LONDON >> Earlier this year, students at the University of Cape Town successfully pushed for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the imperialist tycoon seen by many as an architect of apartheid.
Oxford University, located in the country of his birth, might be next.
A monument to Rhodes at Oxford’s Oriel College has inspired a petition and protests, along with a vigorous discussion about whether Britain’s colonial past should be judged by contemporary standards.
That has left officials at the school debating whether to remove the statue of an alumnus remembered by some as a ruthless colonialist, and by others as an educational benefactor.
On Thursday, a former Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, entered the debate, arguing that removing the statue would be an act of “moral vanity.”
Like former President Bill Clinton, Abbott is one of around 8,000 Rhodes scholars who have studied at Oxford thanks to a program set up with money left by the British colonialist, who died in 1902.
The campaign to remove monuments to Rhodes has already gained ground. Oriel College wants to take down a plaque to Rhodes on one of its properties, and it will spend six months considering the future of the statue.
Brian Kwoba, a doctoral student, told The Independent newspaper that Rhodes was responsible for “stealing land, massacring tens of thousands of black Africans, imposing a regime of unspeakable labor exploitation in the diamond mines and devising pro-apartheid policies.”
“The significance of taking down the statue is simple,” he added, “Cecil Rhodes is the Hitler of southern Africa. Would anyone countenance a statue to Hitler?”
R.W. Johnson, an author who is an emeritus fellow of Magdalen College at Oxford, compared the campaign to remove the monument to what al-Qaida and the Islamic State “are doing in places like Mali when destroying statues.”
“They are destroying historical artifacts and defacing them,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “I think you have got to respect history. In addition, there are many people in history that are far worse than Rhodes.”
Some British politicians have sought to depict the campaign as a demonstration of political correctness and an effort to erase history, a notion that supporters reject.
Instead, they argue that any commemoration to Rhodes sends out a hostile signal to some modern-day students. To an extent, the debate has also become caught up in a broader discussion about whether the university is attractive to minority students, and is sensitive to them.
Britons were already struggling to define their global role and facing other calls to confront the past, including demands from Caribbean countries that Britain pay reparations for its role in slavery.
Born in 1853, Rhodes attended Oriel College in the 1870s before founding the De Beers diamond empire in South Africa, where he rose to be premier of the then Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896.
Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was named after Rhodes, but he is perhaps best remembered for beginning racial segregation in southern Africa and for his belief in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race.
The campaign against the monument in Oxford, called Rhodes Must Fall, is modeled on a similar group in South Africa, which succeeded in having a statue pulled down at the University of Cape Town.
Abbott’s intervention, which came in an email to The Independent, argued that it was possible to lament that Rhodes “failed to oppose unjust features of his society while still celebrating the genius” that led to the Rhodes scholarships.
“Rhodes was not a campaigner against racism but many of the scholars who are his legacy have been,” Abbott wrote.
“Oxford would damage its standing as a great university if it were to substitute moral vanity for fair-minded inquiry,” he said, adding that “the university and its students should prefer improving today’s orthodoxies to imposing them on our forebears.”
In a statement, Oriel College said that it was starting discussions with the local council about the removal of a plaque commemorating Rhodes, erected in 1906 by a private individual on a property it owns.
“Its wording is a political tribute, and the College believes its continuing display on Oriel property is inconsistent with our principles,” it said.
The statement added that the statue raised more complex issues and that “in the absence of any context or explanation, it can be seen as an uncritical celebration of a controversial figure, and the colonialism and the oppression of black communities he represents.”
The college said that it plans to start a six-month “listening exercise” in February to seek a range of views as it looks for “a positive way forward.”