Why does race at Rhodes University matter ?

The Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University, Dr Saleem Badat announced his resignation yesterday. A good amount of the student population seemed upset about the loss. Dr Badat is the first black vice-chancellor that the institution had, so understandably, there is some anxiety about him leaving. Many students commented about the resignation on social networks, and from those posts arose some very important debates about race. This sparked my interest because there were people who questioned why race has ‘suddenly’ become an issue at our university.

In a post that was shared on the Rhodes SRC Facebook page, Malaika wa Azania detailed her experience with the Vice-Chancellor in 2012, when she ran for the SRC. She says that, during her campaign, she was accused of being racist. According to her, the reason for this accusation is that she was being honest about the injustice that some black students face at Rhodes University. She approached Dr Badat, who listened to her views, despite not agreeing with them. In her view, Dr Badat is progressive because he listened.  Several students took offence by other claims she made, for instance, that Rhodes is an anti-black, exclusive institution that does not cater for the needs of working-class black students. These claims were quickly dismissed.

I’ve paraphrased the post very diplomatically above. As a disclaimer, I should state that I find Malaika’s approach to be problematic and find her post divisive as a result. I can’t address this in more detail here. I’d be here all day.  What I’d like is to look at the responses she received and try to extract the salient points of her arguments.  The aim is to be genuinely constructive.

Some of the responses  include the following:

  • “What Racism? Time to move on, stop riding the racism bandwagon!”
  • “This is self-indulgent, self-entitled rubbish.”
  • “Most of us, like me, don’t give a crap about skin colour and are willing to go with the flow.”
  • “Saying that Rhodes is an exclusive and anti-black institution is one of the most ridiculous statements I’ve ever heard.”

To begin, I think it’s very harmful to label the claims that Rhodes is an exclusive/elitist institution as “self-indulgent, self-entitled or ridiculous”. As soon as such labels are made, the experiences of the Rhodes students who are not catered for by the institution are silenced. As a society, we cannot pretend that we have completely addressed the inequalities that apartheid created. Thus, it follows that  we should be more sensitive and hesitate to dismiss claims that our university is unequal. I am not of the opinion that Rhodes intentionally excludes poor (and/or black) students. Rhodes has shown much commitment to acquiring funding for students who cannot afford fees. In the same breath, saying that we shouldn’t talk about critical problems like student funding because it’s ‘self-indulgent’ is taking an extremely privileged stance.

On that note of privilege, I understand that most of us would like racism to be over. As we all know, apartheid ended 20 years go. However, just because it’s been 20 years, does not mean people are no longer affected by race. The colour of a person’s skin does not make them inherently inferior or superior to others. But, the way race has historically been socially constructed means that for many people today, the colour of their skin still affects the treatment they receive**. For this reason, it is not constructive to say dismissive things like “racism doesn’t matter any more”/“I don’t see race”. Racial discrimination still exists and when opposition to it is met with statements like these, the cycle of injustice is enabled. You do not solve a problem by ignoring it.

The one critique of Malaika’s post that I will go into is this : In order to be constructive, we need to be nuanced in our approach and aware of the complexities in the matters we seek to address. As great an institution as it is, Rhodes University doesn’t exist in an apolitical vacuum. It is very much part of an unequal South Africa and the inequalities which exist here are complex.It is not helpful to make claims that Rhodes is anti-black, without explaining how or elucidating intricately the role of social class in one’s critique. Speaking generally on the way the debate unfolded on the SRC page,  if you are committed to solving problems of injustice, divisive approaches do more harm than good. If you want someone to understand your point,  I don’t see use in communicating without being open to dialogue or making blanket statements about racial groups [whilst attempting to fight racism].

To conclude, conversations about race and class are difficult to have. The effects of apartheid are not problems we(people my age) created but here we are, tasked with solving them. There are some uncomfortable realities that we have to deal with, if we are to create a free society. One way of telling where power lies in a society is by observing whose voices get heard and whose are silenced. Power relations are subtle in that, people with power do not always know when they have power and thus, end up dominating others without necessarily meaning to. To dismantle the unfair distributions of power, in our society and in our university, it is crucial that we try  harder to listen to the voices which are usually marginalized. Hopefully, the debate on race at Rhodes can continue in a more constructive way.

“No one is free when others are still oppressed.”


** I am not saying that everything is about race. I just think race cannot be completely ignored, just because it is no longer institutionalized by the state.


Malika’s post

* I cannot make a link to Malaika’s actual post on Facebook so I have copied it onto my blog.

“It is sad that Dr Badat is leaving us. We had one person in this institution who was committed to fighting against the White racism that Black students are subjected to; racism that White students pretend does not exist and which the management treats as a non-issue. Rhodes is an exclusive, anti-Black institution that caters largely for the needs of White students and the Black upper middle-class. It is characterised by the most brutal White arrogance that has permeated to a point that it has now been institutionalised. And they will deny it and call me a racist, as they always have. They will portray themselves as victims of this “racist” Black student that is me, because it is typical for the racist White student population of Rhodes to downplay the impacts of racism, and to treat anyone who raises the subject like some lunatic. I ran for SRC in 2012, and was daily accused of being a racist with regressive politics. My only crime was to be honest about a reality which only Black students know. I was attacked on a daily basis, all because I had dared to make people feel uncomfortable by rattling their insulated ivory tower of White supremacy.

I went to Dr Badat’s office in tears, telling him about my frustrations. He did not agree with my sentiments, but he at least listened to me, he at least allowed me to state my case. I was left confident that at least someone in the management was committed to championing the cause of genuine racial transformation, because any person who allows Black people to define their own struggles is authentically progressive. So many of these White people want to define our conditions, and even have the audacity to suggest to us that they have a remedy for us. At worst, we are dismissed for being alarmists. Today, I cannot help but think that a new era has dawned upon us: the victory of White right-wing elements. Weep, Black working class child, you’re about to drown into a pool of ostracisation, and to become a student of a Verwoerdian university. And in the poignant words of Steve Biko, from many years ago, and ironically, a title of one of Dr Badat’s books: “Black man, you are on your own!”” – Malaika Wa Azania, second year student
Email: malaikawaazania@gmail.com”