Opinionista Ntombizikhona Valela 26 March 2015

The Rhodes to Perdition: Why Rhodes was never ready for the BSM

Rhodes University has not witnessed anything like the Black Students Movement in its history, and it continues to underestimate the Movement by regarding its campaign as “silly” (as the university’s registrar put it) because Rhodes was never designed to accommodate black students.

In the past couple of weeks university students from Wits, UCT and Rhodes have been making a call for the transformation of the institutional cultures at the abovementioned universities. Wits students from the Political Studies Department issued a demand for the change in the curriculum in order to include African and global South thinkers from Frantz Fanon, to Lewis Gordon, to Angela Davis. UCT students are currently engaged in a campaign to have the statue of Cecil John Rhodes removed and Rhodes University students, in particular those belonging to the Black Students Movement, have made a call for the change of the University’s name as part of getting the ball rolling on achieving meaningful transformation.

The Black Students Movement (BSM) consists of a group of students interested in transformation at Rhodes University. BSM 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.

BSM 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.


Photo: CPU Security lock students out of the admin Main Admin building to prevent them from meeting with the Vice-Chancellor. (Kate Janse Van Rensburg)

The issue of the name change at Rhodes is not new. Since the 1990s and more especially since 1994, there have been forums and debates around the name change. There have been conversations regarding the need to address racism that is deeply entrenched in the institutional culture at Rhodes. However during these moments the university has managed to avoid real transformation by disguising racism behind the veil of bureaucratic rhetoric, liberalism and Purple identity.

Through projects like Purple Thursday and this constant mobilising of students under the banner of “Purple blood”, Rhodes has managed to avoid questions around race and class differences. Purple identity creates the illusion that we are one, that there is no intersectionality and complexity, and that in reality every student enters the university from varied backgrounds.


Photo: BSM member Lihle Ngcobozi addresses Dr Stephen Fourie on behalf of the movement demanding to know why BSM has been prevented from entering the Admin Building. (Kate Janse Van Rensburg)

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 waged by students across the country is also happening at a time in South Africa’s history where we are dealing with more than just the post-Apartheid moment. We are in the post-Marikana moment. After 1994, it seemed highly unlikely (if possible) that a group of human beings would be shot and killed by state police considering the nation’s history of police brutality under an unjust Apartheid regime.

However, we are dealing with the reality that the colonial structure is not dismantled; therefore it should not come as a surprise that protest would be met with such violence.

At Rhodes, the Black Students Movement’s peaceful mobilisation has been met with responses that reflect the tactics of a police state. However, this should not come as a surprise since the Head of Security is a former member of the South African Police.


Photo: BSM member Fezokuhle Mthonti addressing BSM after Dr. Fourie’s inadequate response and his reducing BSM efforts as nothing more than silly. (Kate Janse Van Rensburg)

It is ironic that all of this is happening in the month of the Sharpeville massacre that occurred on 21 March 1960, where 69 people were shot and killed while peacefully protesting against the unjust pass laws of the Apartheid regime.

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 at the average age of over 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 regarding this issue. Young people face an uncertain future of employment and financial security. It therefore it is no surprise that today’s young person is 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. However, there is the reality of black students who are not as affected by inequality as others because of having attended private or former model C schools. Some of these students do not have the burden of having to urgently find jobs, once they graduate, in order to provide for their families as well as pay off student loans. Some of these students can afford to buy into the illusion of Purple identity.

However, many black students are not satisfied with the status quo and the existence of the Black Student Movement is evidence of this.


Photo: One of the BSM members Joseph Coetzee listens as we are addressed by the registrar. (Kate Janse Van Rensburg)

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 university’s 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. However, with the emergence of a new kind of student in a different political moment nationwide, where young people 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 or not Cecil’s final fortress will stand. DM


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