04 September 2009

Racism still haunts Rhodes

Rhodes Rejects Racism. Posters and stickers with this slogan were
spread widely around the university this week, following
Vice-Chancellor Saleem Badat's call for action against racism. The
call by Badat, for members of the university community to acts against
racism, was prompted by a racial attack against University Professor
Fackson Banda and his family. Banda and his family were driving
through the university during the Inter-Varisty weekend when a Rhodes
student allegedly shouted the racial insult ‘Niggers’ at them.

Badat was "hugely distressed by this despicable behaviour" and called
for a series of activities starting from Monday 24 August, to promote
“human dignity, human rights, equality, non-sexism and non-racialism
at Rhodes”. Ribbons, posters and stickers were distributed throughout
the university along with a circular from Badat, and lecturers were
asked to have discussions on the issue.

Professor Jen Snowball was one of the lecturers who heeded the call by
handing out copies of the circular to approximately 800 of her
students. "Although there wasn't much discussion, the majority of
students listened to the explanation of what had happened," she added.
Adrian Visagie, a computer science student, wore a ribbon and said,
"Racism is so close minded, it not thinking. Campaigns likes this make
people aware that racism is there."

Professor Alan Kirkaldy issued a statement on behalf of the National
Tertiary Education Staff Union (NTESU) condemning racism and extended
it to sexism and homophobia. The statement condemned the "sexist
slogans on a number of the overalls worn by Rhodes students" during
Inter-Varsity, as well as the alleged homophobic attack which resulted
"in a student being stabbed in the neck by a broken bottle". Kirkaldy
said that the university has very good policies on racism, sexism and
other forms of discrimination, "but is sometimes not rigorous in
implementing, perhaps due to the fear of bad publicity." He said that
the campaign has been quite well received, but he has heard concerns
from students about the university's commitment to change.

Banda expressed his appreciation for support and solidarity and said
that the campaign has been well recieved. "This campaign can't solve
the problem of racism but it will help," said Banda. "This is not an
isolated incident. Many people suffer from racism and they must be
able to report it without feeling that it will be swept under the
carpet." He feels that the university has shown strong leadership in
responding and this has allowed people to express what lay dormant in
their minds about all forms of discrimination. "For me this was about
democracy and education. During their university years students are
meant to cultivate the values of democratic citizenship - tolerance,
respect, civility, non-racism, etc. - that they will need to live
their adult lives successfully in a multicultural setting."

The SRC and Sports Council joined other student and academic groups in
condemning all forms of discrimination. "Our objective remains to have
sport at Rhodes be a
medium for genuine integration and promotion of social cohesion of
various peoples," said the Sports Council statement.

Vuyo Sileku, a chemistry student, said that "campaigns have been going
on for ages. How long are we going to have campaigns for? How long are
we going to keep wearing ribbons and stickers?" He said that there are
deeper issues that need to be tackled but nobody was willing to tackle
them. "People are criticizing this campaign now. Racism won't end at
Rhodes until mindsets change," he added.

A student, who wished to remain anonymous, said that while this
campaign is a positive step, the university is "still reluctant to
make real changes". She said that Rhodes has come a long way from
being a traditionally white university, but many are still unhappy.
Last year, the South African Students' Congress (Sasco) called for the
name of Rhodes University to be changed, because of its connection to
British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes. "Rhodes was a mass murderer and
a racist," said Kirkaldy who is a history professor. "I had a guest
visiting here who was astonished that there is still a residence
called Jameson House." The Gender Action Committee at Rhodes is trying
to remove portraits of "old white men" from the university's council
chambers, but is facing massive resistance from lecturers and some
students. Kirkaldy said that the art on display at the university
should also "reflect a commitment to change". "People have to know the
good and the bad about these people who's names and faces are still
part of the university today. Most student don't know who Rhodes was -
they think he was just another diamond miner."

But Banda said that the issues of renaming have always been a part of
a larger debate on campus and must not crowd out the more important
issues on hand.

This article first appeared in the Grocott's Mail - http://bit.ly/WKcTU

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