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Rhodes University needs a new name

By Welcome Mandla Lishivha

The recent incident at the University of Cape Town with students protesting to have the statue of Cecil John Rhodes removed from their campus has sparked debates among Rhodes University students. The discussion about changing the university’s name has resurfaced, at least among students, and the university can’t ignore this discussion any further.

Rhodes University is named after Rhodes who was one of the founding fathers of colonial oppression in South Africa. The technicalities of why the university was named after him and whether it was his idea or not is insignificant to the argument I am making. He is a symbol of oppression for the continent, and to continue honouring him or anyone like him symbolically within institutions of higher learning goes against the project of transformation.

The idea of changing the name is often diverted to other issues and the fact that we should concern ourselves with bigger problems. “Don’t you have more important things to worry about other than changing names?” is the usual question that arises through such debates. The problem with this way of thinking is that it opposes any form of activism because there are other “important” matters. Well … if it’s just an insignificant name or a statue, then changing it shouldn’t be an issue. And if it is all THAT important, why would one prefer to imbue it, overtly, with a history of oppression when one could choose otherwise.

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Symbolic disruptions are necessary to offend the very powers that be, a necessary act especially for institutions of higher learning that are deeply imbedded within a dominant white supremacist culture. Part of being committed to transformation means interrogating the spaces we find ourselves in to challenge the barriers that inhibit our progression and integration in the name of power. To call the UCT students “childish” is to completely miss the point about transformation and further indicate to an even stronger need for that transformation.

In a conversation on the Rhodes SRC page about this matter, several students assert that changing the name is a way of denying our history. We should also be careful of our approach to history and how this approach shapes how we see ourselves as a society. History keeps unfolding and the danger with being obsessed with history in this manner is that we are bound to get trapped in it, unable to reimagine ourselves. It is as though we are stuck trying to fit ourselves into a history that has been handed down to us because we are unable to recreate ourselves outside of that history. In fact a name change for Rhodes University is an opportunity for the university community to reconsider a portion of its symbolic identity beyond its history.

Why would we, who regard our society as a new society in our integration as the rainbow nation, refuse ourselves such a profoundly uniting opportunity of recreating ourselves? There is nothing about giving ourselves new names that removes the “significance” of Rhodes as oppressor in our history. If anything, history will judge us as a community that redefined itself. Not changing the name, and being opposed to changing the name further re-inscribes the white supremacist culture we are attempting to denounce.

This disruption is necessary for destabilising a history that is deeply rooted in colonialism. It is a step in the right direction of emancipation that positions itself against power. There is a difference between acknowledging historical events and symbolically locating those events in our everyday lives in a way that reproduces the same history in nuanced ways. We should change what we can, when we can.

Rhodes University can learn a thing or two from the current UCT conversation about symbolism and as a result of this conversation must undergo a process of thorough introspection of understanding its oppressed history and actively attempt to circumvent the mental oppression that comes with such a history. We have to view the name change as a process of making our own history.

Welcome Mandla Lishivha is a master’s student with the school of journalism and media studies at Rhodes University.

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19 Comments

  1. Biggie Biggie 18 March 2015

    ridiculous. Where will this stop? Are we going to fill up the Big Hole in Kimberley? Demolish Rhodes’ Memorial? Abolish De Beers Mining Company and Goldfields? Rhodes may have been an imperialist but he was no Hitler…

  2. Too Black Too Black 18 March 2015

    Agreed…

  3. karabo karabo 18 March 2015

    Before you go out on a limb speaking as though you are representing the majority of the university’s students, have you ever thought to ask what most of the students want, not a few people who choose to hide behind the screen of a phone and bash white people instead of tackle society’s ills, and the name of a university isn’t that significant.

  4. Patrícia Analia Silva Neves Patrícia Analia Silva Neves 18 March 2015

    So Mandla, will you be supplying the funds to re-brand Rhodes?
    It will cost the state millions to do that. Oh wait, what about the schools and universities that are struggling? No no, they don’t matter. Only name changes do.
    I understand and agree to an extent but surely our funds should be going to something more important. Like helping underprivileged kids get to University?

  5. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 18 March 2015

    How much will it cost? Who will pay for it? How many tenders will be required? Will we have to change the name, again, in a few years time? What would happen to the scholarships?

  6. Philip Machanick Philip Machanick 18 March 2015

    People who think Rhodes was a great hero should look up the Glen Grey Act.

    His
    legacy to SA was to set the country on a path of narrowly-focused
    development based on mining, while excluding the majority from quality
    education and increasingly from land ownership to force them into
    low-paid unskilled labour. As Cape Colony prime minister in the 1890s,
    he set the trend that held back the country’s development for the next
    century. Yes, his money helped found universities and fund prestigious
    scholarships. But that is tiny compensation for the massive damage he
    caused.

    Imagine
    how different things would be today if the trend in his time of the
    African population learning how to adapt to a modern economy had not
    been thwarted.

  7. Khutso6 Khutso6 19 March 2015

    Other universities have changed their names (NMMU; WSU, UJ etc) those are all recently changed names. Why is Rhodes University still holding on to this name? It can be changed and should be done. Its important for students to see this “transformation and inclusive” narrative first hand and in that regard signage and symbols matter. Changing the name would go a long way in engaging with the politics of transformation at universities…its just the start but its an important step in the right direction.

  8. Jon Low Jon Low 19 March 2015

    Head off down the road to Walter Sisulu.

    When Rhodes arrived in SA, it had been a European colony for over 200 years, so how on earth can CJR possibly be a “founding father” of colonialist oppression? That’s like saying that the Guptas invented computers.

  9. Citizenmac Citizenmac 19 March 2015

    Why the need to change names of institutions, this and other symbols of the past are part of our history. We cannot deny our past and the contribution these persons made in the development of this country albeit not to the liking of every person.

  10. aMan Bloom aMan Bloom 19 March 2015

    Curiously, I and some friends were just discussing this the other day and came to the conclusion that it might be for the better to find another name for Rhodes U., especially since it was named thus in order to try to get the Mr. to donate a substantial amount to its founding, and he refused! (I also brought up the notion that if there were a Hitler U. in Germany, they would’ve changed its name…)

  11. sam-e sam-e 19 March 2015

    Why such a major defense for a British National who probably didn’t think much of white South Africans. I can sort of understand if he was a great Afrikaans hero but he wasn’t.

    Moreove he may not have spearheaded colonialism or slavery but he was a prominent figure for it and benefited greatly. Seriously having statues and universities named after him in Africa is lie having the name of a former nazi general in the US or Germany or Israel. It’s just insane.

  12. Hlambamanzi Hlambamanzi 21 March 2015

    To Africans and those Europeans he called surplus people, he was
    a ” hitler”.

  13. Elsie Hill Elsie Hill 21 March 2015

    Rhodes no longer features among the top universities in the world which makes me ashamed of my Alma Mater. Seeing as it has gone to hell in a hand basket, by all means change it’s name. I will still have my beautifully embossed certificates, proudly bearing the name “Rhodes University” from a time when it was considered among the top 100 in the world.Now only 3 SA universities still rank within the top 400, UCT (141), Wits (318 and Stellenbosch (390). How the mighty have fallen!

  14. I LOVE aFRICA I LOVE aFRICA 22 March 2015

    UKZN still features in top universities.. what is your source ?

  15. Elsie Hill Elsie Hill 24 March 2015

    My source is:
    “QS World University Rankings® 2014/15” . What is yours????? One of the top SA or African universities?

  16. Richard Richard 25 March 2015

    How about Shaka? Idi Amin? And the rest? Not sure about Idi, but there are certainly statues to Shaka.

  17. Richard Richard 25 March 2015

    To be honest, with Rhodes University being 1341st in the world (Webometrics), Cecil John would probably not have been too keen to have it named after him. What sort of honour is it to be associated with 1341st, anyway?

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