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20 May, 2021 13:40

Loss for iconoclasts as Oxford school decides to ‘contextualise’ statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes instead of removing it

Loss for iconoclasts as Oxford school decides to ‘contextualise’ statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes instead of removing it

Those who would have relics of Britain’s colonial past erased from public spaces have suffered a setback after the Oriel College decided to keep a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the oppressive ruler of Cape Colony, in its current place.

Rhodes is a controversial historical figure in the UK, considering that his colonial policies were aimed at disenfranchising the local population and arguably laid the groundwork for the regime of apartheid in South Africa. Calls to have his statue removed from the Oxford school arose in 2015 and were invigorated last year amid the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in Britain.

The Governing Body of Oriel College said on Thursday that after weighing the “regulatory and financial challenges” that moving the statue would pose, it opted to keep it where it is. Attempting to place it elsewhere “could run into years with no certainty of outcome,” considering that it would require cooperation from several outside institutions, including the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government.

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“The government’s policy, in relation to historic statues and sites which have become contested, is to ‘retain and explain’ them,” the statement said, adding that this was what the college intended to do by “contextualising” the statue and other Rhodes memorials at its facilities.

The school will hold an annual lecture on Rhodes and his legacy and raise awareness on race issues, including through a “virtual exhibition” explaining the historical figure and his relations with the educational body.

It will also provide additional scholarship for students from South Africa and “develop a strategic plan for improving educational equality, diversity and inclusion, ensuring it is embedded more formally in the college.” The leadership pledged to allocate funds “equivalent to that remaining in the Rhodes legacy” to pay for the initiatives.

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Provost Lord Mendoza said the decision was taken after a “finely balanced debate” on a 144-page report on the issue, which was delivered by an independent commission in April. The research was ordered in June 2020, after a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol at the peak of the BLM protests.

We understand this nuanced conclusion will be disappointing to some, but we are now focused on the delivery of practical actions aimed at improving outreach and the day-to-day experience of BME students.

Simukai Chigudu, an associate professor of African politics at the University of Oxford, called the statement “shocking and, quite frankly, embarrassing,” accusing the governing body of “waffle and obfuscation.”

“As an alternative to taking down the state, Oriel says they will increase provisions for [minority] students. But framing this as a binary choice is both false and insulting,” he told the Guardian.

During its 10-month-long work, the commission received over 1,400 written contributions from students, alumni, associates of the college and the general public. While students mostly favored removal of the statue, the majority of submissions from other sources called for its retention, the report said.

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