Rhodes University: A demand for transformation

Roughly two weeks ago, amid a flurry of online racial insensitivities, the Black Student Movement (BSM) occupied the Rhodes University Council Chambers, which they promptly renamed “the Black Student Movement Commons”. The sit-in, say the BSM, was an attempt to engage with the Senate about what they say is inequality at the university and injustices faced by marginalised students.

This is what two students, Tiger Maremela and Nkcubeko Balani, of the BSM told the Mail & Guardian on the phone. They refer to the university as “the institution currently known as Rhodes”, and want to see transformation through the abolishment of restrictive elitist fees and the employment of more black lecturers and academics, not simply assistant lecturers, an apparent short cut by the university in order to fill a ‘quota’.” 

They also want to see “the creation of a learning environment that is conducive to the black student for whom English is not a home language and the differently abled student”, as well as the development of a curriculum “from one that is Eurocentric and/or Western to one that acknowledges the rich intellectual literature written by global South scholars”, said Balani.

With their fists raised and singing struggle songs, the BSM marched into the chambers on the top floor of the Rhodes administration building in Grahamstown on the afternoon of August 26. With leather chairs, big wooden tables, and large, paned windows, it is here where the hierarchy of the university gather when crucial decisions are to be taken. Now, members of the BSM eat and sleep in the hall. 

The occupation was in protest at the university’s policy that all students unable to vacate their residence rooms for the March and September holidays would have to pay a “rental” fee of between R2 080 and R3 900. The university has now agreed to scrap the fee. But the confrontation was far from over, as the senate then held a meeting elsewhere on campus to which the BSM were not invited. They marched on the meeting but were locked out. Police were called and the meeting was disbanded. The BSM now say they will continue with their sit-in.

South Africa’s universities were very different just a year ago. A bronze statue of Rhodes still stood at the University of Cape Town. Transformation remained but an idea. The statue of colonial authority was smeared with excrement and the institutional dominoes started to fall. The residences at Rhodes, named after freedom fighters of the past, now house freedom fighters. Transformation has become a demand.

2015 has seen the rebirth of student activism, and placed them alongside the crucibles of activism so entrenched within the country’s roots. The conflicting opinions surrounding the sit-in have resulted in several online clashes between students on the Rhodes Student Representative Council (SRC) Facebook page. A stream of comments erupted when a white student labelled BSM’s efforts as disruptive to “anyone who doesn’t give a flying fuck about this whole racism/transformation issue”.  

Shortly after, a screenshot of a group chat on Facebook was posted on the page with the same student having used the K-word to refer to a white friend of theirs. One white student asked: “How exactly are you people oppressed?” The post has since been deleted. Rhodes University was founded in 1904, and with about 8 000 students, is the smallest university in the country. Last year the university appointed its first black vice-chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela.

A firm advocate for transformation, Mabizela’s unassuming demeanor is not replicated through his stance on the future of the university, “We must, in the first instance, embrace diversity and celebrate difference,” he said in document sent by the Rhodes communications department. “However, as an institution of higher learning we must go further than that and use the power of civil and reasoned argument, logic and debate to engage differences with a view to narrowing them, breaking new ground and enhancing and deepening shared understanding.”

“We must engage in robust debate and discussion, avoid making unjustified generalisations and unfounded, injurious and racist accusations. Above all, we must respect each other’s views.”

While the subject of name change has been a recurring theme in the university’s recent history, the likelihood for change has never been as real as it is now. Steve Biko, Ellen Kuzwayo, as well as Ruth First have all been mentioned as potential new benefactors for the institution’s name. While important, a new name doesn’t promise a new reality.

“Transformation, as well as the decolonisation of this institution, can be abled through conversation. These conversations do however have to be structured and facilitated to ensure that all voices are heard and that hate speech is not incited. Hopefully, the bigotry which permeates the walls of ‘Rhodes’ being uncovered would allow for the honest dialogue regarding what should belong or what does not belong in a transformed institution” said the BSM’s Balani.

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