The long read: After growing up in a Zimbabwe convulsed by the legacy of colonialism, when I got to Oxford I realised how many British people still failed to see how empire had shaped lives like mine – as well as their own
After growing up in a Zimbabwe convulsed by the legacy of colonialism, when I got to Oxford I realised how many British people still failed to see how empire had shaped lives like mine – as well as their own
There was no single moment when I began to sense the long shadow that Cecil John Rhodes has cast over my life, or over the university where I am a professor, or over the ways of seeing the world shared by so many of us still living in the ruins of the British empire. But, looking back, it is clear that long before I arrived at Oxford as a student, long before I helped found the university’s Rhodes Must Fall movement, long before I even left Zimbabwe as a teenager, this man and everything he embodied had shaped the worlds through which I moved.
I could start this story in 1867, when a boy named Erasmus Jacobs found a diamond the size of an acorn on the banks of the Orange river in what is now South Africa, sparking the diamond rush in which Rhodes first made his fortune. Or I could start it a century later, when my grandfather was murdered by security forces in the British colony of Rhodesia. Or I could start it today, when the infamous statue of Rhodes that peers down on to Oxford’s high street may finally be on the verge of being taken down.
But for me, it starts most directly in January 1999, when I was 12 years old. That was when my parents first drove me from our home on the outskirts of the city through the imposing black gates of St George’s College, Harare. Dressed in a red blazer, red-and-white striped tie, khaki shirt and shorts, grey knee-high socks and a cartoonishly floppy red hat, I looked like an English schoolboy on safari. As our car climbed towards the college, I peered up in awe at the granite castle tower, crowned with a full set of crenellations, that dominates the grounds. It was as if I had entered one of the last redoubts of Britain’s global imperium.
Saints, as I would learn to call it, is among the oldest and most prestigious schools in Zimbabwe. It was founded in 1896, just five years after the British South Africa Company colonised the inland region of southern Africa north of the Limpopo river. The colonists dubbed the area Rhodesia, in honour of the company’s founder, Cecil Rhodes. Backed by the British army, Rhodes’s colonising forces dispossessed millions of Africans of their land and created an apartheid state that endured for 90 years. Saints was established in the mould of the University of Oxford and public schools like Eton to prepare young white Rhodesians to carry on the country’s political and economic regime. For nearly a century it was devoted to educating the scions of the country’s wealthy white settlers.
Beginning in 1963, the college had also accepted a handful of boys from the country’s small Black upper class, and after a 15-year liberation war that won Zimbabwe its independence in 1980, the school began admitting select sons of the country’s new Black middle classes, like me. When I passed the exacting admissions exam – four papers, in maths and English, notoriously difficult to complete – I felt, in my juvenile way, that I had earned my place in the world. But when I arrived, in January 1999, I was suddenly adrift in a Zimbabwe unlike any I had known before.
At 7.25am on my first day, the school bell rang, and I joined the other boys in their red blazers filing into the Beit Hall. The hall was named after an Anglo-German gold and diamond magnate who employed Rhodes when the latter first arrived in southern Africa. As I glanced upward to an interior balcony, I noticed a series of polished mahogany panels with gold lettering bearing the names of Old Georgians who had won the Rhodes scholarship, which sends about 100 international graduates to study at Oxford every year. I could see that most of the names belonged to white students.
During the assembly, new pupils were informed that we had a two-week grace period in which to master the college’s peculiar traditions and hierarchies. We would then be tested on school history and expected to follow local custom to a T. Over the grace period, I anxiously crammed the college mottoes, the names of all the prefects and captains of sports, the history of the founding fathers and the first six pupils to attend the college, the numbers of Old Georgians who had died in the first and second world wars. At Saints, this was the past that seemed to matter most.
Discipline was important, too. I quickly learned to live in fear of the prefects, senior boys entrusted with meting out punishments for even the most minor transgressions. A careless misstep could result in manual labour – a routine punishment where we had to dig fields and carry bricks for hours in the heat of an unforgiving sun. Even worse was the threat of being sent to the headmaster for “cuts”. I imagined the headmaster’s cane whipping across my tender buttocks, raising a fine welt of swollen tissue. No, thank you.
Saints’s rituals of dominance and sadism were only some of the ways that it taught its boys to accept the logic of colonialism. Wasn’t it only natural that older students ought to wield power over younger ones, or that those who excelled at sports or schoolwork be granted privileges, like the ability to tread on certain college lawns, that were denied to lesser children? Wasn’t it right that those who stepped out of line be forced to labour, or even whipped? These were perfect lessons for a world in which one race thought itself worthy of violently subjugating another. After independence, Saints’s ways were embraced by a Black middle class that had imbibed colonial culture and internalised that culture’s sense of superiority.
For my parents, the decision to send me to this former imperial training ground was a fraught one. My mother was a women’s rights advocate, born in 1957 to a large working-class family in what was then the British Protectorate of Uganda. My father, born six years earlier, grew up under the full weight of racial segregation in Rhodesia, where 250,000 white people, barely 3% of the population, had usurped more than half of the country’s agricultural land and owned almost all of its commerce and industry. Black people were denied the franchise, their movements were controlled by a punitive internal passport system, and they died at heinous rates from chronic malnutrition, high infant mortality and limited access to basic health services. Meanwhile, white people in Rhodesia enjoyed the highest per capita number of private swimming pools anywhere in the world.
Radicalised by the condition of Black people, my father fought against the Rhodesian government in the liberation war that began in the early 60s. During the conflict, my uncles and an aunt were incarcerated by the Rhodesian state, my father was nearly killed on the battlegrounds bordering Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and my grandfather was lynched by Rhodesian security officers.
Following independence, my father joined Zimbabwe’s civil service, and he and my mother began a suburban life that was modest in means but not in aspiration for their son. St George’s appealed to them, as it did to many Black families like ours, because of the cultural and social foothold it provided. Boys from Saints regularly went on to study at Oxford, or play on Zimbabwe’s celebrated national cricket team. But within the cloistered world of the college, the war of independence my father fought seemed to be only half-complete.
Formal segregation in Zimbabwe had ended nearly two decades earlier, but even in 1999 the college signalled its prestige through its racial makeup. We had a white headmaster and a white rector. The teachers with the strongest reputations for excellence were white. We also had a high percentage of white students, about half of the student body in a country where white people made up less than 1% of the population.
Without quite realising it, this was a racial logic I readily accepted. In his memoir of growing up white in Africa, the Zimbabwean writer Peter Godwin recalls meeting a handful of Black students at Saints in the 60s: “They didn’t want to discuss African things. They wanted to be like whites. They spoke English without much of an African accent.” I suppose I was much the same. I barely spoke Shona, the language my father was raised speaking, but had a fluent command of English. I resented white racism but aspired to the cultural capital of whiteness.
It was obvious, though, how conservative white Zimbabweans – “Rhodies”, Black people call them – saw me, whether I wore Saints’s red blazer or not. “Chigudu,” one white classmate said to me, “what’s the difference between a nigger and a bucket of shit?” I looked at him blankly. “The bucket,” he chortled.
Early on, I committed myself to the art of survival at Saints: mine was a two-pronged strategy of conforming to expectations and never questioning authority. I kept a low profile throughout my first year, maintaining a steady, mediocre performance in all aspects of school life. My mother worried I might cede whatever talents I had to this strategy, and urged me to be more ambitious. I took heed and, around the time I turned 14, I started to apply myself seriously in my studies. I refused to be defeated by Thomas Hardy’s dense prose, I agonised over the difference between ionic and covalent bonds, I memorised Latin noun declensions. I began to excel academically, and found the success intoxicating. But as I grew in enthusiasm for Saints, I failed to notice another way that colonialism was still operating at the college: we were learning almost nothing about the troubled country that lay beyond those black gates.
Ignorance of history serves many ends. Sometimes it papers over the crimes of the present by attributing too much power to the past. Perhaps more often, it covers up past crimes in order to legitimise the way society is arranged in the present. As a teenager, I saw these dynamics play out in the former colony of Rhodesia. I would later discover how much more potent they were in Britain, the metropole.
By the turn of the millennium, outside the walled-off kingdom of Saints, Zimbabwe’s colonial legacy was unfolding in dramatic and violent ways. Although formal segregation had ended in 1980, the world that apartheid built had never fully ceased. By the beginning of my second year, the country was descending into what would soon be called “the crisis”.
Throughout the 90s, the government of Robert Mugabe, who had been in power since independence, had lost popular support. Corruption, economic austerity, the country’s involvement in a war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and a failure to fully address the fundamental problem of who owned Zimbabwe’s land – white settlers or Black Africans – all threatened Mugabe’s power. A new political party arose that claimed to stand against Mugabe and for the values of democracy and civil rights.
Mugabe responded by blaming all of Zimbabwe’s problems on its history of colonialism. And no figure was more foundational to that history than Cecil Rhodes. In 1877, Rhodes called for the British, “the finest race in the world”, to rehabilitate “the most despicable of human beings” by bringing them under British dominion. Two decades later, he paid for the conquest of Rhodesia with the profits he had extracted from Black labourers in his South African gold and diamond mines. After seizing land from Africans, Rhodes’s British South Africa Company forced them to toil on it as indentured labourers. As one early biographer put it, Rhodes “used blacks ruthlessly … giving them wages that made them little better than slaves”. This was the basis for the apartheid regime that existed in Rhodesia until political independence.
It was true that Rhodes was a racist and imperialist who built a society based on racism and exploitation. But Mugabe used this history to deny the corruption of his own regime. He made white farmers the scapegoats for the country’s economic problems and tarred the opposition as un-African. He argued that the values his political rivals stood for were a cover for neoliberal policies that, like colonialism before them, would only serve to exploit Zimbabwe on behalf of the west. Real nationalism, Mugabe said, was about finishing the anti-colonial liberation struggle by taking back the land.
In 2000, bolstered by Mugabe’s rhetoric, Black war veterans began occupying commercial farmland owned by white people. The occupations spread widely across the country. They were sponsored by the ruling party, while partisan militias carried out evictions on the ground. In less than five years, the number of white farmers actually farming the land dwindled from about 4,500 to under 500, while as many as 200,000 Black farm workers lost their jobs, and often with them their homes. About 10 white farmers were killed by militias, while the number of black farm workers killed by the same militias was just under 200, with many thousands more suffering violent assaults.
The foreign and white media soon introduced its own distortions into the crisis, portraying the occupations as a racially motivated attack against white people, and not as a violent political uprising rooted in the complex history of colonialism. At home, my father praised Mugabe and lambasted western powers as hypocrites who preached democracy but practised imperialism. He had no patience for the opposition party, whose members he saw as stooges serving the interests of white capitalists in Zimbabwe and Britain. I later came to see the land seizures as acts of political and economic grievance that answered directly to Zimbabwe’s colonial history, and to feel that, in many ways, Mugabe and my father were right: real emancipation from that history could not be accomplished if white people still owned more than their share of the land.
At the time, though, I accepted their arguments in part because I connected the aims of the land struggle with my distaste for the racist Rhodies I was surrounded by at Saints. But then Mugabe took aim at schools. He argued Saints and its ilk represented a refusal of former colonisers to fully acquiesce to African leadership (again, not entirely wrong). His Ministry of Education attempted to implement a state-controlled curriculum that would teach Mugabe’s version of history. I panicked. I was supportive of decolonisation if it ended with farms, but schools were another matter. I worried that I would be forced to sit local exams that lacked the credibility to earn me university admission overseas. The thought of going to university in Africa had not even occurred to me.
The educational reforms I dreaded had not come to pass in private schools by the time I completed my O-levels in 2002, but Zimbabwe was facing economic and political meltdown. Sanctions were soon imposed on the country and Mugabe was condemned by western governments, the media and NGOs for human rights violations. My comprehension of “the crisis” was rudimentary, but I saw its effects in my daily life. Even in the wealthy bubble of Saints, textbooks and chemistry sets were suddenly in short supply. Inflation and therefore school fees spiralled out of control, forcing staff and students to leave the college in droves. The headmaster was arrested after accusing Mugabe, in racist terms, of rigging that year’s election.
Though my parents believed in redressing the colonial theft of African land, like many other Black parents of their class, they recognised that their children would have better educational opportunities outside Zimbabwe. So in 2003, I joined a wave of young Zimbabweans emigrating for education abroad. My mother travelled with me to England and deposited me at Stonyhurst College, a 400-year-old Jesuit boarding school in rural Lancashire on which much of Saints’s architecture and pedagogy had been based. She cried all the way down the school’s near mile-long driveway.
It wasn’t until arriving in England that I began to appreciate that colonialism had furnished not only Zimbabwe but Britain, too, with fiercely held national mythologies. In both countries, colonialism had left behind ideas and institutions that stood in the way of a more honest reckoning with the past.
At Stonyhurst, I felt like I had stepped out of Saints’s pantomime version of English boarding schools and into the real thing. But I was taken aback by the view of Zimbabwe I soon encountered. If Mugabe liked to claim that colonialism was the cause of all the country’s problems, many of my new classmates were equally simplistic in blaming them entirely on Mugabe. One even suggested that recolonising Zimbabwe might end its woes. To a large extent, they were parroting the British and international media, which portrayed Mugabe as an icon of evil fixated on murdering white people. Even Hello! magazine devoted a five-page special on Zimbabwe to covering the death of a white farmer. Little to nothing was said, in the media or elsewhere, of Zimbabwe’s colonial legacy, or of the suffering of Black people under Mugabe’s regime.
At the same time, it was dawning on me how little I myself knew about my own country. I began to read more about Zimbabwe’s history, and was startled by what I found. In particular, I had known nothing about the Gukurahundi massacres perpetrated by the state following the war of liberation. In the worst case, as many as 20,000 civilians from the Ndebele people were murdered by the Zimbabwean army over a period of five years in the mid-80s. It was a double shock: not only at the size of the atrocity, but at the scope of the ignorance I had been encouraged into at home and at school.
Having once been proud of my success at Saints, I was suddenly ashamed at how sheltered and privileged my life had been. Motivated by an uneasy combination of guilt, idealism and a longing for home, I resolved to become a doctor and go back to Zimbabwe to help heal the nation. After finishing at Stonyhurst I took up a place at Newcastle University to study medicine. I was one of very few Black faces in the medical school, and the only one from continental Africa. Racism was no less common than it had been at Saints, but it took a variety of forms. Sometimes it was direct: I was called a “golliwog” by patients while on clinical rotation and told to “fuck off back to Africa” on nights out in Newcastle city centre. More often, it was subtle and patronising: white students touched my hair without my consent or expressed incredulity at the eloquence of my spoken English. One even called me “the whitest Black man I know”.
The more my white friends made it clear that I didn’t fit their notions of what it meant to be Black or African, the more I, too, questioned the authenticity of my Blackness. At the same time, in Zimbabwe, people like me were cast as sellouts who preferred their former coloniser to the motherland. I felt as if I was losing my grip on who I was. For a while I sustained myself with my fantasy of returning home to treat the sick. But, as Zimbabwe’s crisis grew larger and larger, my clinical training felt inadequate. Back home, inflation was out of control. On a visit in 2008, I bought an ice-cream sundae in a Harare suburb for 38 billion Zimbabwe dollars. Public services, including healthcare and sanitation, had largely disintegrated. Major shortages of basic commodities – such as fuel, cooking oil, bread and water – compounded the effects of political turmoil and violence. Cholera was competing for lives with one of the highest HIV rates in the world.
By the time I qualified as a doctor in 2010, I regularly spent my quiet night shifts in the hospital reading books about Zimbabwe and Africa. Most of the ones I could find in local bookshops were accounts by western journalists and memoirists who decried aspects of colonialism but thought African politics was ineluctably despotic. In light of what Mugabe had done to Zimbabwe, many of these authors argued, maybe colonialism wasn’t that bad.
Not everything they said about colonialism or Mugabe or Africa was entirely wrong, but little of it struck me as entirely right either. In a sense, I was shedding the world and the worldview I had been inducted into at Saints, but I wasn’t quite sure what I should replace it with. Once again, I felt at sea. I decided to commit myself to studying African history and politics, in the hopes not necessarily of helping my country, but simply of better understanding it. After three years of practising medicine, I left the NHS and took up a scholarship at the University of Oxford, where I once again found myself directly in the shadow of Cecil Rhodes.
When I arrived at Oxford in the autumn of 2013, I was surprised to discover the ghosts of Zimbabwe’s colonial past all around me. None haunted the place more than Rhodes, who had been a student at Oriel college in the 1870s, and later gave £100,000 – about £12m in today’s money – to the university through a number of gifts and bequests. Most striking of these to me was Rhodes House in central Oxford, a gathering place for recipients of the scholarship. (To my great unease, the Rhodes scholars I met often referred to themselves with the same term Black Zimbabweans refer to racist white people – “Rhodies”.) Rhodes House is a grand building in the style of a Cotswold manor, with one conspicuously incongruous feature: on top of the building’s copper-clad dome perches an enormous soapstone carving that I recognised immediately – the Zimbabwe bird.
The sculpture is a copy of one of a half dozen or so 11th-century bird carvings stolen in the late 19th century from the ancient city known as Great Zimbabwe, in the country’s south-eastern hills. Rhodes believed the sculptures too sophisticated to have been fashioned by an African culture, and attributed them instead to a Mediterranean civilisation. In time, I came to see the carving atop Rhodes house as the negative image of what would soon become a much more famous statue: a larger-than-life likeness of Rhodes that peers down on to Oxford’s High Street from a niche high up Oriel college’s facade, above a Latin inscription thanking him for his munificence. If the statue of Rhodes portrayed him as a great benefactor, the Zimbabwe bird stood for the wealth extraction and human exploitation on which Rhodes’s fortune was built, as well as for the racist ideology that helped him justify his colonial programme.
Colonialism continued to shape Oxford in less concrete ways, too. I wasn’t there long before I learned that the dim view of Africa and Africans held by Rhodes had been shared by many of Oxford’s most esteemed historians. Hugh Trevor-Roper, who for a quarter century held Oxford’s most prestigious history chair, infamously pronounced in the 60s that there was no African history, “only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness.” Before Europeans brought history to Africa and places like it, Trevor-Roper went on, there was merely “the unedifying gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe”. This was only a touch crasser than what a Fellow at Balliol College said to me at a dinner in my second year at Oxford: “African politics? What a mess. How could you possibly fix that?”
Among the handful of Oxford scholars who actually studied Africa, however, most had a nuanced understanding of the continent and shared my disgust at Rhodes. William Beinart, who was then the Rhodes Professor of race relations, quipped that his title was an embarrassment, like having the position “Goebbles Professorship of Communication”. But although my professors at the African Studies Centre were rigorous scholars, I couldn’t help but notice that they were all white. This is true throughout academia: there aren’t a massive number of Black people in the UK – only about 3.3% of the population – but there are far fewer Black academic faculty (about 2%) and about 140 Black professors in the whole country.
My studies and my family’s history as colonial subjects came together most painfully in a seminar on the history of political imprisonment and punishment in Africa. My father had told me little about his incarceration in a Rhodesian prison during the liberation war, except to say that the conditions were “inhuman” and that the prison guards caned his buttocks so badly that they streamed with blood and he couldn’t sit for weeks. Now, in Oxford, I spent every Friday morning in a sterile seminar room where Prof Jocelyn Alexander guided my classmates and me through a discussion about how colonial states – most dramatically, settler states like Rhodesia – employed corporal and capital punishment, mass incarceration and labour detention on a large scale as a means of creating social order in Africa and shoring up white political domination.
Of course, white domination and colonialism wasn’t just something that happened in or to the colonies. The more time I spent in Oxford, the more I realised how colonialism had remade the entire material and intellectual world of the British empire, especially its most elite university. Oxford is strewn with tributes to men of empire who have scholarships, portraits, busts, engravings, statues, libraries and even buildings dedicated to their memory. Christopher Codrington, a slave plantation owner, bequeathed £1.2m in today’s money to All Souls College to erect one of the university’s most magnificent libraries (which, until last year, bore his name). George Curzon, the viceroy of India who presided over the Indian famine of 1899-1900 in which about 4 million people died, is memorialised at his alma mater, Balliol. Augustus Pitt Rivers, a 19th-century colonial officer, founded Oxford’s archaeological museum, which long doubled up as a storage facility for loot stolen during the British empire.
From the start, the quest for knowledge of Africa was motivated by the aim of conquest. Even today, African studies has an air of the 1884 Berlin Conference, which heralded the “Scramble for Africa” – but instead of European powers claiming and trading different parts of the continent, it’s mostly white scholars staking out their territory and asserting expertise over ethnicity in Kenya, democracy in Ghana or refugees in Uganda. After I stayed on at Oxford to pursue a doctorate, I began attending African studies conferences throughout the UK, only to find mostly white scholars talking to predominantly white audiences.
In other words, I was surrounded in Oxford not by the ghosts of colonialism, but by its living dead. As at Saints, colonialism at Oxford had never really ended, and couldn’t. It wasn’t a period that had passed, but a historical mass that bent everything around its gravity. As I had in Newcastle, I began to question the strange place I occupied in this contorted world. Every day, I left Africa more completely, while becoming more intimately involved with the colonial project that the university represented. In a sense, I was complicit in that project – but I was also alienated and angered by it. I was at a loss about how to navigate the ambiguities of my position.
Then, on 9 March 2015, a student at the University of Cape Town hurled a bucket of human shit at a statue of Cecil Rhodes. Suddenly, everything that I and many of my fellow Black students had been feeling about Oxford came into sharp focus. A movement to redress the colonial legacy of neglecting and denigrating Black students was afoot in South Africa. Before I knew it, I would become a leader in a fight to remake Oxford, too.
We called our work decolonisation. There were several dozen of us – Black and brown students who were born in Britain or its former colonies, African American students who saw links between decolonial politics and anti-racism work in the US, and a number of white students. Our goal was to slay the racist ideologies that still held sway in various disciplines, to bring more Black people into academia at every level, and to end the glorification of the men who had dedicated their lives to advancing the colonial project. The scale of these ambitions was core to our politics. We were not interested in half measures or compromises with institutional racism. We knew it would be an uphill battle. As one of my friends cautioned me, “You know what they say about Oxford, Simukai? ‘Change is good. But no change is better.’”
To draw attention to the fight, we decided to focus on a single object, the statue of Rhodes on Oriel college’s facade, borrowing the name of the student movement in South Africa: Rhodes Must Fall. I had originally opposed this tactic, worrying that focusing on the statue would obscure our larger mission. But my friend and fellow organiser Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh eventually convinced me that the fight over the statue would be an important litmus test, revealing just how committed – or resistant – the university and its various members were to ending racism in all its forms.
The first action of Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford was to protest a debate at the Oxford Union Society on the legacy of colonialism in May 2015. We wanted to press the point that colonialism was not a thing of the past. When we arrived at the debate, we discovered to our astonishment that the Union had inadvertently beaten us to the punch: the bar was advertising a cocktail called the “Colonial Comeback” with a flyer depicting Black hands in manacles. Racist attitudes were obviously alive and well. We posted photos of the flyer to social media, and they soon went viral, prompting national outrage.
A few months later, in November, Rhodes Must Fall organised a 300-person strong protest outside Oriel college. Ten times that number had signed a petition demanding that the statue of Rhodes be taken down and housed in a museum. Protesters condemned the statue as “an open glorification of the racist and bloody project of British colonialism”, and people chanted in call-and-response, “Rhodes Must Fall! Take it Down!”.
I tracked the protest from Harare, where I was researching my PhD, gathering harrowing testimonies from human rights activists, politicians and the urban poor about how they had suffered during the country’s 2008 cholera outbreak, in which 100,000 people were infected and more than 4,000 people died. I wanted to understand how a simple bacterial infection became a public health disaster and a political scandal in a country that once boasted the best healthcare system in Africa. Countless western critics laid the blame for this crisis at the feet of Robert Mugabe. Mugabe’s government hit back with an absurd counternarrative claiming that the cholera outbreak was racist, terrorist, biological warfare from the west to undermine African sovereignty. I asked one doctor, a friend of mine from Saints, whether he believed in the government’s anti-colonial rhetoric. “I am anti-colonial and anti-neo-colonial,” he said, ruefully. “I know that Great Britain is wealthy in part because it has plundered countries like ours. Nevertheless, our leadership has failed us.”
When I returned to Oxford in January 2016, I began debating Rhodes Must Fall at student society meetings, colleges, other universities and in the press. Were we historically illiterate, attempting, as some of our opponents ironically charged, to “whitewash” history? Unlike many of our critics, we at least recognised that the statue of Rhodes did not actually exist in the past. It is not a sterile historical relic, or some accurate record of prior events. It is a piece of self-conscious propaganda designed to present an ennobled image of Rhodes for as long as it stands. (Mugabe was using a similar strategy when he tried to rewrite Zimbabwean history.) If anyone was trying to erase the past – specifically the history of subjugation and suffering on which his fortune was built – it was Rhodes. I had to wonder why many eminent white commentators were so attached to him.
The ultimate point was never to weigh the soul of Rhodes, and find out whether he was “really” a racist. It was to try to uproot the racism in the soul of the institutions built in his image. It was apparent that many of our critics, even some of those who knew something about colonial history, couldn’t appreciate how Rhodes and the colonial project had intimately shaped lives like mine. They couldn’t fathom the ways in which colonialism had never really ended.
As a collective, we thought we were making progress on our aims when Oriel College pledged to launch a six-month listening exercise to gather evidence and opinions to help decide on the future of the statue. But, a mere six weeks later, in late January 2016, the college reneged on this pledge, stating that it would not remove the statue of the imperialist on the grounds that there was “overwhelming” support to keep it. It was later revealed Oriel stood to lose £100m in donor gifts were it to take down the statue. I was crushed, and for a long time it seemed like Rhodes Must Fall had failed.
Four years later, in May 2020, I sat alone in my flat in Oxford watching the video of the brutal torture and murder of George Floyd at the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin. After my shock came anguish and rage. For days on end, I consumed the news and commentary on the killing, until my mind was foggy and my body ached. I can’t tell you if I thought about my father’s father, who was murdered by the Rhodesian state before I was born, but I know that, like many Black people, I experienced Floyd’s death as an intimate and personal trauma. If you have ever been on the sharp end of anti-Black racism, it is not difficult to identify with the suffering of other Black people under all kinds of racist regimes.
Ten days after Floyd’s death, the heads of all the Oxford colleges – every single one of them white – wrote an open letter in the Guardian claiming that they stood in solidarity with Black students and affirming their commitment to equal dignity and respect. I immediately thought of Gary Younge’s piercing observation that white people periodically “discover” racism “the same way that teenagers discover sex: urgently, earnestly, voraciously and carelessly, with great self-indulgence but precious little self-awareness.”
It had been four years since Rhodes Must Fall had seemingly dissipated. There had been a few small changes at the university – Hugh Trevor-Roper’s name was stripped from a room in the history faculty – and at least one more substantive reversal: the Pitt Rivers Museum began repatriating some of its stolen works. (Dan Hicks, one of the museum’s curators, has since written that Rhodes Must Fall “shattered the complacency” at the institution.) But the main aims of our work had not been far advanced, and the statue of Rhodes still stood.
I had remained in Oxford, completing my doctorate before being appointed to the faculty as an associate professor of African politics. As one of the few people from the first wave of Rhodes Must Fall who was still at the university, I was asked to speak at an antiracism protest on 9 June. I stood before a crowd of thousands gathered on Oxford’s high street outside Oriel College, beneath the Rhodes statue. As soon as I took the microphone, the words “Rhodes Must Fall!” came out of my mouth with a guttural force that I couldn’t contain. The crowd responded with thundering applause.
On 17 June, Oriel College’s governing body expressed its wish to remove both the Cecil John Rhodes statue and a plaque commemorating him. To implement this, the college launched an independent Commission of Inquiry tasked with considering the Rhodes legacy and wider concerns about inclusivity, access and experiences of Black and other minority ethnic students at the college. A formal decision to remove the statue is expected later this year. Meanwhile, All Souls College removed the slaver Christopher Codrington’s name from its iconic library, and University College appointed the first Black head of a college in university history, Valerie Amos. Progress is slow, and never inevitable, but it can visit even Oxford.
I am often asked how I feel about being an associate professor at Oxford, specialising in African politics. Do I see any contradiction in working for the institution that I am agitating to change? Who is the target audience of my writing – privileged, often white students, or my fellow Africans? The answers to such questions are long. However, there’s a fallacy in thinking that Africa is where I am needed most. Yes, I remain committed to writing about the combustible politics of the country of my birth, and I hope the true promises of liberation will be fully realised one day. But Oxford, Britain, and the west must be decolonised, too. Essential to this is advancing a richer, more complex view of the imperial past and its bearing on the present. Zimbabwe is not Britain’s troubled former colony – it is its mirror. As the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe humbly put it: “I would suggest from my privileged position in African and western culture some advantages the West might derive from Africa once it rid its mind of old prejudices and began to look at Africa not through a haze of distortions and cheap mystification but quite simply as a continent of people – not angels but not rudimentary souls either.”