When people I meet find out that I am part of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, I am sometimes faced with inquisitive looks as they try to process the oxymoron they have just heard. How could Nelson Mandela partner with Cecil John Rhodes, a colonialist with a controversial legacy, especially in Southern Africa? Was this an act of crass opportunism, a genuine attempt to redeem an imperialist figure, or something else entirely?
What attracted me to apply for the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship was its vision and purpose. The foundation aims to help build new generations of exceptional leaders in Africa based on the principles of reconciliation, education, entrepreneurship and leadership.
It does this by providing funding for postgraduate studies and offering a year-long leadership development programme that encourages scholars to engage fully with the principles and their application within the complex challenges we face as a continent. It was only once I attended the leadership workshops as a scholar that I began to appreciate what this truly meant.
Throughout my year in residence my fellow class of 2007 scholars, drawn from around the continent, were given a safe space by the foundation to grapple with the legacies of Mandela and Rhodes. Any observer of these discussions would have been intrigued to discover that the views on Rhodes – and even on Mandela – were as diverse as the people participating in the debates. What did it mean for us to be taking Rhodes’s money? How wise was it for Mandela to join their names in perpetuity?
There were high emotions and tense moments but, above all, there was a genuine commitment to explore how we acknowledge the injustices of the past while heeding Madiba’s call to us to help construct a more humane African society.
In January this year, now as a facilitator of the foundation’s leadership development programme, once again I was part of the vigorous debate about Mandela and Rhodes as the new cohort of scholars wrestled with this strange partnership. Professor Njabulo Ndebele, now the chairperson of the foundation, noted in an interview in 2013 with the Berkeley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs that “the two names side by side engender unflagging energy, because the tension in their interaction is ultimately irresolvable as a constant spur to reflection on the possibilities, and the difficulties, of people living together in history”.
Madiba certainly never sought to sanitise Rhodes’s image and did not seek to redeem the man through this act. For Mandela, the joining of his name with Rhodes in this specific venture was an opportunity to close a circle of history and to create, out of plunder, educational access for young leaders who would create a more just world.
More than 275 of these scholars have contended with this Mandela and Rhodes question. In their debates, Rhodes is spared no criticism and offered no easy praise. Neither is Mandela.
The heart of scholars’ concern is how we build a new continent, where it is possible to contest the most emotional, fraught and difficult legacies of our history.
It is also about reckoning with the reality of leading a continent shaped by the two eras represented by these names – colonial expansion and liberation struggles – and finding the possibilities that can ensure we try to create a better life for all the people on the African continent. Over the past decade, Mandela Rhodes scholars have gone in pursuit of just that, with many already in influential positions in academia, business, government and civil society.
The current debates about the Rhodes statue are not singularly about Rhodes. This is clear from the students’ broader agenda, and the conversations it has sparked on campuses such as Wits and Stellenbosch, which do not necessarily have a direct linkage to Rhodes. In my analysis, the protests and debates are about seeking to define new possibilities and contest assumed truths. And in true Mandela Rhodes complexity, some of the strongest proponents of the “Rhodes must fall” campaign are Mandela Rhodes scholars, whereas other scholars are vocal opponents.
My hope is that the contestation embodied in our name and the injunction to reckon with legacy as a critical part of the process of building for a just future becomes more alive during these debates.
May the Mandela Rhodes juxtaposition help our scholars to tap into the common principles that underpin the foundation, and find wisdom and new insight as they walk this complex journey.
We must try to ensure that the process itself is one that liberates. One of Madiba’s most enduring principles was that our freedoms are bound up with each other.
In Long Walk to Freedom he noted: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
As the document, The Characteristics Sought in a Mandela Rhodes Scholar implores, may we all believe that the advancement of individual and social fulfilment, human rights, dignity and the achievement of fundamental freedoms is among the highest of callings.
Judy Sikuza is the programme director of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation in Cape Town
Going purple won’t help students
In the past few weeks students have been calling for the transformation of the institutional cultures at Rhodes University and the universities of the Witwatersrand and Cape Town.
Wits students from the political studies department demanded that the curriculum be changed to include African and Global South thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, Lewis Gordon and Angela Davis. UCT students are engaged in a campaign to have the statue of Cecil John Rhodes removed.
Rhodes University students, in particular those belonging to the Black Student Movement, want their university’s name changed as a way to get the meaningful transformation ball rolling.
The movement was born from conversations about personal experiences of marginalisation and the inability of students to cope in an environment of structural, class-based and intellectual oppression. It provides an open and democratic space where all students are leaders and have the right to voice their views in a safe space. After all, this is the institution where leaders are supposed to learn.
The issue of changing Rhodes University’s name is not new. Since the 1990s, and in particular since 1994, there have been forums and debates around the university’s name.
There have been conversations about the need to address the racism that is deeply entrenched in the institutional culture at Rhodes. But the university has managed to avoid real transformation by disguising racism behind the veil of bureaucratic rhetoric, liberalism and purple identity.
Through projects such as Purple Thursday – based on the university’s corporate identity – and mobilising students under the banner of “purple blood”, Rhodes has managed to avoid questions about race and class differences.
Purple identity creates the illusion that we are one, that there is no complexity. Yet, in reality, every student enters the university from a different background.
Purple identity seeks to nullify the fact that, given South Africa’s apartheid history, many students will become first-generation university graduates at either the undergraduate or graduate level, or both.
This wave of campaigns by students across the country is happening at a time when we are dealing with more than the post-apartheid moment. We are in the post-Marikana moment. After 1994 it seemed highly unlikely (if even possible) that a group of people would be shot and killed by the police, given the police’s brutality during apartheid.
Yet we are dealing with the reality that the colonial structure is not dismantled and it should not come as a surprise that protest would be met with such violence.
At Rhodes, the Black Student Movement’s peaceful mobilisation has been met with responses that reflect the tactics of a police state. This should not come as a surprise because the head of security is a former member of the police.
It is ironic that all of this is happening in the month of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre when 69 people were killed while peacefully protesting against the unjust pass laws.
The political climate at the national level is no longer the same. For the past 20 years, the face of political engagement and thought has been an elder – someone more than 40 years old. South Africa’s first democratically elected president was in his 70s.
The current president is in his 70s. South Africa has a young population that is facing high unemployment rates and a government that is dragging its feet on this issue. Young people face an uncertain future for employment and financial security. It is therefore no surprise that they are disillusioned with the so-called post-apartheid era that is supposedly “alive with possibility”.
Rhodes University is also dealing with a different type of student. The demographics are no longer the same. The majority of the student body is black.
But there are also black students who are not as affected by inequality as others because they attended private or former model C schools. Some of them, once they graduate, do not have the burden of having to find jobs urgently to provide for their families and pay off their student loans. Some black students can afford to buy into the illusion of purple identity.
Still, many black students are not satisfied with the status quo and the existence of the Black Student Movement is evidence of this.
Rhodes University has not witnessed anything like this in its history and it continues to underestimate the movement by regarding its campaign as “silly” (as the registrar put it) because Rhodes was never designed to accommodate black students.
The university’s liberal agenda has allowed for its racism to mutate, thus fitting into this democratic era without truly transforming.
But, with the emergence of a new kind of student in a different political moment in which young people nationwide are challenging the notion of the rainbow nation and whether we can truly say we are in a post-apartheid era, it remains to be seen whether Rhodes’s final fortress will stand.
Ntombizikhona Valela is a masters’ student in Rhodes University’s history department and a member of the Black Student Movement