On 6 December 2017 Rhodes University Council issued a rather strange statement on why the university’s name will not change. It reads like a case for the defence crafted to bolster the case for the prosecution.
After a lengthy circumlocution around finances, we get to the case for the defence. The facts not in dispute are that Cecil John Rhodes was an “arch-imperialist and white supremacist who treated people of this region as sub-human. There is also a general consensus that there is not much to celebrate about him and the way he went about doing things.”
That would seem to be pretty much the case for the prosecution conceded at the outset. However, as factors in defence, the statement goes on to note that Brown University in the US is named after a slave trader and that Fort Hare is named after a British colonial officer.
What is not mentioned is that there have been arguments for renaming Brown and Fort Hare. Also missing is context: the revelation of Brown University’s insalubrious past occurred centuries after the event and Fort Hare, widely regarded as a site of struggle, has many illustrious alumni in liberation politics.
The question then is: has Rhodes really transcended the legacy of the imperialist white supremacist whose governance of the Cape Colony prototyped racist policies later honed under apartheid?
Paul Maylem’s recent history (Rhodes University, 1904–2016: an intellectual, political and cultural history, 2017) is illuminating. While English language universities under apartheid generally kept up appearances of liberalism and even sometimes were a space for progressive politics, Rhodes lagged far behind its bigger siblings to the extent of acquiescing in apartheid and even openly supporting racist policies and segregation.
The list of honorary doctorates conferred during the apartheid era is revealing. These include no less than three senior apartheid figures. The first of these, in 1954, JH Viljoen, education minister in the Malan and Strijdom cabinets, was the architect of segregated higher education. Next, in 1962, State President (a ceremonial role at the time) and apartheid hard-liner CR Swart was honoured. In 1967, the university awarded an honorary doctorate to National Party Administrator of the Cape, Nico Malan. To this we can add a 1992 award to Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker, infamous for delaying Namibian independence to suit cold war goals.
Rhodes is also noted for providing the trigger for the split of the Black Consciousness Movement from the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) in 1967, when Steve Biko found it unacceptable to be offered inferior segregated accommodation.
Something that really shocked me as a graduate of University of Natal (now UKZN), Wits and UCT is to read in Maylam’s history that Rhodes held an official commemoration in the Great Hall when Verwoerd was assassinated in 1966. While most universities do not celebrate assassination, no matter how vile the personage, a commemoration of Verwoerd is inconsistent with liberal values. Council at the time issued a statement extolling him as a “great leader”, noting his “high principles and integrity”.
Where Fort Hare educated liberators, Rhodes educated the likes of Ian Smith who took his country to a protracted bush war before Zimbabwe achieved independence. While black South Africa was being deprived of rights, Rhodes was honouring the oppressor.
Through much of the apartheid era, the university at best kowtowed to apartheid, at worst actively celebrated it. While brave individuals took on issues like forced removals, that was not the broader institutional culture.
All of this is very much in the spirit of Rhodes’s vision for Africa where the white man (gender intentional) reigned supreme and the black African was there to serve and be demeaned. So deep was the university’s reverence for Rhodes that the university celebrated Founders Day on 12 September to mark not the founding of the university, but the start of white settlement of “Rhodesia” – a date changed as recently as 2004.
So what is the connection between Cecil John Rhodes and the university? He was already dead when the precursor college was founded in 1904; the name was chosen in part to persuade his estate to part with money. Otherwise, the connection to Rhodes is purely metaphorical. It is the university of the white supremacist imperialist by choice.
So there is a far stronger case than at Brown University of Fort Hare to make a clean break with the past.
Can Council make this break? It issues a statement acknowledging that Rhodes was an imperialist white supremacist but nothing can be done because we can’t afford to rebrand. That is a very narrow view of the financial position. If the university relaunched itself as the intellectual home of a liberated Africa, it could seek funding from a much wider pool; funders willing to make the break from imperialism and white supremacy must surely be a growing resource.
As a funder, if on a modest scale, it really sticks in the craw to give up my hard-earned cash to support an institution that cannot let go of an ignominious past. I can only do so on the basis that I am supporting students who do represent what the university should be.
If there is one good argument for not changing the name, it is that the university has not made a clean break with the past. This is not as much an argument against changing the name but an argument for holding off on name change until it is clear that the university really has changed. Name change without underlying real change – such as naming residences after liberation heroes without changing an institutional culture that coddles sexual violence and white supremacy – is a sham.
Every university in South Africa, other than two started in recent years, was in some way complicit in apartheid – some much more than Rhodes, some much less. Universities are long overdue for a Truth and Reconciliation process that honestly examines their past and puts them in a position to move forward with a new consensus on their culture and identity. Without this, we risk tensions based on unhealed wounds rising again as they did over the last two years.
The author is an associate professor of Computer Science at Rhodes and a member of its 2016 Sexual Violence Task Team.