Theses Doctoral

The Rise of Fallism: #RhodesMustFall and the Movement to Decolonize the University

Ahmed, Abdul Kayum

When a black student threw feces against a bronze statue of British imperialist, Cecil John Rhodes, located at the University of Cape Town (UCT), it sparked the formation of the #RhodesMustFall (#RMF) student movement in March 2015. The Black-led #RMF movement sought to decolonize the university by confronting institutional racism and patriarchy at UCT through a series of disruptive and creative tactics including occupying university buildings and erecting a shack on campus. As part of their decolonization process, black students tried to make sense of their experiences in a predominantly white university by de-linking from UCT’s dominant model of Euro-American knowledge to construct their own decolonial framework comprised of Pan-Africanism, Black Consciousness and Black radical feminism. A few weeks later in May 2015, students at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom who were inspired by the student movement at UCT, created the #RhodesMustFall Oxford movement, using the Rhodes statue at Oriel College as a focal point in their call to decolonize the university.
This dissertation explores the formation of the radical #RMF student movements at UCT and Oxford—referred to as the Fallist movements. I first consider what led the #RMF movement at UCT to adopt a decolonial framework centered on Black radical feminism, Black Consciousness, and Pan-Africanism, and then examine how the #RMF’s decolonial framework generated the emergent idea of “Fallism” that extended beyond the students’ demand for the Rhodes statue to fall. Finally, I assess the ways in which the formation of #RMF Oxford was influenced by the #RMF movement in Cape Town.
The #RMF mission statement characterized the black experience at UCT as “black pain” or as “the dehumanization of black people” informed by the “violence exacted only against black people by a system that privileges whiteness”. In order to better understand their experiences of black pain, student activists de-linked from the university's dominant knowledge production systems that privileged whiteness through its epistemic architecture. The #RMF UCT movement’s de-linking or “epistemic disobedience”, was also employed by students at Oxford who wanted to integrate “subjugated and local epistemologies” into the Eurocentric university curriculum.
Based on this empirical analysis of the #RMF’s engagement in epistemic disobedience at both UCT and Oxford, I argue that the university occupies a paradoxical position for Black and other marginalized bodies: it is simultaneously empowering and dehumanizing; it offers the possibility of acquiring knowledge that could serve as a liberatory tool from the violence of socio-economic marginality (Black liberation), while at the same time, the physical and epistemic architecture of the university can create an oppressive, alienating space for Black, queer and disabled bodies among others (Black pain).
This assertion leads me to experiment with developing Fallism into an emergent decolonial option that emanates from acts of epistemic disobedience to unveil the hegemonic intellectual architecture of the university. Through a combination of 98 interviews, one year of observations, and document analysis, this study offers insights into the formation and evolution of the #RMF student movements at UCT and Oxford, while contributing to a critical understanding of the university’s paradoxical epistemic architecture.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Ahmed_columbia_0054D_15075.pdf Ahmed_columbia_0054D_15075.pdf application/pdf 1.05 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Comparative and International Education
Thesis Advisors
Russell, Susan Garnett
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 7, 2019