Race debate rocks Rhodes

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Rhodes University’s online forums have been rocked this week by racial tension and debate sparked by the Rhodes Must Fall protest and the subsequent hashtag #RhodesSoWhite.

Rhodes University’s online forums have been rocked this week by racial tension and debate sparked by the Rhodes Must Fall protest and the subsequent hashtag #RhodesSoWhite.

Posters printed with the words #RhodesSoWhite appeared on campus on the morning of  Wednesday18 March, a spin-off from the furious debate about race and white privilege taking place on the Rhodes Student Representative Council (SRC) Facebook page.

“This is the beginning of  discussion that’s been coming for a long time at Rhodes,” said Politics Masters student Camalita Naicker who attended the protest on 17 March.

“There was a feeling that we need to challenge the apathy at Rhodes because it is a very comfortable space for privileged students,” said Joseph Coetzee, one of the protest organisers.

The protestors were barred from walking through the Main Administration building, where the doors were locked by security guards and the Campus Protection Unit was present. This was despite the peaceful nature of the gathering.

Colonialism

One of the #RhodesSoWhite posters featured the words, ‘You can pronounce Gert but not Radebe’ and another said, ‘You puke all over the bathroom in Res because you know ‘Mama’ or ‘Sisi’ will clean it up tomorrow.’

Michael Dorfling, a third-year Law student, shared this poster to the Rhodes SRC group and commented, “As if no person of colour has ever puked on the floor in res? Are white people the only ones that do this? This racism is starting to really annoy me actually. This isn’t white privilege; this is something drunk students sometimes do regardless of race.”

The purpose of the Rhodes Must Fall protest was to highlight the lived experience of black students at the university, according to Coetzee.

The action was sparked by the protests taking place in Cape Town. There, students have been campaigning to have the statue of Cecil John Rhodes removed from UCT’s campus due to its symbolic representation of colonialism.

This has brought the conversation about renaming Rhodes University back from its shallow grave.

Conversations took place eight years ago about changing the name of the university and it was decided that it was not the time for a name change according to Noluxolo Nhlapo, the Director of Equity and Institutional Culture at Rhodes University.

However, the possible value of a name change is still under debate.

Real transformation

“Changing the name of the institution is not transformation. It could be one of the components of the systematic process that needs to take place,” said Nhlapho. “It would defeat the purpose of the name change if our teaching and learning practices remained unchanged.”

She emphasised the need for real, integral transformation over superficial changes.

“There is deep transformation that we need to focus on. Changing the name is a debate that needs to continue, but there are other issues at hand,” she said.

Nhlapo said the profile of the student body at Rhodes has changed in the past 20 years but that “it clearly has a long way to go”.

“Our office has been made to clearly see by this initiative, #RhodesSoWhite, that we need to open up more spaces for discussion at this institution so that people do not feel that they need to resort to putting up posters anonymously on doors.”

Student Lesego Moshikaro’s post on the Rhodes SRC group was the catalyst for much of the debate currently under way.

Part of her post reads, “Rhodes reeks of white privilege and it’s disgusting and appalling.”

Students of all races commented in support of her claim and tried to explain the politics of transformation and white privilege to the students who claimed Moshikaro’s post was racist.

At the time of writing the post had 628 comments and 484 likes.

Invitation

The importance of acknowledging and therefore problematising white privilege was denied by white and black students, while other students banded together to express the importance of engagement on the issue of institutional racism at Rhodes University.

The SRC President at Rhodes Siyanda Buhle’bezwe Makhubo said that the SRC’s position is essentially neutral. “While it [institutional racism]might be a black experience, it’s not true for all white students. Many white students are disgusted by institutional racism as well,” Makhubo said.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Dr Peter Clayton said that the university’s management had issued an invitation to the Black Student Movement to discuss the problem of lack of inclusivity further.

“We are always willing to talk to all of our students about anything,” Clayton said.

Representatives from the Black Student Movement will be meeting with the Vice-Chancellor’s office as well as the Director of Student Affairs during the day on 19 March.

An emergency student body meeting has been called for the same evening and issues of transformation and inclusivity will be addressed by Dr Sizwe Mabizela, who was inaugurated as the first black Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes just under a month ago on 27 February.

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