, the Oxford Union held a debate on what President Stuart Webber deemed that “most topical of questions, both within Oxford and without”: must Rhodes fall?
The seven speakers gathered were split in two divided halves. On one side were Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) member and Rhodes scholar Ntokozo Qwabe, President of the Oxford University Africa Society Yasmin Kumi, RMF member and MSc candidate in African Studies Athinangamson Esther Nkopo,and Rhodes Professor of Imperial History at King’s College London Richard Drayton.
On the other side, against RMF, sat Former Professor of Race Relations at the University of Oxford African Studies Centre William Beinart, Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Christ Church Professor Nigel Biggar, and a social justice activist, who has previously argued with Qwabe, Sophia Cannon.
Qwabe gave his opening statement first, his introduction by Webber greeted by applause and cheers. Qwabe centered his argument not on the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel that has become synonymous with the RMF movement, but on that which it represented.
He argued that we must pay attention not to the “polarised statue debate presented as [RMF’s] only demand” but to the patterns of black, minority and ethnic (BME) exclusion and the way Oxford itself is exclusive. He brought in the statistic that Oxford has only one full-time black professor and deemed it “deplorable” that only 24 black British students were accepted to Oxford as undergraduates.
Kumi focused more on the statue itself, saying she believed in the necessity it fell and that it was “evident that a leader like Rhodes does not deserve” to be raised on a pedestal. She compared Rhodes to Hitler, arguing that they were similar because of the nature of their racist ideology.
Esther Nkomo furthered Qwabe and Kumi’s points, adding that “statues reflect the way societies view themselves”. She said that removing the statue was about “how the university wants to imagine itself and about how empire affects those across the globe”.
Drayton played to his credentials as a historian, saying that Rhodes was considered violent and disreputable even in his own time. He said that “Oxford remains color-coded white” and that removing the statue was so that Oxford and Britain could “begin to free the future”.
Speakers on the other side of the debate largely reflected on how the statue was a tool that had been used to successful effect by the RMF movement to provoke discussion and debate.
Beinart said that the RMF movement had displayed “acumen in choosing the statue as its symbol” and that Oxford must consider what comes of accepting donations for its image.
Biggar challenged the idea that Rhodes was comparable to Hitler, said that Rhodes was not racist, for instance on the grounds that he supported black voting rights, and said that if the statue of Rhodes must fall, so must those of Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln, a comment which received a couple claps.
Cannon for her part added that British statues were welded to their history whether they liked it or not, and that this could not be ignored. Rhodes must not fall, she concluded.
Webber introduced the question and answer session by asking the RMF side about Cherwell’s survey, pointing out that 54% of Oxford students thought Rhodes should stand. In response, Esther Nkomo highlighted the fact that majorities are relative.
Foreshadowing recurrent debate on historical accuracy, Drayton took a temporary silence to attack what he called Biggar’s “appalling grasp of history” and said that arguments made by the opposition were “perverse”.
Another theme that emerged from the RMF side was that action spoke louder than words or justification could and Rhodes’ actions had been deleterious, so contextualisation could not be used as a defense.
On the other hand, Biggar and Cannon repeatedly made use of the argument that getting rid of statues was a slippery slope. Biggar said that if we required perfection of our heroes, we would have none left.
A key debate was on Oxford’s, and Britain’s, inclusivity or lack thereof. Both sides were united in saying that Oxford must become more diverse and more welcoming of minorities, especially South Americans.
But while the RMF representatives said that Oxford could not become a neutral space if the symbol of Rhodes continued to stand, their opponents said the leverage of the statue was pivotal in furthering the diversity cause.
Another question was that of historical erasure. Cannon argued, “If you erase history, you erase its bright lights and dark halls”. But Ntoko and Drayton argued the other way around, saying the statue and Rhodes’ money were actually the erasers.
Ntoko and Drayton were also quick to react when Rhodes scholars were accused of hypocrisy for accepting Rhodes’ money. Drayton made use of proverb in his response saying, “Steal from a thief and God smiles.”
The vote at the end was 245 to 212 on the side that Rhodes’ statue must fall
The clearly divided audience led one man who Cherwell’s correspondents talked to for an exclusive OxPop episode of CherwellTV afterwards to say “perhaps the best solution is leave half of it up and take the other half down”.