‘Colonial comeback’ poster causes uproar at Oxford

A poster advertising a debate on reparations and a Colonial Comeback cocktail special to go with it has fueled a growing race fire at what some students are calling the “imperialist” Oxford University.

But a group of South Africans who are part of the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford movement say the incident is just symptomatic of a legacy of “violence and racism” at the United Kingdom university.

The topic ‘This House believes Britain owes reparations to her former colonies’ was debated last Thursday at an event organised by a debating society, the Oxford Union.

But a group of students representing the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford movement made their anger with the topic of the debate and its accompanying poster clear by silently protesting during the debate. They held posters saying: “Who will speak for me?” and “Brutality should not be debated”.

Student and Leader of the movement, Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, said the movement believes “that there is a threshold of violence and brutality beyond which debate becomes a tool in the postponement of justice”.

“It is no longer feasible to debate ‘whether’ colonial reparations should be offered, but how.”

Originally from Johannesburg, he has studied at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and is now in his second year of a master’s in Philosophy specialising in International Relations at Oxford.

Another student and member of the movement, Roné McFarlane, said the poster was “clearly racist and incredibly offensive to people across the world who are still bearing the consequences of slavery and colonialism”.

Having studied at Stellenbosch University and UCT she is now studying towards a master’s in Science in comparative and international education at Oxford.

“The fact that it was possible for someone to think this poster is acceptable, points to a racist institutional culture not only at the Union, but in Oxford University as a whole. We must not make the mistake of seeing the cocktail in isolation.”

The movement’s leaders met with the Union’s leaders last night about the incident and released a statement this morning saying it had played a key role in getting the Union, “one of Britain’s oldest debating societies, to acknowledge its own institutional racism”.

The movement, joined by several other university socieites, said it got the Union’s governing body to “pass a motion to acknowledge that the Union is institutionally racist”.

The Union did not respond to the Mail & Guardian’s questions by the time of publishing.

The movement was launched in solidarity with the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which started at UCT in March. It now wants the university to also acknowledge that it is institutionally racist.

Mpofu-Walsh said it “has a long way to go in addressing its climate of black marginalisation, and institutional racism”. 

“I find it ironic that at one of the world’s leading centres of academic excellence, such ignorance persists. In some ways, the university is far behind South Africa. In South Africa, at least many people understand that we have a problem to address. In Oxford, we still need to educate people that there is even a problem.”

But university spokesperson, Julia Paolitto, said the Union is legally separate from the university and the university has no official control over its activities that occur only on union premises.

She said there is “no place at Oxford for the kind of crass and insensitive attitude that the material produced by the Oxford Union suggests”. 

“If students were to display such material on university premises, the university would immediately take action.”

She said it is a “top priority for Oxford to identify and address any ways in which we can better ensure students feel safe and well represented at Oxford, both by institutional policies and the way they are treated by their peers”.

“Last year we held a joint summit where University staff and members of the student union and the student-led Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality discussed issues raised by students and agreed on a set of concrete steps, including substantial work to review its curriculum in several subject areas with an eye to ethnicity and diversity, working in consultation with minority ethnic students.”

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Victoria John
Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011.

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