Opinionista Lihle Ngcobozi & Kate Janse Van Rensburg 16 September 2015

Rhodes: Students, workers and academics unite against racism

Institutional racism had been a central concern for nationwide student activism in South Africa. At the university currently known as Rhodes, the Black Student Movement has emerged as a movement that is highlighting the challenges of being black at Rhodes and is now also considering the concerns of black academics and workers on the campus.

A new wave of student-led movements at universities across South Africa has ruptured the public image of universities as uncontested terrain. The authority and credibility of university managers and professors has come under sustained criticism. Institutional racism, its intersection with the commodification of access to the academy and the enduringly colonial modus operandi of the assumption guiding teaching and research have been central concerns for nationwide student activism

At the university currently known as Rhodes, the Black Student Movement (BSM) has emerged as a movement that wishes to highlight the challenges of being black at Rhodes. It began as a movement but is now also considering the concerns of black academics and workers on the campus. At a protest on 9 September 2015, members of the National Education Health Applied Workers Union (Nehawu), as well as academic staff committed to decolonising the institution, united in solidarity with the BSM to deliver a memorandum with a list of grievances to the vice-chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, and his management. This kind of solidarity, which is not being seen at South African universities since the 1980s, was a seminal moment in the history of a university widely viewed as the most colonial of the previously white English speaking universities.

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Students march towards workers at the university currently known as Rhodes. The Black Student Movement has made a firm alliance with Nehawu, recognising that decolonisation needs to happen at all levels of the institution.

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Together, students and workers sing and march from the Drostdy Arch to the main administration building. Twenty one years into South Africa’s democracy, the structural inequalities of apartheid still cut into the social fabric. Songs of struggle continue to articulate the precariousness of black life.

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Students, workers and academics unite outside the main administration building, waiting to hand over a memorandum to university management.

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BSM member Siviwe Mhlana with Nehawu member Baba Booi. Both organisations affirm that the struggles of workers are interconnected. The alliance symbolises bridging the gap between the island of white privilege that is Rhodes and the broader Grahamstown community, much of which suffers from desperate poverty.

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BSM member Vuyolwethu Toli hands over a megaphone to Zakade Vena, who is a fulltime shop steward for Nehawu at Rhodes. The BSM has created a space for the possibility of alliances that go beyond issues faced by students.

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Dr Nomalanga Mkhize, Dr Babalwa Magoqwana, Ms Siphokazi Magadla and Professor Enocent Msindo speak on the interconnected struggles of students, workers and academics. Many of the black academic staff continuously challenge institutional culture at the university.

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BSM member Thembani Ma’at Onceya reads the memorandum to the vice-chancellor and management. The memorandum included a detailed list of demands challenging institutional culture and calling for decolonisation.

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Vice-chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela responds to the BSM memorandum. BSM member Vuyolwethu Toli can be seen in the foreground while the university’s registrar, Dr Stephen Fourie, is seen in the background.

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Nehawu members Nogqele Yaka and Pumla Ngquphe speak about their grievances as workers. Rhodes University registrar Stephen Fourie and Rhodes University executive director of infrastructure, finance and operations Iain L’Ange stand in the background as representatives of management. Yaka has been working at the institution since 1985 and said that not much has changed, while Ngquphe spoke to issues surrounding wages.

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Students, workers and academics unite in the name of decolonisation. The alliances made symbolise the commitment of various groups in the university to challenging institutional culture. The Blacklivesmatter hashtag connects the struggles at Rhodes with the broader international community. BSM received a message of solidarity from the Blacklivesmatter movement. DM

All photographs by Kate Janse van Rensburg.

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