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‘Rhodes Must Fall’ activists face backlash after receiving Rhodes scholarships

A student at the Cape Town university takes part in a protest against a statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes, rear, on display on the university campus near the city of Cape Town, South Africa. Image via AP/Schalk van Zuydam.

Two South African student activists in the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campus movement now face criticisms from the public after being named as Rhodes scholars for the class of 2017.

They were among nine South Africans awarded the prestigious international scholarship for postgraduate study at the University of Oxford.

Joshua Nott and Mbalenhle Matandela, both graduates of the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa, had been staunch supporters of a campaign that began in 2015 to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from the UCT campus.

According to activists, Rhodes, a British businessman who later became a South African politician, was a symbol of racism and colonialism.

The statue became the centre of protests, and one month later, UCT ordered the statue removed.

From there, a wider movement to “decolonise” South Africa’s education spread across the country and to other universities, even those overseas.

However, after the winning scholars were announced, many feel that Nott and Matandela have changed their tune for the price of £40,000 – the bursary awarded to each recipient to study at Oxford University.

Nott appears to have received the brunt of the criticism, though, and has been branded a “hypocrite” or “sell-out” by detractors.

In response to the criticism, Nott said that he has “no regrets” in accepting the scholarship offer, as he intends to use the scholarship to “defeat the very ideals of what it originally stood for”.

“When the Rhodes Must Fall campaign began, it was less about the statue and more about student transformation at Cape Town University,” he said.

But he believes that the movement has since “become very un-intelligent”.

South African student activist Joshua Nott. Image via Facebook.

“I think protests should not be degraded to that level. But you can only get your voice heard if you engage in extreme or violent protests,” he added.

Nott also waved aside claims that his family’s wealth should make him ineligible for the scholarship.

“If an underprivileged person could affect as much change, I would easily renounce it, but I firmly believe in myself as someone who can affect immense macro change,” he told the Telegraph.

The 23-year-old hopes to study towards a Bachelor of Civil Law at Oxford’s Oriel College, that also hosts a Rhodes statue in which a similar campaign for removal was unsuccessful. Nott said that he has no intention of joining or reviving the movement at the college.

Previously, he had been quoted likening the Rhodes statue to having “a swastika in Jerusalem”.

Meanwhile, Matandela, 23, considers the scholarship as “an opportunity to learn more about the African diaspora” and further her other intellectual interests.

While at Oxford, she plans to take a Masters in Philosophy in development studies.

Speaking to local media outlet Sowetan Live, Matandela said: “For me‚ it’s about redress. I’m a person of conviction, so me being a Rhodes Must Fall activist was about linking up different struggles that highlight the expectations of Rhodes as a colonialist. Me being at Oxford and having this specific scholarship‚ I’ve come to think of it as reparation.”

She added that the Rhodes Trust, the awarding body for the scholarships, currently does not consider historical disadvantage in its selection criteria, but now hopes to change the system’s flaws from within‚ particularly for the southern African region.

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