Anti-racism campaigners in Britain are celebrating as Oxford University announced Wednesday the removal of a statue of the British colonist Cecil Rhodes, who has long been a controversial figure in academia.
The move comes as discussions of racism and colonialism have been ignited across Europe following the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25 with an officer's knee on his neck.
The governing body of the university’s Oriel College voted to remove the memorial of the man known as "an architect of apartheid" in Southern Africa. And it is also launching an inquiry into his legacy at the school and exploring how it can better diversify the school’s students and faculty, it said in a statement.
“These decisions were reached after a thoughtful period of debate and reflection and with the full awareness of the impact these decisions are likely to have in Britain and around the world,” the college said.
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, 31, a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford and one of the founding members of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, told NBC News the development had been “nothing short of surreal” and “miraculous.”
“It’s certainly something that needs to be celebrated and that we are all celebrating,” he said.
Rhodes was a Victorian-era businessman and imperialist who played an important role in the seizure of vast areas of South Africa — then the Cape Colony — in the expansion of Britain’s empire. In his will, he used some of the wealth he had amassed through the oppression of Black Africans to establish the renowned Rhodes Scholarship. It has been awarded annually since 1902 to the brightest minds around the world and is hosted by Oxford University, where Rhodes studied.
Since then, it has helped catapult the careers of its recipients, many of whom have gone on to become public figures, including former President Bill Clinton, the feminist author Naomi Wolf and the late U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, who established a scholarship program in his own name.
The Rhodes Must Fall campaign was sparked in South Africa in 2015 when students at the University of Cape Town successfully protested the presence of his statue on the campus. It was removed.
Mpofu-Walsh said he and fellow South Africans had “seen and felt the legacy of Rhodes’s crimes” with persisting racial tensions from the country's apartheid-era segregation policies.
Coming to Oxford, Mpofu-Walsh said he was struck by the gains that Europe enjoyed from its colonial rule through figures like Rhodes. “Knowing how opulent and extravagant Rhodes’s wealth was and the way he donated it to Oxford, really inspired us to critically challenge his legacy and the way he is remembered,” Mpofu-Walsh said.
But calls to remove colonial-era monuments from public view have not been without critics.
Former British Conservative member of parliament Daniel Hannan tweeted in response to Wednesday’s announcement: “Rhodes's generosity allowed thousands of young people to enjoy an education they could not otherwise have had. The first black student won a scholarship 5 years after his death. Why would anyone give to an institution that treats its benefactors this way?”
Right-wing-protesters to the Black Lives matter movement in the UK also gathered in London last weekend demanding the protection of statues of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
With ongoing pushback, the Rhodes Must Fall Oxford campaigners said in a statement Wednesday that their fight is far from over. “We can, potentially, offer a powerful example of the decolonial project in higher education — in the UK and beyond,” they said.
Oriel College said the inquiry “is intending to draw upon the greatest possible breadth and depth of experience, opinion and background.” It will be asking for input from the Rhodes Must Fall activists, as well as students and staff across the university, alumni, local residents and city government. It plans to release a report on its findings by the end of the year.