#FMF: Universities ungovernable


MASS MARCH: The #FreeMustFall students march on Jorrisen Street in Braamfontein. Photo: Nokuthula Zwane

Week two of the #FeesMustFall student protests comes with students drafting memoranda, burning property and marching around campuses following the shutdown of most universities. (more…)

OPINION: Working while black at Rhodes


Dr Vashna Jaganath, lecturer at Rhodes University. Photo: Courtesy Vashna Jaganath.

The extraordinary rejuvenation of student politics in South African universities has enabled a moment of real possibility. It is imperative that we seize this moment to have an honest conversation about racism in wider society, and in universities like UCT (University of Cape Town) and Rhodes, and to act to effect real change, writes Dr Vashna Jaganath. 

This article originally appeared on the Daily Maverick.

I studied history at the former University of Natal in Durban where Keith Breckenridge and Catherine Burns built an extraordinary department, of the highest academic quality. The African experience was taken seriously, black thinkers were taken seriously and black students flourished. I am one of many black people that found my way into an academic life as a direct result of the space that was created in the Department of Historical Studies in Durban.

Moving to Grahamstown to work at Rhodes University was a profound shock to my sense of myself and my place in the world. Grahamstown started out as a fort on the colonial frontier. It remains an evidently colonial town, one that wears its settler history with pride. The colonial mentality that pervades the town has a clear presence within the University itself. In various ways the university, and a few streets around the campus, still remain very much a bastion of white power, looking up at the hills where the dispossessed black population live.

“Here, in both the university and the town, racism is a routine feature of everyday life”

Today the white section of town is guarded by private security companies rather than a colonial militia. But in the heart of the white part of town, in the university, whiteness is still taken as normal context for academic life and as a mark of excellence.

Here, in both the university and the town, racism is a routine feature of everyday life. Like other black students and staff members I have accumulated a long list of anecdotes, most of which recount experiences that would be unimaginable in the spaces in which I lived, worked and socialised in Durban. When I started working at Rhodes University I went to the library to arrange access. A white librarian told me that I was lying when I told her that I was a newly appointed member of the academic staff. I returned in tears., On one occasion, at a meeting of the transformation committee, it was assumed that I am not an academic member of staff.

“I myself suffer panic attacks when I have to return to the racism that asphyxiates me in Grahamstown”

Like many black staff members, and many black post-graduate students too, I have never felt at home at Rhodes or in Grahamstown. In order to survive the constant diminishment of our personhood, and the consequent mutilation of self, many black staff members and post-graduate students have to spend large amounts of time, sometimes hours a day, offering support to each other. Strong people are frequently reduced to tears. I myself suffer panic attacks when I have to return to the racism that asphyxiates me in Grahamstown after time spent in Durban or Johannesburg, cities in which I can breathe freely.

When I first arrived at Rhodes the university had attracted some national attention as a place where there was a discussion about white privilege. I personally found this discussion to be hugely problematic. It seemed to me that this discussion simply functioned to cast the white person publicly bewailing their privilege as the most ethical person in the room while avoiding any kind of discussion about building the kind of alliances and taking the kind of action that could achieve real change.

It was also immediately evident to me that at Rhodes white women had been the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action. It is not uncommon for white women to present themselves as equally oppressed as black people. I have been subject to the most extraordinarily patronising engagement by white women in the name of feminism. Like many other black women I am deeply aggrieved at the way in which the white feminism that has flourished here so often casts the black man as the epitome of all evil. Along with many other black women in this space I am here, in large part, because of the unflinching support of my black father. It is a striking feature of Rhodes that African South African men are rarely appointed to academic jobs. As Gayatri Spivak has shown the demonization of black men is a longstanding feature of how colonial power operates.

“At Rhodes white women had been the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action”

There is constant discussion about ‘transformation’ at Rhodes but it never seems to go anywhere. Like many black academics I have concluded that these endless discussions, often themselves under white control, have simply not been effective in confronting racism.

The discussion about ‘transformation’ is inevitably presented in technocratic terms when the question of deracialisation and decolonisation is, clearly, a political question. Moreover the discussion is framed in a way that casts the black student and the black academic, whether absent or present, as the problem. Even on the occasions when the endemic racism of the institution is identified as a central problem it is not confronted.

The challenges that have to be taken on by anyone working while black at Rhodes exceed the constant exhaustion from everyday encounters with racism. One also finds that one’s intellectual energies have to be directed at the problems of the colony in a society in which the problems of the postcolony are becoming more acute with every passing day. For both blacks and white progressives working here the need to fight yesterday’s battles makes it very difficult to effectively engage the deepening crisis of the rest of the country, let alone to situate oneself fully within the debates across the global South. It feels like we are stuck in the 1960s, in the moment before Steve Biko and Richard Turner, and the movements that coalesced around them, started to challenge the racism of the liberal universities.

“An astonishing lack of basic awareness about what racism is”

Although Rhodes has been lucky enough to have two progressive black Vice-Chancellors the academic staff at the university is so overwhelmingly white that a lot of power has remained in white hands. The conversation about ‘transformation’ – which seldom deals with the fact that what we actually need to confront is deracialisation and decolonisation – has been often itself been monopolised by white staff. In some instances, even within the conversation about ‘transformation’, there is an astonishing lack of basic awareness about what racism is. On more than one occasion white staff have expressed sentiments that are immediately recognised by black staff and students as being rooted in a set of unexamined colonial assumptions.

The gifts of brilliant black students are often just not recognised by their teachers. Black students are often expected to conform to narrow colonial stereotypes in their work. There are whole departments in which our most talented black students report that they just do not feel comfortable.

“White mediocrity is seldom challenged here”

White mediocrity is seldom challenged here. Yet blacks have to attain unquestionable excellence in order to demonstrate that they deserve their place in the academy.

Progressive whites report that crude racism is not infrequently expressed in conversations between whites. The sort of liberal paternalism, and maternalism, that assumes that inducting black people into the university requires that they be inducted into the grammar of whiteness flourishes.

Working at Rhodes while black often leaves me anxious and frequently makes me very angry. In many respects it has been a mutilating experience. One has to harden oneself to survive here and I worry that this experience is going to break something in me and turn me into the sort of person that I don’t want to be. Already my intellectual energies are withdrawing from my original academic interests and are increasingly focussed on the need to confront racism. This is one of the costs of the imperatives of survival.

Until the students took a stand there had been no serious challenge to the normalisation of white power and authority, and to a set of pernicious assumptions that have their roots in colonialism, at this university. We owe this generation of students, many of whom are exceptionally gifted, a debt of gratitude for opening up the space in which honest discussion and effective action may finally become possible. It’s been a long time coming but finally truth is being told to power.

Dr Vashna Jagarnath is the Deputy Dean of Humanities (Research) at Rhodes University.

STORIFY: #RhodesMustFall outcry reaches Rhodes University

Demonstrations that began at the University of Cape Town (UCT) last week, calling for the removal of the Cecil John Rhodes statue have spilled over to Rhodes University yesterday, with students on Twitter calling for a change in the university’s name.

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New Rhodes vice-chancellor contributes salary to “needy” students

Rhodes University vice-chancellor Sizwe Mabizela had his inauguration last Friday., and dedicated his speech to the Biko and Mxenge families. Photo: Provided

Rhodes University’s newly inaugurated vice-chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, has vowed that no academically talented – but financially needy – young person will be turned away from Rhodes University in Grahamstown.

“It is a bit aspirational,” he told Wits Vuvuzela. “But we have to make a point that we will raise funds. I will make it my personal mission.”

When Mabizela became deputy vice-chancellor in 2008, he made a “salary sacrifice” and contributed part of his salary towards a bursary fund that assists financially needy students who are academically talented, mostly from poor and rural families.

As vice-chancellor, he said that he will increase this contribution, to about R300 000 in total. He will also continue to encourage community members and university staff to contribute.

“In fact, I encourage every young person in this country to make a contribution,” he said.

Mabizela is the first black African vice-chancellor at Rhodes University in over 100 years, but does not want people to “get hung up on this”.

“That I happen to be black and African is simply an accident of history from which we have just emerged. I don’t want this to be elevated above any and everything else, because I would be deeply troubled if I was appointed simply because of that.”

He said that when he accepted, he made it very clear that he was not motivated by personal glory or material and financial gain, but rather by a commitment to serve the university and wider South Africa.

Rhodes had to turn away approximately 130 students at the start of the year, because they were denied National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funds and were unable to register. Mabizela described the experience of having to deny qualifying students an education as “painful”.

Under Sizwe’s leadership as a part of senior management for over six years, Rhodes has matched NSFAS’ contribution of R32-million by spending approximately R34-million on assisting “desperately poor” but academically strong students.

One of Sizwe’s aims is to make the university more socially aware and one that “tackles local problems and challenges facing Grahamstown and the Eastern Cape”.

The university plans to make it a centre of academic excellence, improving primary school education, all the way to tertiary education.

“We have to brighten this corner where we find ourselves.”

Q&A with Dr Nomalanga Mkhize

Nomalanga Mkhize is a lecturer in the history department at Rhodes University. She is a project coordinator for non-governmental organisation Save Our Schools and writes books for children in African languages. With Women’s Day nearly upon us, she speaks to Wits Vuvuzela about women in society and gender equality.

Given that it has been 20 years of democracy, have we made progress in developing women’s roles in society and enforcing their rights?

Yes and no. We have made a lot of progress particularly in terms of reproductive rights, free basic health care to pregnant women, bringing certain discriminatory aspects of customary and religious laws in line with the constitution, creating opportunities for women in the workplace.
However, we also remain a very violent and unequal society and women usually bear the brunt of that depending on their class position and living conditions.

Rhodes University lecturer and activist, Dr Nomalanga Mkhize.

Rhodes University lecturer and activist, Dr Nomalanga Mkhize.

What can be done to improve the equality of women in society?

There is no one single answer, but we need a framework that recognizes that patriarchal cultures and attitudes are the root of the problem, we can’t see the problems women face outside of changing the culture that sees them as secondary to men, particularly in the private sphere of the home and relationships.
But if we had a single solution to free women, it is to give them economic independence so they can have greater choice and control over their lives.

Is the standard of education for girls at an acceptable level?

The quality of education for the majority of children in South Africa is unacceptable. Regardless of whether they are boys or girls, our children are not getting an education that will give them future choices.
Of course girls face specific problems with regard to education relating to lack of recognition of menstrual rights and stigma when falling pregnant while still at school.

Do you think social media platforms are effective in communicating campaigns about education?

No they are not. They raise awareness amongst a small group of people but rarely translate into the real world.

How do you feel about the #WearTheDoek campaign?

I think it’s stupid and offensive. Whoever came up with that idea is insulting women across this country and should be embarrassed.

What do you think are more progressive campaigns?

There are many campaigns, I will highlight one. There are campaigns and research led by the like of the Rural Women’s Movement and feminists such as Nomboniso Gasa to fight against laws such as the Traditional Courts Bill that discriminate against rural residents and particularly women.

UPDATED: Rhodes student under investigation for fire in student union building

UPDATE: MAY 29, 2014,  10:21am
Rhodes University has released another statement confirming that a Rhodes student currently in hospital for ingesting petrol, is under investigation by  South African Police Services (SAPS) as a possible link to a fire that damaged the Steve Biko student union building on Tuesday.
The university is offering counselling to all students in the same residence as the hospitalised student following the incidents.
UPDATE: MAY 28, 16:48 pm.

Rhodes University has released a statement confirming that the man who was involved in an incident at a fuel station early yesterday morning, is a student at the University.

The third year student, currently at Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth has been joined by his family. The university has said that “an initial internal investigation has revealed that the hospitalisation of the student may be linked to the fire which started at the Rhodes Pool Club (the Purple Horse) in the Steve Biko Building on Tuesday (27 May 2014) morning.” The university has not confirmed the link though, and neither has the South African Police Services.



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