Rhodes University, Grahamstown. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH
Rhodes University, Grahamstown. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH

The Rhodes University council voted by 15 votes to nine by way of a secret ballot at last week’s meeting to retain the institution’s name, after a process started two years ago to advance transformation.

The continuing prominence of Victorian archcolonialist and educational benefactor Cecil John Rhodes at South African universities has aroused strong feelings among students. In 2015, as a result of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the University of Cape Town, the Rhodes statue on the campus was removed.

The Rhodes council said in a statement on Wednesday that in 2015 it had decided to advance transformation at the university through a broad transformation summit, involving its whole community. The summit, held in July this year, decided to design a process to resolve the issue of the university’s name.

Some of the relevant issues were the university’s financial sustainability, as government funding was declining, and appropriate remuneration of its academic staff, the council said. The university also had to address its institutional culture to make it welcoming and supportive to everyone.

"Part of the need to create and sustain an institutional culture that is welcoming and affirming of all is the need to respond to calls for ‘decolonisation’," it said.

The council said there was no dispute that Rhodes was a supremacist who treated people in Southern Africa as subhuman and there was not much about him to celebrate. But over its 113-year history Rhodes University had established a brand representing academic excellence, and today most of its students were from poor and working-class backgrounds. Its values were very different from those that Rhodes represented.

Although some of the university’s community believed its transformation would never be complete as long as it retained Rhodes’s name, others had argued its identity was separate and it did not make financial sense to invest a lot of money at this point in a rebranding exercise.

"This has been a difficult decision to make and, regardless of the results of the ballot, there are no winners from this process," it said. "While democratic decision-making is, and must always be, respected as a cornerstone upon which we build the university, the council accepts that further actions must and will be taken to ensure that appropriate recognition is given to the hurt generated by the legacy of Cecil John Rhodes."

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