It was not that long ago (fine, maybe a year or so, but I always have a delayed reaction to events) that there was a “Rhodes Must Fall” movement across the universities of Oxford and Cape Town. Phrases such as “Institutional Racism” and “Decolonising Education” were being bandied about amongst the general vibe of protest. I, like many others, didn’t believe too much in the actual arguments of the protest. Rather, I saw it more as an act of frustration by underpriviledged black students who had been promised so much by a democratic government, but could still barely afford university fees. To make matters worse, these students would come to campus every day and see classmates driving less than a kilometre in the BMW their parents had bought them. All of this was about inequality I thought. But whilst some are fortunate enough to have wealthy parents, I thought that others not so fortunate could just work hard enough to get there. Although I did not know what it felt like to not have money to pay for my rent or food, the experience of having far wealthier classmates who took their luxuries for granted was known to me.
And so I interpreted “Rhodes Must Fall” as being a common vent of frustration for the downtrodden, and dismissed ideas of there being any deeper meaning to the whole thing. It is probably pertinent to mention here, that I spent the best portion of a year walking past Rhodes’s statue every day, and I still can’t remember what pose he was in. My ignorance at the man, and his history, probably suggests that I don’t even deserve to have an opinion on this issue, and I guess that for a long time I did not. Personally, I am quite sure that I am not the only one who lives in such a guilty-but-indulgent state of ignorant bliss. And its definitely a problem in modern society that we have computers and the internet at our fingertips, but still don’t know shit (this obviously puts us in prime position to vote for referendums and other weighty issues, since of course, everyone’s voice needs to be heard).
And as many of these demonstrations turned out, a compromise was eventually reached between the university and the students, and things kind of moved on. The “Decolonising Education” argument was quietly brushed aside (in a politcally correct way of course), since it would mean “Going back to the Stone Age“, or because “Decolonising education” involves not learning maths, or because “decolonising education” supposedly involves getting rid of peer review. (Yes, the last link is kind of cherry picked and not very legitimate. But the first link is the first article I read about this).
The point about maths was an interesting one for me, since most of the arithmetic that people use in their daily lives and remember from school isn’t all from the Western World (Hint: There is a reason why the numbers on your keyboard are called “Arab numerals”). While we are quick to deride the protester’s proposition that their curriculum should be more African (since let’s face it, there is not much science that originated in Africa, bar the advances of the Egyptians from which Pythagoras is rumoured to have got his theorem from — no I’m not a complete anti-west propoganda machine), we seem to quietly skirt around how our body of “general knowledge” avoids the cruelty of the west and collonisation.
Colonisation is a great example: Hitler is everyone’s villain of the 20th century, and will probably go down as one of the most evil men ever. The rottenness of this apple might never be seen again. And while he most certainly was a bad ‘un, about as many Indians died in the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 (and caused by colonial rule) as Jews in the holocaust. In fact, this list of genocides (really fun weekend reading) doesn’t include any of the numerous colonial crimes (and I’m not only talking about Britain, but other European countries like France in West Africa and Belgium in the DRC and Rwanda and other things I don’t know about).
According to Shashi Tharoor’s book (which I haven’t read yet – also, note how I am using his name like I actually know him), Britain’s colonisation of India was the “greatest crime in all history”. Besides the mass killings, India’s share of the world’s GDP apparently decreased from 23 per cent to just above 3. This kind of suggests that the argument that European nations were more technologically advanced (and bought this to the countries they were pillaging) is flawed – without great technological prowess of their own, India wouldn’t have been generating a quarter of the world’s GDP at that point.
At least Germans feel complicit for the holocaust, and feel shame about it. Europe pretends colonisation didn’t happen. That’s why people still watch the Queen’s birthday, or the princess having a baby or whatever. And then the Brits vote for Brexit and tell immigrants to fuck off from their country. It’s only in Macbeth that the queen can’t wash the blood off her hands. In reality, the British aristocracy have been doing it for centuries.
We have become so desensitised to the Palestine-Israel conflict that we have never bothered to find out what the Balfour Declaration was, and how the British Mandate of Palestine became Israel. Similarly, the Sykes-Picot agreement is not part of the everyday lexicon either. Therefore, when it comes to terrorist attacks, we assume its by some reckless, bloodthirsty barbarian who has no reason to bear a grudge against whichever European country the attack is in. A mindless attack by some people in that Middle East part of the world where all the psychopaths come from. It’s easy to be Islamophobic and blame religion, but harder to understand how a few hours of preaching can suddenly radicalise a young man (it would be great of school teachers were this effective).
So all of this may not be exactly what those Rhodes Must Fall protesters were saying about decolonising education. But their argument about how their education is wrongfully shaped by the powers that fucked them over so badly that they are still feeling it today is.
We’ve all been told how history is written by the winners. We just never bothered to ask which winner wrote ours.