The once looming statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of Firdos square in Baghdad – that was commissioned for his 65th birthday and made to intimidate – has now been toppled by a vehicle surrounded by a crowd of cheering Iraqis. The desecration of the statue was symbolic of the liberation of Baghdad from Hussein’s reprehensible regime.
Similarly in Cape Town, a statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes, a man who fantasised about murdering Africans, whom he described as “despicable specimens of human beings”, was smeared with paint and excrement and then removed. All power to the people.
In recent weeks, commentators have argued that a parallel campaign to remove the statue of Rhodes dwelling at Oriel, Oxford would be tantamount to censoring history and attacking free speech. But the inverse is true. Accepting the presence of Rhodes’ statue would continue a dangerous process of blithely accepting past atrocities and further encourage the whitewashing of history to represent the bias and prejudice of the Great White Man.
To remove Rhodes is not to shirk the process of thinking critically about history. Removing Cecil’s statue would actually encourage a more critical process of thinking about Britain’s role in apartheid. It would make us consider why it is necessary and justified to remove his effigy.
Although officially the statue commemorates Rhodes’ association with the college instead of his racist chauvinism, his association with the college is neither apolitical or ahistorical. In fact his legacy manifests insidiously in the blunt fact of institutional racism which lives on in Oxford. Its teaching focuses primarily on Europe and the USA, and the university accepted only 24 black British undergraduates last year. Rhodes may have provided for the Rhodes scholarship, but internationally he also plundered from the less privileged races. To paraphrase an activist, that money he used for the scholarship was never his to begin with.
Racism lies at the foundation of modern society. Without it, Cecil Rhodes’ work would not have been possible. As the need to think about the statue’s symbolism becomes clear, it’s worth considering also whether or not we can do with an effigy which legitimises his views. Obviously it’s not out of the question that we can do without it, and that’s a good thing.
Commentators may try and present #Rhodesmustfall as incitement to censorship, an attack on freedom of thought, but in truth it is they who are in danger of repressing the freedom to depose our heroes. It is surely wrong to present Rhodes as an untouchable figure in the pantheon of history. To show that he is fallible would be to take power and emphasise accountability.
So let’s see Rhodes fall. Surely it’s time to stop praising him.
Recently it was announced that Rhodes will remain, after Oriel College ruled out its removal.