The young Rhodes scholar pushing his bicycle along the Broad is one of several dozen young people chosen every year for postgraduate study at Oxford university. He has distinctly mixed feelings about the honour.
“I worry that 50 years down the road I’m going to be embarrassed about being here,” he says.
In Oxford, the name of Cecil Rhodes has in recent months become highly controversial. Last year, a group of students campaigned to have his statue removed, condemning him as a racist imperialist and colonialist who brutally exploited southern Africans.
But Rhodes also established a prestigious scholarship that for more than a century has enabled international politicians, diplomats, scientists, thinkers and activists to study at Oxford, opening doors for them that have in many cases led to eminent careers.
The young scholar, who did not want his name to be revealed, said he struggled to come to terms with having such a gilt-edged opportunity that had its origins in Rhodes’ colonial exploits. “The Rhodes Trust [which administers the scholarships] needs to be doing much more — it needs to reflect on its origins,” he said. “What it is doing now feels like it has no obligation towards southern Africa.
“Rhodes was not ‘a man of his time’, as he is often described, but a man who exploited people. The Rhodes Trust — like many other institutions around here — still has to work out how to handle that.”
The trust, established more than a century ago for the “education of young colonists” who exhibited “moral force of character and of instincts to lead”, today runs an £184m endowment. Alumni include Bill Clinton, the former US president, Susan Rice, US national security adviser, and three Australian prime ministers.
The trust acknowledges the problem of Rhodes’ image. “Confronting historical legacies is something that we encourage,” says Charles Conn, warden of Rhodes House.
This week the trust will increase the number of scholarships, from 83 to 95, and expand its reach to seek out young leaders from beyond the Commonwealth and the US, from where most of them hail, to countries including Syria, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Southeast Asia. An award pays all educational expenses and living costs.
The scholarship was set up for white men to spread the empire . . . [Rhodes] put in place institutions that led to apartheid. If that is not bad, then what is good?
– Oxford Rhodes scholar
Mr Conn, a Canadian and US national who has been running the trust since 2013, says more announcements are due shortly and adds that moving the institution beyond empire is a “significant part” of the effort.
But he denies the impetus for change is the result of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign to have the statue of Rhodes at Oriel College torn down. “No one has protested about the trust giving money to talented young people to study with other talented people,” says Mr Conn, a former scholar.
“No one has protested outside Rhodes House. The protest here is about this physical representation of Rhodes in a town that is full of physical representations of people who have different views from us.”
He has also ruled out changing the trust’s name. Such a move would be “fundamentally dishonest” and “rainbow washing” the truth. “The money came from the development of diamond and gold mines in southern Africa during colonial administration. We shouldn’t pretend that isn’t so.”
Detractors say the move by the trust to expand its scholarships programme beyond the existing geographies is not confronting the past but moving away from it. Given that about 60 per cent of scholars are white, they say, a more meaningful measure would be to divert money away from scholarships awarded to US, Australian or Canadian students in favour of those from southern Africa, where Rhodes’ critics say he did greatest harm.
A group of scholars known as Redress Rhodes, which is working with the trust to address issues of legacy, says on the trust’s website it wants “reparative justice” to be a “more central theme” for Rhodes scholars. Other critics say the trust takes students from schools where few black people attend.
While the trust may encourage tackling Rhodes’ legacy head on, few of today’s scholars are happy to talk openly, perhaps mindful of the vitriol that greeted Rhodes scholar Ntokozo Qwabe when he campaigned to have the Oriel statue removed.
I am not trying to suggest a calculus that by our good works we expunge the founder’s historical sin
– Charles Conn, warden of Rhodes House
Two other recipients of the award declined to speak, as did several black Oxford students, while the Redress Rhodes group refused to comment for this article.
Mr Conn says the trust is bound by Rhodes’ will, which spells out the number of scholarships that should go to American students and puts a cap on the number for those from Africa. The trust is unable to “willy nilly reallocate scholarships”, Mr Conn says, while adding scholars is a better answer to the legacy issue than reallocating the awards.
Furthermore, Mr Conn insists the trust today is a force for good. Scholars are taught about leadership, character and how to “build a life of service”; they learn how to speak in public and are coached in problem-solving skills; and they are put on internship programmes that open doors to high-flying careers in numerous professions. Many of the 5,000 living Rhodes scholars are on hand to offer career advice to today’s scholars.
“I am not trying to suggest a calculus that by our good works we expunge the founder’s historical sin,” says Mr Conn. “Everyone of us who has been the beneficiary of the scholarship carries with us that knowledge of where the money came from, and we all have to come to terms with what it means to be a Rhodes scholar and what duty that imposes on us to do good in the world.”
The young Rhodes scholar who did not wish to be identified is not convinced. “The trust should be taking a harsh look at itself; its administrators are mostly from white western countries,” he says.
“The scholarship was set up for white men to spread the empire . . . [Rhodes] put in place institutions that led to apartheid. If that is not bad, then what is good?”
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