There is a misconception going around. There is this idea that students at Rhodes University and the University of Cape Town are fighting over an ugly statue and a meaningless name. There is so much more to this than the name and this constant trivialising of these issues is starting to annoy me.
White imperialism and a lack of transformation in our higher learning institutions is not a trivial matter. It is so important that we address these matters because higher learning institutions are the breeding ground for future leaders. Student apathy at Rhodes University has been promoted and encouraged for a very long time and I have never been as proud to be an alumnus of the university as I am now. I am proud because the students at Rhodes University have decided to challenge the system that has limited their dialogue for so long.
There is this illusion that has been created around university transformation and I believe we have been fooled by seeing black people appointed as Vice Chancellors at universities they would not have admitted them as students at some point. Our attention is diverted by the appointments of Prof Adam Habib, Dr Sizwe Mabizela for Rhodes, Prof Jonathan Jansen, Prof Ihron Rensburg, Prof Derrick Swartz and our favourite of them all Prof Cheryl De La Rey. We see these faces and we see change. We believe that there is radical transformation because if the University of Pretoria can higher a black woman as their Vice Chancellor then halala man we are progressing.
Have you ever heard of white washing? Do yourself a favour and peruse university websites. Click on those department staff profiles. Count the number of black faces and then recount the number of those black faces looking at their roles in the department. The number will be decreased by half or more when you realise that the black staff are admin clerks and support staff – the politically correct way to say the cleaning ladies. Black academics in South Africa are not progressing. Not because they do not have a hunger to progress but because in many instances they are deliberately blocked from progressing. They write, they publish, they work but still they are not promoted as quickly as their white counterparts. They study and research and produce work but their Masters degree takes about four years rather than the minimum two because the support structures in place are not for them. Their supervisors are not trying to see them grow nor are they helping them with a concerted effort. These are the stories of people but who will listen?
People’s stories, their experiences are being delegitimised because they cannot prove that the delay in their studies was due to the cloud of their skin. When you have people like Patricia De Lille asking for evidence of racism you begin to question what racism looks and feels like. You ask yourself if perhaps it is in your mind and you just didn’t meet the required standard they needed for you to complete your studies. Low-key racism will never have tangible evidence and it is so unfair to ask people to provide that.
In an article by Chester Missing he highlighted the sad statistics in higher education. “In South Africa only 4% of the full professors in higher education are black. I want to know why the people in charge aren’t throwing poo at themselves? From rectum to rector. Of those 4% only 0.85% are female,” he says.
That is a shocking statistic. We need to question these things.We need to ask why and we need to have robust engagements on these issues. That can only happen however when Rhodes University stops referring to what is happening at Rhodes as a “racist storm”. It will only happen when they stop shutting students out of the main administration building. It will only happen when Dr Sizwe Mabizela is not a the face of transformation. And it will only happen when you start seeing these students as more than just a group of angry blacks who are complaining about a name. They are intellectuals, they are future leaders and they are exercising their right to question the status quo. They have been taught to be the change they want to see but as soon as they do they are silenced.
Transformation needs to include all relevant stakeholders. The students have started the movement so alumni, senate, lecturers and the community now need to come to the party.