So you may have heard about recent calls to remove a statue of the famous imperialist Cecil Rhodes from and Oxford University college. And you also may have heard about the same student calling for the removal of the French flag from British Universities, calling it a ‘violent symbol’ which would be treated ‘in the same way that the presence of a Nazi flag would have to be fought against’. This all smacks of politicking and grandstanding for the sake of ego, all for that ever-elusive fame on social media and in the newspapers.
Indeed, Ntokozo Qwabe, who is studying for the prestigious BCL (Bachelor of Civil Law) qualification from the University of Oxford, has been very successful in that, with interviews with the Sunday Times and Morning Live (in South Africa) already under his belt. There’s nothing like a few well-chosen words/actions to ensure your very own 15 minutes of fame. The cynic in me would even suggest that this whole campaign was based on a need to make himself visible in the competitive world of law graduates – a good bit of volunteer ‘work’ can go quite far, I hear.
His comments on the French flag were ignorant at best, and insulting to the French people and every believer in the democratic process at worst. Whilst of course the Tricolore did have its origins in violence (see the French Revolution), it has come to represent a nation which embodies some of the best aspects of humanity. I have every confidence that Mr Qwabe was being sensationalist and attention-seeking with his comments about the French flag, as no decent individual could possibly link a sovereign nation with a dictatorial regime responsible for the genocide of millions.
Of course, Mr Qwabe is a recipient of the Rhodes scholarship, which of course was introduced by the man whose statue the ‘Rhodes must fall in Oxford’ group want to take down. Hypocrisy! Ungratefulness! – it is oh so predictable how the reaction to this ‘revelation’ has been in some quarters. If you wish to follow this strand of reasoning, then we are all hypocrites for criticising any aspect of our history, as we are all products of it. Here in the UK, are we allowed to criticise the atrocities committed in the name of the British Empire, even though the institution of Empire itself allowed us to be such a prosperous nation, with relatively prosperous citizens? Of course we are – why should Mr Qwabe be any different? He is allowed to critique, even though his circumstance (recipiency of the Rhodes scholarship) is as a result of the very institution he is critiquing.
It is rather his desire to airbrush history that is most concerning. If we pick and choose our histories, it will soon be the case that we create our own idealisms based on what we assume the past to be (with nothing to challenge this), which therefore would lead to a future telling of the past based upon these assumptions and idealisms – potentially devoid of fact. If we were to rip down every statue of every person who has been unpleasant, then we could easily start with someone like Winston Churchill – well known for his somewhat dodgy views on race. But of course this won’t happen. Why? Because he is a part of the history of our nation. Rhodes was also an important contributor to our history, as is every other person lucky enough to have a statue made of them. The airbrushing of history is a trademark of some of the most unpleasant groups of people to have walked this earth (no prizes for guessing a few of them) and whilst, of course, the old saying that ‘the winners tell history’ is largely true, recent momentum towards the telling of all histories is certainly welcomed, and the removal of the statue of Rhodes would only serve to reverse this process. Oxford University must accept its own past, and realise that, no matter how unsavoury, each page of its history is vitally important in the establishment of Oxford as one of the world’s most prestigious educational centres. If the University gives in to this group, then it is condoning the airbrushing of its own history.
The campaign by Mr Qwabe and his companions will be rightly viewed by many as students ‘protesting for the sake of protesting’. This attention-seeking and vindictive nature of student politics is rather unfortunate, as it seems that those all-important column inches, that TV appearance or that viral social media post are more important than actual respectable debate. Whilst some argue that protesting ‘for the sake of protesting’ is the only way to get things changed, more often that not it appears that these protesting students have far too much spare time on their hands and are just in it for the jolly. Mr Qwabe, well done on making your name visible to many law firms. Congratulations on making yourself appear a vindictive student, with an unreasonable chip on your shoulder. And thank you for ensuring that this form of sensationalist student politics will appear to be ridiculous to many.