A gathering of Rhodes Fellows travelled to Oxford University, including Durkhanai Ayubi, to challenge injustices or grievances that could be traced back to imperialism.
I recently returned home from time undertaking a Fellowship at Oxford University’s Rhodes House. I was in a space that was devoted to honouring Cecil Rhodes, a man who had apportioned some of his vast wealth to the creation of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.
Rhodes was also a 19th century British imperialist whose wealth came from zealously driving the colonial agenda in South Africa, helping to lay the ground work for 20th century apartheid. Rhodes questioned, “Why should we not form a secret society with but one object, the furtherance of the British Empire and the bringing of the whole world under British rule … for making the Anglo-Saxon race but one Empire?” And the fodder to drive this dream? According to Rhodes, “New lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labour that is available from the natives of the colonies.”
In the lead up to my time at Oxford, I thought about how I might feel in that space, as a ‘native from a colony’ made subject to British rule in the 1800s as part of this very same imperial agenda. My time there was shared with Fellows from across the globe, many of whom were also reconciling the effects of colonisation, including South Africans still harbouring open physical and emotional wounds of apartheid, Indigenous Australians and Maori New Zealanders still embroiled in fights for recognition and sovereignty, and Middle Eastern migrants from occupied lands working with refugees on the Syrian war frontiers.
Each of us was there because of our pursuit in correcting a grievance or injustice playing out in our respective communities, whose root cause was almost invariably traced back to the history of imperialism. Here together, the halls of Rhodes House reverberated with the defiant chanting of African freedom songs, the dancing of the Haka and the beat of tribal drums. We were in short, the unlikely guests of Cecil Rhodes. And this made my experience all the more remarkable, challenging and profound.
Given this setting, the tone of my reflections inevitably turned to exploring the contradictions — both personal, and collective — which impact our experiences. Interrogating these spaces, I feel, can get us as close as possible to the true nature of the state of our existence, however raw that may be. My exploration gave me reason for both optimism and despair.
Being in Rhodes House to challenge the injustices of colonialism was perhaps the most immediate irony I was confronted with. To me, the situation was symbolic of the simultaneous invitation to, and exclusion from, participation in society, which I have seen influence the lives of many who have drawn the short straw in the story of colonialism. In my life, this same kind of irony underpinned my family’s migration as we fled war and violence unleashed by occupying Western forces, supposedly being fought in the name of democracy and liberty.
I listened to similar stories of contradiction from my Fellows. I detected an undeniable and demoralising pattern in how bids for freedom had in some cases begun to take on the same traits of oppression and discrimination that had been engendered against them. I heard people who were asking for their own sovereignty to be honoured, while unable to reconcile that the same right should be upheld for others. I reflected on the resounding power of colonisation reflected through a cultural appropriation so strong, that even the answers to resistance against it seemed to unwittingly lie in coordinating with it and depending on it.
The biggest impediment to justice for those who have been violated through an agenda of imperialism, I realised, is not the predictable contestation of our experience by those who history has crowned a beneficiary of it. It is a failure in our ability to imagine a future that is not made in the image of our conquerors.
A future worth pursuing to me, is one which sees that the stolen hopes and core injustices that the imperial agenda is built on, the very thing that once gave it an appearance of strength and invincibility, is the same thing that may prove to be its undoing as its natural trajectory leads it to the unsustainable realms of wealth too far centralised, politics too far popularised and an environment too long abused. An alternative narrative to that dominated by an agenda of imperialism begins with an alternative vision for the future, in which we realise that the limitations of the human capacity are often set by the contradictions which define us.
Only once we are aware of our all too human flaws, can we build a world radically different to the empire imagined by my host, Cecil Rhodes.