Skin Deep meets Women from Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford

Written by Skin Deep


A few weeks ago Anuradha Henriques from Skin Deep met with three women of colour from the Rhodes Must Fall Oxford (RMFO) movement: Athinangamso Esther Nkopo, Tadiwa Madenga and Roseanne Chantiluke.

As a movement Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford has received wide coverage both within the UK and internationally. RMFO is not a movement looking to be discovered. If anything, it is a movement that suffers from being overexposed and is largely misrepresented. Our decision to interview women from the movement was based on a desire to allow these women to speak for themselves and to relate what their lived experiences of the movement have been so far. We wanted to have a serious conversation about the role of women of colour in activism today, to have their role acknowledged and their presence represented. So often, in dominant narratives of movements, the roles that women play are largely written out and women are only inserted retroactively. This interview was an attempt to make sure that that did not happen with RMFO, a movement which has actively sought to be intersectional. It was also an attempt to offer an alternative perspective on how the media has portrayed the movement thus far.

It seemed appropriate to share our conversation with these women on International Working Women’s Day.


Anuradha Henriques: What is the origin story of both Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) and Rhodes Must Fall Oxford (RMFO) as you understand it?

Athi-Nangamso Esther Nkopo: The origin story of Rhodes Must Fall is kind of long and old. I guess at the University of Cape Town in South Africa the conversations about decolonising the curriculum, the university space, emerged 17 or 18 years ago when Professor Mamdani was still teaching there. But he was dismissed, and the conversation kind of died down. But there continued to be a pursuit of some kind of transformation project. This project being an attempt to include more black South Africans in an effort to change the way the university, a historically white institution, looked and was perceived. But the Rhodes Must Fall Movement itself began early 2015.

AH: Very recently then.

AN: Yeah, when students started to protest against the statue of Rhodes. But of course, like RMF Oxford, there were a lot of other things around that: grievances about representation at the university, about the curriculum, about access to quality higher education. And I guess it all came to a climax when one guy came through with a bucket of shit and threw it on the statue. And then students in Cape Town were able to get the statue removed from the campus and relocated, but also get the university to make some real concessions about some of their demands pertaining to outsourced work.

Roseanne Chantiluke: I was here last year during my final year of undergrad. There was the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa, and other similar movements such as Black Lives Matter and protests against the colonial institution at UCT and its practices. I remember what was formerly known as the Black Students Union came about in Oxford out of this desire to mobilize students that identified as black, be it politically or otherwise, and mobilize within the problematic microcosm that is Oxford. For various reasons it was dissolved. But the main reason, I think, was because of the use of ‘black’ in the name, and what that meant.

Tadiwa Madenga: I guess what was different with RMF as compared to other movements is that what was going on in South Africa brought the term ‘decolonisation’ to the forefront. Before with the ‘I, too, am Oxford’ campaign we were working off the back of a lot of things that were happening in the US, but the nice thing about African movements is that they stress the word ‘decolonisation’. Now, if you look at the Oxford Race Symposium, it’s kind of the major word. But if you look at the way we were mobilizing 2 years ago, it was not necessarily at the core or the forefront of what we were actually talking about. So I would say that was a major shift.

AH: The popularised version of the RMFO narrative is one in which women are largely absent. How justified is that?

AN: I think that is precisely the problem with coloniality – it is also patriarchal. The movement in terms of the organising committee and the people I’ve been able to interact with is predominantly women. It is quite deliberately an intersectional movement that isn’t just about one issue. I think the movement is, at least in a way, very deliberately a feminist movement. I think it would be a travesty if black women of African descent didn’t find their place in this movement.

AH: I totally agree. Having been here when the movement was forming, a lot of those who were doing the organising were women.

RC: As Athi was saying, here, from day one, there has been a network of women and women of colour, and African women from both the continent and the diaspora. I think RMFO has always considered itself as intersectional. That’s a word that has been banded about a bit, but we have had conversations in the past about what intersectionality actually looks like in practice. Women are present and organising in the movement, but it doesn’t mean necessarily that it’s non-hierarchical. Or at least suffers from symptoms of hierarchical patriarchal structures that it claims to be fighting.

TM: I guess historically the feminist and certain race movements, and even the queer movement, have always borrowed things from each other. But a lot of times, when the media talks about it they will talk about each movement separately.

AH: Definitely. This intersection of race and gender is something the media hasn’t really talked about. They have their agenda and want to show a certain angle, which is a very narrow perspective of what the RMF movement is working to achieve. And more specifically, race and gender within decolonization isn’t something that has been centered at all in the public discussion about RMFO, and so it hasn’t really been challenged. People haven’t really asked how your brand of decolonization is different from the decolonial efforts of the 20th century. Because, one could argue that decolonization in postcolonial contexts is primarily presented as an effort to redefine the project of nation formation, to delink it from its colonial legacy and to define the nation in homegrown terms. There is a lot of emphasis on reclaiming the indigenous, and sometimes in the process of doing so the indigenous becomes romanticized and we forget that indigenous culture itself is quite patriarchal. Do you think that RMF, which defines itself as a decolonial movement, has been able to overcome the sexism that overshadowed some decolonial movements of the 1960s and 70s?

TM: There is quite a difference between decolonial movements by certain governments and by student activism. So in a Zimbabwean context, ZANU-PF is obviously very much about the indigenisation. To them it is the way in which they have formatted dealing with the history of colonialism. They are also working within a political structure that is very reactionary; the way in which they frame their form of decolonisation is very much based on how they are they are trying to respond to the West, how they are trying to stay in power in their own country. Part of the problem with England is that you had these colonies and these colonies are now deeply tied to you, but at the same time they are seen as autonomous nations. It’s not logical. You still have these economic ties, you still have these power structures. The student movements have necessitated a more transnational discussion in a way that governments might not do as much because they are also invested in staying in power, and dictating their own national identity.

AH: There is a lot of emphasis being put on RMFO being a leaderless movement in which non-binary people, women and men play equal roles. Given how the media has framed the movement, focusing on particular figures, and the fact that we live in a patriarchal framework, do you think it is possible for a movement to remain both leaderless and intersectional? How do you keep from reproducing the hierarchies that define our everyday life?

RC: Another buzzword that has been thrown around a lot is ‘horizontality’, the idea that there is a level playing field between members of the movement and not this hierarchal pyramid which, as Athi said before, is symptomatic of colonialism. It’s all well and good saying we have no leaders, but there is always a select group that do more than the hundreds of people who come to the general assemblies and claim they want to take part in this horizontal form. On a logistical level personally I think it is a thorn in the side of RMFO. It means people who are willing to take on more work get pitted as representatives of the movement wholesale. And that’s where you have certain people targeted by the media. Not least because they are male but also because of the lack of initiative being taken up by other members.

AH:  Yeah, and it’s easier said than done. For us, when the RMFO movement was forming last year, we were about to sit our finals so our involvement was restricted.

AN: I think that the British media has also begun to weave its own narrative; they’ve been making up leaders. Nobody ever said Ntokozo Qwabe is our supreme leader. The media have cherry picked, hounded and then portrayed certain individuals as our leaders because those people are very easy to take out. It’s easier to take out a person than a group. Because none of us can understand what it means to experience a decolonised world it is easy to forget that being leaderless doesn’t mean you are a movement without leadership, it just means you don’t have individuals who are leaders. The British media have been strategic in who they choose as a leader, because in white dominated Great Britain what you want is a scary black man from Africa who is trying to destroy the delicate and beautiful thing that you have. Unfortunately they found very un-scary black men. It was really a feat to say that Ntokozo was our leader, and then you see a picture of him… So while I think having a flat structure of leadership is difficult to live with, difficult to get anything done with, I think it is important to pursue.

AH: I want to talk a little more about this notion of specificity of context that came up earlier. In Oxford you are fighting against these hierarchical structures that have been in place for a long time – they are the foundation on which the whole university was built and is run. Do you think that a leaderless movement is more viable in a context like South Africa, where the movement has a much larger following than here in Oxford?

AN: Honestly I think the place that needs RMF the most is Oxford, because a lot of questions in South Africa are no-brainers. Like the question of having the statue of a mass murderer overlooking a university campus. The vice-chancellor at UCT (University of Cape Town) didn’t have a legitimate counter argument. You have an indigenous majority in South Africa, you have people who already know that something is a problem and that action is needed. In 2015 South Africa it’s a no-brainer that that statue’s got to go. In Oxford, you still have to talk about what racism is! I think that is telling about how deep the work that needs to be done at Oxford is. We are in a university that tells the world that it is the best, the most prestigious, where knowledge is produced. So the implications for the success of a decolonial movement happening at Oxford are wide-reaching, but also probably very urgent because the pedestal that the world puts this university on is one that means it has the capacity to create an impact. If things can change at Oxford, then things can change everywhere else.

RC: That reminds me of David Cameron the other day, jumping on the ‘diversity’ bandwagon. He comes out with his noble comment: did you realise that Oxford University only admitted x amount of African students last year, it’s a disgrace!

TM: The issue with that is, once again, it is a way in which the system appropriates popular things that are happening without ever actually questioning how they came to happen or what the issue is. You can’t accept the solution of diversity without engaging the problem for more than 2 minutes with the idea of institutional racism. It’s like what do these people think caused the diversity issue?!

AH: The irony of that statement!

RC: It’s like, David Cameron, David Cameron, David Cameron. Not only were you a member of the Bullingdon Club. Did you not just cut maintenance grants? It’s just delusional. The fact that you can come out and say we need diversity when over Christmas you completely out-priced people from low income families from the university market. That is just ludicrous!

AN: You oversee a country where the people that occupy the low income bracket are  primarily people of colour and black. But that’s not the disgrace, the disgrace is this one university.

TM: That’s why I also think it’s important to recognise the word that they will never use, which is decolonisation. They will always only ever use diversity. There is a reason they don’t want to even touch that word.

AH: This is one of the final questions I have for you: If we are truly to decolonize our minds and the institutions that we are a part of, we need to be able to imagine alternatives. What role, if at all, do you think artwork and creativity play in helping produce counter-icons and counterculture?

TM: Most of  the movements right now are aesthetic movements, in the way that they started. Part of the way in which all of these interconnections happened was through social media and through photos, right? So the statue that is on top of Oriel College, people have probably been taking photos with their children. There was something aesthetically jarring about having students with their fists raised in a very memorable, recognisable black power type of way under the statue. As the first photo of the movement it demonstrated solidarity with the movement in South Africa but also framed the discussion that would come in a particular way. The conversation about the statue became a conversation about how you decorate a city. Thinking about art or aesthetics is central to this university. When the Vice-Chancellor talks at Matriculation, he says something like ‘Do not be deceived by the beauty of Oxford’ –  

RC: Did he use a swan analogy?

TM: I was like I am not deceived! Bring back our treasures! And it was this thing of what we have created is so wonderful and glorious that we know we are seduced by it. So I think that is a very important part of the movement, alongside debate, passing motions etc. This country, the way it was built, the artistic imagination was based on plunder. And now they are saying we can’t take down this thing because it represents our glorious superiority. Art is sophisticated, it’s civilization. What is civilized about killing people in order to make these decorations? I remember talking to my South African tutor about this. I was like I walk around and it’s so beautiful it’s depressing. Because you know this was only possible if something perverse happened.

All: YES!

TM: It’s so excessive. Also Oxford has tried to not have that be part of the conversation. They have tried to say: only debate in this particular way, that way we know you are intelligent. Then we know you have a point. So I think with a lot of these movements, when you do protest it’s a very artistic venture. Ntokozo’s speech at the protest at Oriel was not something that Oxford was expecting. He said I am not going to sanitize this speech. I am going to quote what Rhodes said, and I am not going to look at you.

AH: The two representatives from Oriel College were uncomfortable. You could see it in their physical reaction to his speech.

TM: You have Ntokozo saying ‘this is what he said to my people” – this man with an accent who is black, who is wearing his UCT sweatshirt. And you have these white people. There is something visually striking about that.

RC: I’ve been reading work by Welsh Marxist academic Raymond Williams, and he is all about art and literature as being transformative. I agree with many of his theories; I think art, aesthetics, literature and poetry have a dimension that is transformative, but can also be co-opted, especially in a place like this. I remember a couple of years ago an Aboriginal Australian student from Trinity College had his work showcased in Hall. They took down the old white men and put his paintings up. And that was amazing, but we could tell that Trinity as a college were so self-congratulatory about it.

AN: I think art is really important to debunk all of the notions that are embedded in the epistemology that produces the kind of coloniality we are inside of. Art and aesthetics say the things that are unsayable, the things that we are unable to deal with but a lot of people are going through psychologically and emotionally by just being in this place. A professor from SOAS said this about the RMF movement: it is appealing to a thread that runs at the very foundation of this university. And in a lot of ways that work can’t just be done by just talking, or writing academic pieces or making speeches. A lot of that work has to be done by capturing the space and exposing all of the things that we are seeing all the time, but can’t say anything about.

There is much about the action of the South African movement that has been emboldening. When the shutdown happened the vice-chancellors and people with big positions came through and said we need a delegation, a boardroom, etc. The students were like nah, that shit is over. You are going to sit down here with us at this occupation. You are going to be here all night until you have heard everything that we have to say. Then you’ll leave. One vice-chancellor said, “I can’t make a decision, only the Council can”. So at 7pm the Council arrived, they were told ‘sit down gentlemen.’ They were there until 5am the next morning.

AH: Wow.

AN: The students said sign here. And if you come back without resolving these things, there will be no exams, there will be nothing. We will stay here. We don’t want to hear your long rebuttal, we know your long rebuttal. You’ve been talking about transformation for 21 years.

AH: What RMFO is doing is forcing the university to be self-reflective and consider learning from their students.

AN: We are providing a curriculum. This is class. School is on. But nobody is taking notes.

RC: And even when you break it down, debate, and win the student vote in the most hostile institution within this university – the Oxford Union – Oriel college can still come back and say: actually, nah. It becomes so frustrating.

TM: It’s obvious that we have our work cut out for us. It can get disheartening but it has to happen.

AH: Debate in England is a very middle-class private school way of entering into conversation/dealing. If you don’t know the format and formalities you’re automatically at a disadvantage. Class is an important part of this conversation and for a lot of people in the UK, class is the primary framework through which they see and understand inequality. In South Africa, concerns about the disenfranchisement of working class South Africans have been addressed by affiliate movements of RMF like #FeesMustFall. In what ways do you think that RMFO has addressed the intersection of race and class?

AN: This is something South African students are having to work out – the intersection of race and class, and how the particular way that one functions is informed by the other. In South Africa, one of the most unequal societies in the world, an average white family earns six times more than a family of colour, but a black family earns substantially less than any other race category. Race structures class. So they intersect, and they are equally important in terms of the way in which the individual goes through their life. And they are informed by an underlying ideology that structures society: white supremacy. In Oxford we have to ask why the Union, which is respected as the headquarters of debate all over the world, is a middle upper class white male dominated space.

TM: The West says one of the most important things about itself is this notion of free speech. We secure free speech, which ensures that debate and democracy are interlinked. Then you have the Oxford Union who say they are politically neutral, “we even let Malcolm X speak here”. They think they preserve this idea of debate and free speech. But is it free to go to the Union?

AH: It costs over £200.

TM: Exactly. We can’t even afford to go to these Union events. And then they say that the people who debate have to be the best high profile people. And it’s only when they realise that RMFO is in newspapers that they invite us to speak. The West has an obsession with defining itself as the bastion of debate and democracy. They think real democracy is people who can pay to get into the Union or allowing people who are popular enough through their doors.

And in terms of class, the working class in England are asking this certain group of elite people: why is all the wealth within the hands of a few?

But I think that what RMFO is trying to do is also talk about a global economic structure, not just a national economic structure. If you are going to talk about class in England, you also have to talk about class in the world. The things that people in the West get to benefit from are due to the resources of other places. What’s more, I know moving from one country to another my class completely switches. You can see the differences in the hospitals etc.

AN: I think the class position that Oxford puts itself in – via people like Rhodes, via donors at Oriel college right now – is scandalous. It completely compromises the academic process. Because if this university sanctifies money as it does, to the point where money can shut down the academic process, then this isn’t a global academic institution; it’s an imposition on the world. It’s the richest people imposing their prestige on the rest of the world without ever having to prove legitimacy. Because like I said, we are providing a space, opening up a space to do all of the things that the academic enterprise is supposed to be about: debate, free speech, consultation, democracy. Oriel College says we are going into a 6-month listening process where we will talk to all of the stake-holders, students, boards etc. And then some people with money come to Oriel college and say nah, that’s not going to happen, we’re going to take away all of our money. And then Oriel College says fuck all the beautiful things about academia and what we as a university pride ourselves on, what we tell the world we exemplify. We’re just going to have to keep this money, and that’s the end of that. And we never consulted a single student, we never consulted anybody except those guys with money. That completely reframes where we are. And I think RMFO has given the opportunity for those things to lay bare, in a way that they haven’t, without critical engagement, with the way that Oxford wants to think of its history, of itself on a pedestal. In a way that it, via Rhodes, and subsequently its donors, has sanctified money, has entrenched a class position that has nothing to do with all the things it says it’s about: academic rigour, democracy, free speech, openness.

AH: These all get brushed under as soon as some cash comes along.

RC: As someone who has spent the last five years of my life voluntarily in this place, I have come to consider class in terms of where you are at and not where you are from. Having profited in many ways, having a masters scholarship from this place, and having had five years of an elitist middle-class education, I can’t necessarily claim to be on the same footing as family and friends back home. I do talk about these issues with family and friends back home, and they are like ‘so it’s all well and good and noble with the whole statue thing, but how are you going to make sure I get my JSA on a Friday’ and things like that. And there is a disconnect that I personally find quite difficult and jarring.

When people just hear that you are fighting a statue, that you are fighting something in your Oxford context, it seems divorced from everyday realisms of being working class, of racist violence and class discrimination. And I think RMFO needs to make sure they remain relevant by putting the focus not on the statue of Rhodes, but everything that it symbolises: capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, and everything that is supported in that regard by this university.


The photo is a National Women’s Day protest against violence against women at the National University of Lesotho, colourised by Arieh Frosh.