Rhodes So White

“…It very clear that the name isn’t gonna change. Students came to Rhodes knowing its name so why did people chose to come here if there was such an issue. If students have an issue with the name, move. I think this so called Rhodessowhite is huge generalizations to alot of people on campus and to be open beginning to piss alot of people off… How can one say the benefits go to the whites. We are all at university together, therefore WE HAVE BOTH BEEN GIVEN EQUAL OPPORTUNITY TO SUCCEED.. So why not do what we came to do and focus on our academics? This has quite frankly been taken too far, creating an uncomfortable ‘feel’ around campus.”

This post, of course, although expressed with sincerity, is highly ironic. It is precisely because of attitudes such as this that the “uncomfortable” conversation has to be had about the whiteness of institutions. Alicia de Sousa is bothered because people are challenging her comfort at an institution specifically designed to cater to her needs and desires, and this is unpleasant to her. According to her, if you don’t like the institution built with public funds that caters to her and the 9% of the population that is like her, then you can go to any of the other institutions built exclusive to educate the (black) 80% of the population, none of which are ranked in the top 5 institutions in the country. Duh! Of course, the comments below the post (too many to count) shouting down poor Alicia and calling her names is not going to change her opinion on the matter. 

I shook my head at her comment, and despaired a little for all the well-intentioned Alicias of the world. Her words, in caps, “We have both been given equal opportunity to succeed,” reminded me of an argument I had with a good friend of mine, back in my first year at Rhodes University in 2005. She was white, and had said something all the lines of, “I don’t see why everyone makes such a big deal of apartheid. Here you are, and here I am, and that fact that we’re both here means we’re equal.” My jaw dropped in disbelief. I couldn’t believe someone could say something like that. Having been raised by struggle activist parents, I took it for granted that every South African was aware of the glaring inequality between white lives and black lives in our country. 

I could explain to her and others how my grandparents were forcefully removed to a township under Group Areas, or how, as coloureds, teaching was the only option for my parents to have a professional career, or how the odds were so stacked against the generations before me who lived through apartheid that my attending university at all is a testament to their hard work and determination that the next generation will be better off than the last. But that wouldn’t really be illustrative of my point. Because as hard as it was for my forebears, I am still much more “equal” to Alicia de Sousa and my first-year friend than many, and by “many” I mean upwards of half, of the student population at Rhodes University.

Coming from a middle-class home where I was raised to speak English, despite the fact that my parents’ mother tongue is Afrikaans, meant that the academic lingo required to write my essays was hardly a stretch for me. The fact that I came from a largely Western-cultured home meant that the food on the “Normal” menu option (as opposed to “African”, “Halaal”, “Fast food”, etc) wasn’t that far from what was considered “normal” food at home, nor did I struggle with a knife and fork. In addition, I am coloured, but I look mostly white, so my appearance was never an issue when I asked for customer service from the administrators, librarians, or academic staff. I never had to worry about owing the university money, as I knew my parents had all that sorted. Any money I made in my part-time jobs was for my own consumption, and I never had to send any back to family at home. My parents brought the first computer into our house when I was about 8 years old. I could operate Windows and MS Word, navigate the internet, and touch type by the time I was 15, thus researching and typing my university assignments was never an issue. I was raised to love reading, love libraries and books, and so knew how to use an index, knew the Dewey decimal system of book shelving, knew how to operate the software system that located where books are shelved. In addition, having been at a private girls high school on scholarship, I was used to navigating white spaces, used to changing my accent from the one I used at home in order to be accepted, used to being surrounded by people far more materially advantaged than I was and not feeling intimidated. 

Working for ACTIVATE! Change Drivers, with participants from all walks of life, my heart often breaks  for Lehlohonolo, who dreams of studying at UCT, Wits or Rhodes, but whose spoken English is 
heavily accented by his native tongue, whose written English is riddled with grammar, spelling and punctuation errors, and who struggles to find his way around a computer. Lehlohonolo is not stupid, indeed, he is innovative in his concepts, original in his contributions, and astute in his observations, and is eager to learn. But he will be graded as a failure by lecturers who won’t even bother to learn to pronounce his name. Without the advantages I had, and without supportive parents who understand the tertiary education system, the odds of him succeeding, regardless of how hard he works, are stacked so heavily against him in this, our free South Africa. 

So yes, there is a need for the #RhodesSoWhite campaign. Whether the name is changed or not, to me, is not the point. The point is to make people uncomfortable by starting to question the way the institution operates, the multiple ways it excludes those who do not come from an extremely narrow set of conditions, the way we have normalised whiteness as the standard and hold everyone else to be judged by it. 

The greatest form of inequality is to treat unequal things equally, so why do we continue to provide the exact same (lack of) academic support to those from advantaged households and disadvantaged households and expect them to perform the same? It has been noted elsewhere that Rhodes offers pitifully few academic support programmes, and that the four-year extended programme hardly makes up for almost two decades of support middle-class students have received at home. It has been noted that seven out of 57 full-time professors are black at Rhodes, and so who is to be the academic role model to Lehlohonolo, to tell him that he, too, can achieve great heights in academia? Who is challenging whiteness at an academic level, objecting when a Politics course on The Politics of Africa is replaced by one on American Imperialism, as happened in my third year? 

The conversation around meaningful transformation in our academic institutions is long overdue, 
and it goes so much further than a statue or a name.

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