How Nelson Mandela is used against the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ Campaign

Statue of Cecil Rhodes

When Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) Oxford activists first demanded the removal of a statue of settler colonist Cecil Rhodes from the façade of Oriel College in 2016 as part of a manifesto calling for a decolonisation of the curriculum and improved representation of black and ethnic minority students and staff, the Chancellor of the University of Oxford Chris Patten suggested that if they were not willing to embrace ‘freedom of thought’ they might ‘think about being educated elsewhere’.

Four years on, following the unceremonious dunking of the statue of Bristol’s Edward Colston into the River Avon and amidst the new terrain of debate made possible by the Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd, he seems to have changed tack. Speaking on a segment of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on which I also appeared, Patten invoked Nelson Mandela’s support for the work of the Rhodes Trust to defend the beleaguered colonist. He described how when Mandela signed the agreement that established the Mandela Rhodes Foundation—a joint philanthropic initiative of the Mandela Foundation and the Rhodes Trust—he reportedly looked at a photograph of Rhodes and said ‘Cecil, you and I are going to have to work together now.’

This, for Patten, provided the clinching argument for an acceptance of Rhodes’s iconographic endurance: ‘if it was alright for Mandela then I have to say it’s pretty well alright for me.’

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Dr. Rahul Rao is Senior Lecturer in Politics at SOAS.

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