Political writer and historian, Timothy Garton Ash says that, while the Rhodes Must Fall movement has failed in the UK, it has also succeeded in many ways.
The movement has not succeeded because the statue of Cecil Rhodes will not be removed from the college building at Oxford University; however, it has has sparked a valuable debate about how Britain deals with its colonial past.
Writing a column for the Guardian, Garton Ash said that the large statue of Cecil Rhodes that stood in front of Cape Town University was a prominent symbol of a recent oppression of people in the country, whereas the one in Oxford is not.
The statue in Cape Town was removed last year, following mass protest under the Rhodes Must Fall movement.
“This Oxford Rhodes statue was neither genuinely prominent (I have lived in Oxford for years and never even knew it was there), nor a symbol of the recent, brutal oppression of most of those who live here. It is more like an obscure statue of Lenin somewhere in Russia today: a relic and a question to the former imperialists.”
The columnist said that the debate about symbols is entirely legitimate, but the arguments for removing this particular symbol from its particular place are not strong enough.
He said that the student movement, like so many, is both made and marred by its hyperbole. He noted that the current list of demands from Oxford’s Rhodes Must Fall movement starts with exhorting the university to “acknowledge and confront its role in ongoing physical and ideological violence of empire”.
“There is a huge amount that can be said about Oxford’s historic involvement with the British empire, including Rhodes – but implicated in current physical violence of empire? Where? How?”
Garton Ash said that the truly liberal reaction is not to get distracted by this hyperbole, but to listen carefully and engage with what the protesters are saying, “while resisting anything that would make the university less open, free and pluralist”.
“And they raise some important issues: the representation of people of colour among both faculty and students; the often subtle ways in which students of colour feel not wholly accepted in a university, even when there is no outright discrimination or racism,” Garton Ash said.
Addressing the issues is quite complicated, “but there is certainly more that we, and other British universities, can do,” he said.
“The demand that touches me most personally is for ‘decolonisation of curriculum’ and, more broadly, for Britain to face up to its colonial past,” Garton Ash said.
The historian said that a more pertinent and practical might be to demand more Rhodes scholarships for African students, given that the money originally came from Africa.
Read the full column on the Guardian website