For the past few weeks, staff and students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) have been protesting for the removal of a statue celebrating Cecil John Rhodes – arguably the most ambitious and destructive imperialist in the history of Southern Africa. But today, the issues that remain in his wake are far broader and further-reaching than the mere removal of a statue.
On Wednesday last week, a group of Rhodes University students held a meeting to show solidarity with students at UCT, whilst also discussing the name of our own university and the lack of meaningful transformation here. The meeting was closely surveyed by the Campus Protection Unit. Following the meeting, students embarked on a peaceful march to the administration building to raise their concerns. University authorities locked them out with no justification.
The concerns of staff and students at UCT and Rhodes are very clear: the colonial celebration of Rhodes must go and both institutions must move very quickly towards becoming useful and meaningful in the South Africa of today.
Two themes are prevalent in these protests. Firstly the legacy of Cecil John Rhodes; and secondly, the issue of meaningful transformation. Although the first theme began to be debated in Cape Town it is even more pertinent here in Grahamstown, where the university is named after Rhodes.
Rhodes University has hardly transformed from the institution it was in 1994. Rather, a version of aesthetic transformation – that is widely supported not just at Rhodes but by the elite public sphere in South Africa more generally – has been propagated. In spite of some exceptional and progressive black staff members, no real transformation has occurred at the institutional level. Real transformation will entail the radical process of including the methods, people and ideas that have been systematically excluded from our society.
Rhodes University’s colonial name is certainly not arbitrary. Cecil John Rhodes would have locked the same students out of the university. Although Rhodes University prides itself on being a liberal, diverse, universal and accepting space, for many students, Rhodes is not. Rather, it is home for those who are white and middle class, or those who are prepared to assimilate into whiteness and the middle class. For this reason, it seems that Cecil John Rhodes is a fitting namesake.
From the curriculum to casual socialising, Rhodes has a culture of exclusion. Many students do not consider meals like spaghetti bolognaise and lasagne to be ‘default’ meals in their dining halls and they do not consider having a ‘mare’ at the Rat and Parrot or Friar’s as meaningful social interaction. Many students do not speak English as a first, second or even a third language. These students are expected to submit work for which they have to read numerous academic texts in English before writing up their submission in English.
Rhodes University has virtually no support structure for those students who enter their first year from schools that are not English medium model-C schools. (As Ashley Westaway’s recent paper about “dysfunctional” schools points out, the difference between black schools and model-C schools remains 21 years after Apartheid). Barring the few who enter a vastly inadequate extended studies programme, students are expected to fit the Rhodes norm and yet many find themselves in an environment that is hostile both socially and academically. Adapt or die.
Rhodes University’s adoption of English as the only medium of instruction can be put down to matters of practicality and logistics. However, the University’s refusal to provide any meaningful support for numerous students who are expected to read and write in English must be attributed to its continuing colonial legacy.
When asked on a public forum about the lack of support for students who do not come from a background of English medium schooling, a senior pedagogue at the university argued that these students do not deserve special attention because “academic language is foreign to everyone”. As though mother tongue English speakers struggle as much as those who speak English as a second or third language. Anyone who has marked a few essays, exams or tutorials of first year students at Rhodes University will know that this is simply not true. Students are failing their first year not for lack of a work ethic or intelligence. Students are failing because there is absolutely no accessible support for them within the institution.
The name of Rhodes University is undoubtedly an issue that is a ticking time bomb. The name must change and it will change – the question is when and how. But the more fundamental change, which is even more urgently necessary, is a shift away from the colonial logic that this University continues to embody and propagate.
We must be very careful that Rhodes University does not become, say, Stephen Bantu Biko University, whilst continuing to be an institution of which Cecil John Rhodes would be proud. DM
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