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Renaming Rhodes University: In search of a new name to reflect the past, present and future


Stephen Grootes is the host of the Sunrise show on SAfm. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

If you didn’t know by now that South Africa is a complicated place, you have not been paying attention. We are a complicated mix of people, classes, languages and, sometimes, nations. This means that processes that in other more boring places would attract virtually no attention are much more complicated here. Emotions become enflamed as people argue over the past and how it affects their present. The situation around Rhodes University and its name is a good example of this. And the process that will be designed to change it is a microcosm of some of the debates we, as a nation, should have about our own names, statues and symbols.

I remember my Rhodes days fondly. They’re a long time ago now, but I was lucky enough, privileged enough, to spend four years there living what you could call the ideal student lifestyle. Somehow I actually ended up with a degree. At the time, the name “Rhodes” was already an issue. But not a huge issue. There was an identity given to the name of the university that was about more than the name and the history, and the awful colonial activities of Cecil John.

Times have changed. Power has moved. And, thankfully, there is now a strong drive to actually change the name once and for all. If you disagree with the decision to change the name, it is probably worth examining why. It may be that the name “Rhodes” brings fond memories of your time there, or of friends from there. Which means your historical memory is very different from those who see him as a colonial occupier. Rhodes, Cecil John I mean, is not the kind of person we should have anything named after. He is the symbol of much that is wrong with our present, based on our past. He is the symbol of the colonialism that hurt, damaged, and killed so many of our people.

But deciding that the name “Rhodes” must fall is the easy part. Like removing President Jacob Zuma from office, it’s pretty easy to get people from the DA, the EFF and some from the ANC to agree on that. The problem is what do you replace it with. And this is likely to be a much more divisive debate.

Naming anything is a complicated mix of our past, present and future. It’s about how we got here, what we’re doing now, and where we want to go.

Last weekend the community around the university currently known as Rhodes created a committee and gave it six months to design a process to decide on a new name. Yes. This is not something that is going to happen quickly. And it shouldn’t. It should be a slow, careful, considered process.

Consider the following suggestions, and the problems with them. If you remove the name “Rhodes”, it might make sense to rename the institution The “University of Grahamstown”. Except that John Graham was not the kind of person who deserves anything being named after him either. You certainly do not solve your colonialist problem. The municipality of the town is called Makana. But it has become a byword for incompetence and misrule. While it is still in ANC hands, famously it was unable to even keep its water supply running. So already, several easy quick “commonsense” suggestions have to be discarded.

In a way, the first real debate is whether or not the university should be named after a person at all. It would be best to decide on this point long before any names are introduced. Steve Biko could be a good suggestion. While perhaps not an academic in the formal sense of these things, he certainly did more for African thought in this country than almost anyone else. If a university is about intellectual empowerment, it would be hard to disagree with this choice. But it seems unlikely the ANC would agree. He wasn’t from their movement. It’s likely that if it were up to the ANC someone like OR Tambo would be suggested. Again, hard to disagree with.

But actually, there is another problem. There are many institutions and places named after ANC leaders in this country. Some of them, like Madiba and Tambo, transcend the ANC, and are national heroes. But not all. What happens if the ANC loses power in the next few years, and then in 20 years time there is a move to remove all of the ANC-aligned names. It would probably be best to try to avoid anyone from the political scene (especially since the one uncontroversial name is likely to be vetoed by those famous rivals, the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University).

This leads to perhaps the first principle that should be decided upon. Should it be named after a person or not? This should perhaps be decided first – before examples of names are even suggested. No one wants to stare down the Luthulis, Bikos or Tshwetes (Stop it Stephen! – Ed).

So, that leaves some other geographic suggestions. The University of the Eastern Cape. Doesn’t really roll off the tongue. And it’s hard to think of the name “Eastern Cape” in a way that is positive for education. This is a province that can’t actually maintain basic norms and standards for primary schools, never mind the kind of excellence the university claims to aspire to. Also, it’s hardly a name without history. It was only called the “Eastern Cape” after the apartheid province of the “Cape” was divided up in 1994. So it’s not without a colonial history of its own.

Even once several principles have been adopted, there is the problem of who gets to decide and who doesn’t.

The almuni would like to claim a big voice, but they are no longer at the university, and by definition are a product of its past. The students who are there at the moment should have a voice and probably outnumber many other constituencies. And it’s in the name of this university that their degrees will be granted. But, they are there only temporarily, only for a period of three to five years, generally speaking. You don’t want to have to do this on a regular basis.

The people who work at the university, from cleaners to professors, are there on a much longer-term basis, and should perhaps also have a fairly loud voice. They are the people who actually make the institution work; in some cases it will be a product of the work of their lives. But this also needs to be managed, because it is not just theirs.

Then there is the local community, which is a town dominated by this institution. It should and must have a say too. But probably not a veto, because they don’t dominate the institution either. And while we’re thinking of vetoes, giving anyone a veto could be a bad idea because it could just lead to paralysis of the process.

But there is a much bigger principle that those in charge of this process should look at. It’s whether the name that is picked should come with history, such as Biko, or be something almost entirely bland and perhaps physically geographical. In other words, is it something that already has a brand, political or otherwise, or is it something that you can create your own identity with. Something upon which a new identity can be painted. Imagine calling the university the name of something entirely neutral, like the word “Purple” (which is the colour of its sports teams). It would not take long for people to paint a new identity upon that word. Of course, it wouldn’t work in the real world, but there other examples.

So, for example, the name “Amathole” might fit the bill. It’s from the range of mountains in the Eastern Cape. There is virtually no political significance to the name, as far as most people will be aware of. It’s easy to say and spell, and is virtually uncolonial, unused and uncomplicated. But, it is also unmemorable. Which is not what this university would want to be.

The committee in charge of this has six months to design the naming process. I wish them luck. They’re going to need it. DM


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