RHODES University’s gentle vice-chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, faces the impossible task of deciding what to do about the name of the university he now heads.
One thing is clear after a marathon mass meeting with students on Thursday night: the recently appointed Mabizela won’t get away with deferring the debate as some of his predecessors did.
With the Rhodes SRC officially throwing its weight behind the University of Cape Town’s “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign and aligning itself to the vociferous group calling for debate on name change at Rhodes, the issue isn’t going to go away anytime soon.
SRC president Siyanda Makhubo yesterday said on social media the SRC had heeded its student body.
“A statement with a detailed mandate by the student body will be released . . . followed by a mission plan with a detailed timeline.”
An exhausted Mabizela sat quietly listening for almost four hours as dozens of students talked about their pain and alienation at being part of a university named after someone retired history Professor Paul Maylam has called an arch imperialist, racist and capitalist exploiter.
While the meeting was billed to address issues of transformation, a vocal few quickly narrowed it down to the single issue of name change. So great was the interest in the debate that a venue change from a large lecture hall to the Great Hall was necessary.
Despite being baited, Mabizela refused to be drawn on his personal view of whether or not the name should change. He said it would be irresponsible to do so as it could close down the debate.
“I believe in democracy and democratic processes. As VC, I cannot articulate my personal position if there is a process in future to discuss the name. I will respect whatever decision is arrived at after careful debate and argument by all those associated with this university.”
He did say he regarded Rhodes, the man, to be a “horrible person and an arch-imperialist” who had done great harm in South Africa.
But he said Rhodes, the university, had developed a brand identity separate from and stronger than the man. It now stood for excellence and advancement of education and was associated with scholarships – such as the Rhodes scholarship and the Mandela Rhodes scholarship – that
DR SIZWE MABIZELA had opened up access to study.
He said Fort Hare had similarly risen above its namesake, former eastern frontier lieutenant-governor Colonel John Hare. It now stood for struggle, empowerment and education.
Maylam, who has authored two books on Cecil John Rhodes, yesterday said in an interview Mabizela faced an unenviable task and was in a “no-win situation”.
He said a 1994 proposal to change the university’s name was resisted because many believed it would cost money and alienate generous donors.
Rhodes University College was so named more than a century ago because of money made available by the Rhodes Trust.
“The name came about because of money and it is might well remain because of money,” Maylam said.