Transformation at Rhodes: “The way the university operates is the problem, not the name”

Last week the Rhodes University Student Representatives Council (SRC) met with students in their residence dining halls to find out, in the comfort of a safe and familiar place, their views on transformation at the institution and their feelings on a possible name change. The SRC is to report back on its findings next term. NOSIBABALO TETANI spoke to students to find out what they make of the initiative and the bigger question of transformation at the university. 

KHauhelo MajaroKhauhelo Majara, 21, second-year BSc
The dining hall talks are helpful – they are a way of showing students that the university cares about their views. They are a platform for discussion. I prefer the dining hall because it is where people are more comfortable to talk without being disturbed by people who are against their views. The only problem with these talks is you can never know whether the university [is just acting] like they care or they really do care. I don’t think that the name is the main issue here; we need to deal with transformation in the system. The way Rhodes University operates is the problem, not the name. I don’t think the name should change. Personally, I am not struggling with adapting to the “Rhodes culture”, but I would say the system should change, because I see and hear people saying they struggle.

Eben Olivier, 21, second-year journalism
Transformation is changing the tension between races. The problem is not the name; I don’t think the name should change, because changing the name won’t fix the problem. Colonialism and Cecil John Rhodes are part of our history, and we can’t change it. The dining hall talks are helpful, they are good way of getting distinct views; it’s not like a social-media rampage – more views are being heard. I prefer them, unlike when we are in crowd and people are attacking others verbally. Academically, the institution is accommodating: I get intellectual capabilities benefits. Socially, no; especially in the dining hall, you can’t just associate with certain groups because you feel left out because of language and materialistic things.

Asavela Matera, 20, second-year BSc
Transformation is the liberation of the mind – we can’t just forget the past. Treatment towards black students needs to change and [the university needs to] create a welcoming institution that also accommodates us. As black student, I am not accommodated: they are not trying to understand my struggles – this life is not normal to me. The name should change. The institution is a positive thing, but Rhodes himself was a negative person and we don’t want to be associated with him. Transformation also involves changing the people we celebrate; as black people we have our heros, for example the first black student who graduated from Rhodes is our hero – we need to know about and celebrate that. The dining hall talks are intimidating; it’s not easy because people are not participating, They are not helpful because people are ignorant – they will judge you for speaking up, especially if you say the name should change.

Anna Talbot, 19, second-year BA
For me, transformation is changes that will lead to the majority feeling comfortable. I know we live in a democratic society and it will not accommodate my views only; therefore, I am happy when the majority is happy, even though some of my views contradict the majority. We need to agree to a solution as a community at Rhodes. Emotionally, I would say the name must change because for some people is has bad memories and Rhodes was a horrible man. But financially changing the name will affect fees. Rhodes University is not about Cecil John Rhodes, it is about the brand. When we think of Rhodes University, it’s a welcoming learning institution, not a killer and coloniser. The dining hall talks are leading to a good way of achieving transformation and we also hear what the SRC thinks about these issues. The only problem is people are not participating in them; therefore, we can’t hear what others think.

Hloni Seemane Kgeleka, 22, third-year BCom
Transformation is changing Rhodes to accommodate and be welcoming also to black students. Even in class, as a black student it becomes hard to engage because you are not used to the teaching language. The name change forms part of structural transformation that needs to happen. But transformation is not just about a name change. Curriculums also need to include black scholars and we need to learn about our history too. Therefore, I don’t think the dining hall talks are helpful. The SRC is using the dining hall talks to try say, “No, calm down. We are in control of the situation; we know what to do.” In reality they are not doing anything and they are trying to silence students speaking of transformation. The SRC is trying to look like they are doing something about students’ concerns while they are not. The problem also in this university is if you are not from a private school or a privileged background, you will not fit in. We need to talk English well to fit in, and as black students we are not comfortable.

Amy Bobbins, 21, third-year pharmacy student
Transformation is being realistic about our goals: what measures we want to achieve and knowing our goals. People need to understand that not every white person is for Cecil John Rhodes. I am not linked to him in any way and we shall change the name, but find a name that represents everyone and everyone feels comfortable with it. With regards to the dining hall talks about transformation, they are a good platform for debate and allow students’ voices to be heard. I am not saying they are best, but they are a way forward to transformation. I don’t think there is any one “Rhodes culture” – there are different groups with their cultures and if we could unite as Rhodes, we can have an understanding of each other.

Matthew Rhodes studentMark Woodland, 25, BA student
The language of teaching needs to transform; the teaching is not accommodating everyone, especially people who are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds – and mostly it’s black students. The institution needs to be understanding of everyone’s struggles, because students are struggling to adapt to ways of writing and learning here. The problem is not institutional racism, it is institutional ignorance. Rhodes does not care about its students. The institution is not trying enough to meet these students half way when they are trying to work hard. Students are angry because they are excluded by the institution, and they need to realise the problem in the institution is not about white privilege, it’s about university ignorance. The name change will not fix the problem; the dining hall talks are not good enough, because they are not presenting both sides of the story, like why should or shouldn’t we change the name and transform.

– Voxes have been edited for brevity and clarity; all images by Nosibabalo Tetani.