Dear Dr Sizwe Mabizela
RE: Contribution to “Name Change” rationale and discussions
It has been with great unease and unhappiness that I have been reading the unfolding influences that have been forcing their pressure on Rhodes University. Fully aware of the turmoil of the past, and how Rhodes has always remained a common ground for all, it has been tremendously saddening to see such an historically strong institution allowing the agenda of race to influence the name of an institution that has been a home to so many national and international cultures and races. I have, however, been pleased to see that the situation, from a marketing and publicity perspective (at my level, anyway) is being opened to discussion, debate and contribution by all concerned. Thus, I would like to contribute my thoughts to the panel who are making the decision on whether or not to change the name “Rhodes University”. I am not sure how to convey my thoughts to them, hence I would appreciate your assistance, if possible, in this regard. Thank-you.
RHODES UNIVERSITY – “Where Leaders Learn”. The slogan for Rhodes: “WHERE LEADERS LEARN”, in itself states ‘learning’, and where ‘leaders learn’ is ‘from the past’. Every journal, every textbook, every bit of knowledge and information that Rhodes Students use to build their ‘new’ knowledge and theories, and step out to re-hypothesise with, is based on, and in, prior knowledge, i.e. history; on what went before. It would be unethical and immoral to go back into those books, journals and publications and ‘change’ the names of them to suit anyone else’s ‘preferences’. It would be against the plagiarism laws to take any of the documents created in the past and simply place a ‘new name’ on them to make them ‘fit’ a ‘new author’.
Please continue with me in my analogy: Rhodes University is not a ‘new’ publication, it is not a ‘new’ establishment, and it is not a place that was built or created in the era of 1948 – 1992 when apartheid was in force. Rhodes University is 111 years old. It pre-dates apartheid as an establishment that survived the horrors of that era. It is an institution that has had its name for over a century. It is a name rich in history, the history that was the truth in the time that the institution was built. Changing the name is a way of altering history, plagiarizing the truth of the authors of the past and making something that has the invaluable beauty of centuries of history into something that only has the value of 21st century politics. Rhodes is not of the 21st century, it was established in the 19th century and its name and brand hold the memories, unity, challenges and wonders of all those decades combined.
No-one who attended the University in the decades of its existence was ever referred to on their exam answer papers (to my knowledge) by the institution as: Black, Coloured, Indian, White or any other racially dividing word, they were referred to by their STUDENT NUMBER. Every person who studied at Rhodes was equal in having a number, not a race. “Race” classification and preference, i.e. racism, are human choices, human acts, not those of the establishment of Rhodes the Institution. Yes, I’m sure both racist and non-racist people from all ethnicities have attended Rhodes, but so too have all races been in South Africa for centuries, yet we are not changing the name of our country. Our country is, and has been, associated with far more atrocities than C.J. Rhodes or any individual could ever be, yet the name of our country, and all it has been associated with, doesn’t offend anyone enough to change the name. If people were to actually think about what “South Africa” means and the collective horrors experienced in this country with regards to crime, violence, rape, racism, apartheid and all the rest, then, based on the logic of changing a name because it is offensive, we should be changing the name of our country, not just the institutions. But to do that would be to deny the road we as South Africans have walked together and who we have become and achieved – together. To change a name is to change the truth of the history that makes a collective and unites people, thus bringing us closer together. To change the name won’t erase the problems.
Having gone through the ridiculous expense and waste of money of Road Name changes in Durban, which have resulted in nothing but confusion for all involved, the exercise only proved frustrating. I even had people of all races telling me that the Road Name changes were inconvenient, disruptive and caused many people to get lost and thus lose their way; both those who were new to town and those who’d been around for years. If the parties concerned choose to change the University Name, the admin and frustration behind it is going to last at least another 50 – 60 years as job applicants will all have to explain that the University had to change its name to suit the new students of the 21st century. The University will have to deal with rebranding and find funds for it, when those precious funds could be used elsewhere. Once the 2017, and all before, graduates of Rhodes have passed away, then all their great grandchildren will be attending a ‘different’ place, with a different institutional name on the top of their degree. I’ve always been told that African cultures are proud of their past, their ancestors and their history, yet here they want to make current Rhodes graduates separate from the generations of the future. It makes no sense to me, historically, culturally or by way of heritage and inter-generational connection, to change the Name that is connected to 111 years of history.
Nelson Mandela and Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu were both behind and in support of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and now Honourable Tutu has established a world-wide venture on “Forgiveness”, entitled “The Forgiveness Challenge”. I challenge Rhodes to step up and be the institution that shows that forgiveness is remembering the past (how can we remember if we change the names and the truth of the history we have fought so hard to survive through and change?), accepting it for what was (C.J. Rhodes existed, his name was chosen, it was his era and the 21st century needs to accept that – even a name change won’t erase it, so why try to hide the truth?), knowing the truth (if we change the name of Rhodes, we are changing truth, we are hiding the past and saying that it ‘didn’t happen’, but it did), moving forward, and not letting the past dictate who we are now.
If one looks up “name” in the dictionary, one finds: “a word or phrase identifying a person, place or thing, by which they are known, referred to, or addressed”. Rhodes is an establishment and its name is what all the students refer to it as, the meaning of that name is personal choice and agenda and not part of the ‘name’ in itself. The “Rhodes” name is what employers identify with. Its name is entrenched in history books. Its name is what has lasted 111 years. Its name refers to where we all lived. Changing the name takes away 111 years of first years telling their friends where they are going, it takes away 111 years of graduates proudly mentioning their alma mater, or proudly connecting with other past graduates and identifying with them. The name is what binds 111 years of people and history. No-one in the world can buy 111 years. Barely anyone in the world has, or can, even live for 111 years. Rhodes University has lived longer than humans can, and to end all of that – all that you cannot buy – makes no sense.
Rhodes prides itself on its international connections, yet those international connections have history and have kept their names for WAY longer than Rhodes (Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard etc). Rhodes is finally getting in there with a history to match international standards and a name that has ‘stood the test of time’, BUT because of 21st century students (who have yet to experience the world and the value of history and connectivity) want to send Rhodes back to square one as a ‘newly’ named University. It’s appears so unstable, so unreliable, and so against what LEARNING is all about. Learning cannot happen without history, learning respects history, and changing the name and ‘renewing’ the “status” of the institution shows that Rhodes has no respect for history, that South Africans are unable to forgive, that we have not learnt from our past, that we are not aware that a name is a reference and the reference was created in the 19th century and not the 21st century.
Rhodes University and all that happens there is about the ‘experience’. If one looks up ‘experience’ in the dictionary: “direct participation or observation. The knowledge, skill or practice derived from such experience especially over a period of time. It is something personally encountered or undergone. The sum total of conscious events that make up any individual life or the collective past of a community, nation, etc.” This definition has no connection whatsoever to how individuals choose to place emotion and personal preference on ‘experience’. If a student has had a positive (and mine was at least 95% positive) or negative experience at Rhodes, or in their lives, or in any context, then they have labeled it positive or negative by their own choice and it has NOTHING to do with the name of the place, the building, the University, the clothing brand, the surname, or the fill-in-your-choice of any name of anything. Shakespeare himself wrote in Romeo & Juliet that a ‘rose’ by any other name would smell as sweet, thus Rhodes by any other name would still experience racism if students are racist, regardless of the name of the institution. Rhodes, by any other name will still have ‘originally been Rhodes’ and still have its past…
A “new name” has very little value, history, culture or substance to it, it disassociates people between this and the next generation whilst keeping the same problems within its walls. Whereas keeping the old name keeps people united, learning together and growing together across generations over the centuries. There is more historical and irreplaceable value and strength in keeping the name, than changing it under the illusion that a ‘new’ name will change the hearts, filled with personal and emotional agenda, of those who want it changed.
In a world that craves instant now-give-it-to-me-entitlement, and is beginning to experience even larger generation gaps, keeping the name Rhodes is a small way of helping the vastly separated generations (X, Y, Baby Boomers, etc.) stay connected and have something to share. Keeping the name Rhodes will show that something in the 21st century is not going to bow down to the ‘we-want-it-our-new-way’ generation. It will set a precedent that we learn from the past, we are created and founded in our past and we can’t just change that because ‘we don’t like it’. Tertiary institutions are set up to enlighten the youth, to offer wisdom, growth and mentorship; they are set up to be the ‘adult’ guiding the young and feisty minds that enter their grounds. Changing the name will make the statement that wisdom, age, respect for history, learning from the past, recognising the past, accepting what was and making sure it is never repeated – are unimportant. This disturbs me most of all, along with the loss of truth, history and stability, that a higher learning institution may let the will of young and lesser-experienced minds dictate a move towards going against everything the ‘Higher’ Level Learning Institution should be standing up for – the invaluable unity, connection, knowledge and wisdom that only time, and lots of it, can create. A new name, in the writer’s opinion, an expensive and reducing exercise, sends everything that has been worked towards, and all that has been sacrificed and experienced, into the space of ‘it didn’t happen’, ‘it didn’t matter’, ‘they didn’t matter’, ‘the past didn’t matter’, it is only the current generation who are important and all those who came before ‘got it wrong’… when, in fact, everyone in our past matters, everyone who was and is in this country matters, and if it weren’t for the ‘wrongs’ of the past, we would not be as strong, as educated, as wise and as informed as we are today.
No-one can abolish history; it is what it is – fact. Yes, South Africa’s past holds horrendous times (as does every country in the world), and yes, we have unpleasant and uncomfortable stories, but so do Berlin, Germany – World Wars, Australia & Aborigines, Taiwan & Aborigines, America and Jim Crow, America & Civil War, France & Civil War, North & South Korea etc … still – none of it can be erased or ‘changed’, IT HAS TO BE LEARNT FROM, “where leaders learn” – when everyone is represented. We can only talk, discuss, see both sides, LEARN, GROW and CHALLENGE, when we are presented with all sides… erasing pretends that all has always been okay and good, but it hasn’t. If we don’t preserve the history in the truth that it existed in, then we are creating a “fake” non-real history and then everything our forefathers died for/by will no longer exist or be remembered. The amazing journey we have made as a country from our past to where we are today will become less meaningful, less potent and less true. We need to keep the truth and not pretend history is only full of “perfect” people – it isn’t; life isn’t.
If the desire to change the name is routed in ‘racism’, then reversing the racism is not helping matters. Historically, when various Europeans arrived, yes, with desire to expand their ownership of land in the world, they brought with them: pens, paper, the wheel, education and such like, things that uplifted Nelson Mandela and the freedom fighters to get the degrees they did and approach the uniting of our country in the way they did. Rhodes is an academic institution, surely that means that it should be entitled to have someone with a European bloodline in its title, giving credit to the source of the roots of education? Education dates back to the Roman era, and has its history in the Northern Hemisphere, academia is not of “African” origin… Other European contributions to South Africa: the Voortrekkers used their Wagons to break ground for all the roads we have today. The British town planners made SA’s cities some of the best laid out cities in the world – other international cities do not even have room to park or have cars drive side-by-side, as their streets are too narrow. The architects of all the old buildings are part of ‘white’ history. Not in the least bit denying the Black African workforce that assisted in making plans a reality at all. We did it all together. South Africa has all of our hard work meshed into it and that shouldn’t be erased or changed in name or in any other way. If people only see the “bad” in white people after all the evidence of the good, and the desire to “erase” “white” persists, then it is a destroying of unity and truth… and yes, being racist…
Further to this: erasing the opposition / oppressors, erases both the evidence and the magnitude of the battle that Black African forefathers fought and thus reduces the importance of their legacy in the eyes of the next generation, who already can’t really believe that they may never have had what they do now. I see it in my classroom; they have no idea on the blessings that their forefathers earned for them. Erase the whole story, erase truth and you make the struggle even more meaningless and non-existent.
If the name change happens then it would be evidence that Nelson Mandela’s legacy has been defiled, as the past and the present will be shown to be in conflict and not in acceptance or unity; and Desmond Tutu would have failed because a change of the 111 year old name makes it clear that forgiveness is not an option and it will fuel more resentment and anger and racism than peace and unity.
Continuing with what I find disturbing, is that students are putting their priorities of protest in the order of: “a name” above: rape, fraud, corruption, unemployment, crime, nuclear power purchasing, cancellation of freedom of the press, poverty, class inequality and the like, which are frighteningly real, current and deserve major attention at the moment. This does not make sense.
To end my contribution to the discussion on changing “Rhodes” – how I experienced Rhodes, had nothing to do with a man who died a very very long time ago. As students we took his name and reduced it to a rat, there’s even a Pub called “The Rat and Parrot” just off campus. That Rat symbol – THE RHODENT – became the symbol for all of us as our unified student identity. Mugs, bags, t-shirts, pens and all the other branded paraphernalia, with our “RHODENT” on them, are still available today. I own a bumper sticker and a mug myself. The Rhodent – a lowly rat, that holds no-one above anyone else, became what the name meant to the students in the 20th century, NOT the guy who died decades upon decades ago.
Thank you for taking the time to read my letter.
I pray hope, peace, truth and honesty for all with regards to the decision currently faced with regards to changing the name of a University that I hold very dear. “Rhodes University” and how it has united me with so many good people.
SIGNED: Student Number