Universities have always revered history as a source of knowledge for the future; a grand narrative of lessons to be taken into the present to enrich our understanding of our origins, make better decisions in the present, and continue progress for the future. It is therefore no surprise that people care enough about the way that history is treated in these institutions to spark broad debates, controversy, and an international movement. From South Africa, to the United Kingdom, to the United States, students (as well as members of staff) are rallying for a radical adjustment in the way that people interact with the “glorious” history of their institutions. Whether or not it is true that Rhodes Must Fall, a conversation about his proposed demise is now unavoidable.
The Rhodes Must Fall Movement (#RhodesMustFall) began in South Africa in 2015 at the University of Capetown, initially directed towards the removal a statue commemorating Cecil Rhodes. This campaign became a springboard off of which other movements launched, including Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford, Royall Must Fall at Harvard, the Black Students’ Movement at Rhodes University, and many more.
In these campaigns, demands for the abandonment of particular statues, names, and symbols serve as the public face of a broader agenda to deal with institutionalised racism within universities. Students connect individual experiences of suffering and harms to inclusivity to these relics, and call for their schools to stop commemorating individuals who were major players in enslavement, apartheid, and the development of racial inequality at large. Statues of various colonial figures, shields featuring the crests of slaveholders, and the names of colleges and buildings are all under fire from these movements.
These demands have not gone unchallenged. At every point of protest there has been opposition on a number of levels. The primary criticisms accuse ‘offended’ students of attempting to wipe out a part of history which simply cannot be expunged. They claim that those who contributed significantly to an institution should be remembered for their part, and judged by the standards of their time rather than contemporary morality.
Implicit within these objections is the assumption that the history of an institution is inherently valuable – that the traditions, the heritage, the relics of the past form an important part of the culture of that university. If this were not the case, then donors of Oxford University would hardly have been outraged enough to threaten the withdrawal of over £100 million of gifts and bequests from the school if the statue of Cecil Rhodes gracing Oriel College were removed. If this were not the case, changing a crest or the names of buildings and schools, would be considered an uncontroversial rebranding exercise rather than an outrage.
It is clear that both sides of the debate have their own attachments to history – it is viewed as something valuable and relevant to current personal experiences. So can it be legitimate within this debate to argue for the removal of relics of that history from public spaces? To answer this question, it is important to recognise the differences between the narrative of history, and memorials which recognise particular aspects of it. As Christopher Phelps identifies:
History is one thing, memorials another. As tributes, memorials are selective, affirmative representations. When a university names a building after someone or erects a statue to that person, it bestows honor and legitimacy. The imprimatur of an institution of higher education affords the subject respect, dignity, and authority. This makes memorials every bit as much about values, status quo, and future as about remembrance.
The selective nature of memorials make them as much about excluding certain figures, certain parts of our history, as they are about remembrance. The choice to honour particular individuals, and to continue doing so by giving them one of the few portions of the public space in a university, cannot be a neutral recognition of institutional history. Given that this history is affirmed and alive in the present, it cannot be enough to simply justify injustice by labelling it a byproduct of ‘the times’.
Moreover, removing statues does not remove these figures from the narrative of history, it simply ends the positive commemoration of figures that were the architects of mass enslavement, apartheid, and racism. When Hungarian rebels toppled statues of Stalin in 1956 their actions were celebrated, not considered a pillaging of history; Stalin and his role in history have not been forgotten because of his eviction from public commemoration. Likewise, there has been little outcry over the removal of over 800 statues of Lenin in the Ukraine (in response to provocations by Putin’s Russia). Lenin’s place in the annals is not seen as jeopardised by this action, particularly given that most of the works have been transported to museums, an action equally possible in the university debate.
A more nuanced objection to removal recognises the particular role of memorials in affirming a particular conception of history, and identifies them as sites of a discourse on the role of history, modern race relations, and minority experiences – discussions that can only be had when there are people publicly questioning the validity of such relics. This objector should therefore be satisfied by the development of the student movements, despite disagreeing with one prong of their demands.
Regardless of which side of the debate you fall on, it is important to recognise that Rhodes falling is not a debate about whether we remember or erase particular figures in the history of our institutions. It is a debate about how we treat particular aspects of history, and memorialise them in the public space. Given that the history is very much alive for all sides of the discussion, it is also important to recognise the very particular histories to which the relics in question relate: histories of mass enslavement, racialisation, apartheid, and genocide. The legacies of these practices live on in the contemporary experiences of racism which black and minority ethnic students face on these campuses – experiences which should be grappled with as much as feelings of attachment to blocks of stone.
- Defaced statue of Louis Botha outside the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town during the #RhodesMustFall campaign by HelenSTB (2015)
- Edward Linley Sanbourne, ‘The Rhodes Colossus: Caricature of Cecil John Rhodes’, after he announced plans for a telegraph line and railroad from Cape Town to Cairo, 10 December 1892
- The statue at the centre of the controversy: a statue of Cecil Rhodes by Marion Walgate (1934)