By Jessica Edgson
A “Save Zimbabwe” protest organised by Zimsoc, 18 April 2008
There are two things that one learns upon arrival at Rhodes University. The first is that you are no longer a big fish in a small pond and the second is that the time has come to start caring about the world around you. Universities have a reputation for turning apathetic teenagers into thinkers and, in my opinion, Rhodes in particular has a reputation for turning thinkers into activists. Being politically and socially aware of our surroundings is not a new trend for Rhodents. Sir Basil Schonland, the first Chancellor of our esteemed institution, resigned in 1962 to protest the segregation of Universities in South Africa. Taking a detailed look at the history of Rhodes University, it becomes clear that Rhodents aren’t afraid to ‘stick it to the man’.Last year, Rhodents made it into the news when over 2000 students marched against woman abuse after a female Rhodes student had been allegedly gang raped. The incident occurred during the infamous Tri-Varsity period and corresponded with understandable outrage. The consequent protesting received attention from News24, giving the students what they needed: a voice. This was certainly not the first time, nor the last, that Rhodents have raised their voices to attract attention to important issues. During rape awareness week, on 30 April 2008, around 150 students taped their mouths shut as a way of aligning themselves with rape victims. When it comes to violent crimes and social or political injustices, the worst thing one can do is do nothing at all. A first year in 2008, Kirsten Harris, handcuffed herself along with many other female students to protest the amount of time that rape cases take. When asked about the experience she replied, “It felt good to be trying to make a difference, even if it didn’t help. Just doing it and showing support for other people does make a difference.”
Rhodents are always willing to break the silence when it comes to important issues, but one should not forget that in more turbulent political times, such as during the apartheid era, protesting was no easy task. Kathy Wegener, a Rhodes graduate from 1989, recalls the atmosphere at the University as extremely tense. Wegener remembers many marches against police brutality, the banning of the ANC and the permanent lights flooding the townships. Wegener also believes that, had she not come from a politically aware household, she would have had her eyes opened at university, especially a University as controversial as Rhodes. The main difference between the activism that goes on now and the activism that went on then is that we have far more freedom to protest today. Wegener spoke of police showing up at protests with their dogs to break up the disturbances. The circumstances under which the students could protest were strictly monitored by the police and there were specific places on campus where students were allowed to gather to express themselves. Today, though, we are encouraged to participate in the many different societies involved in charities and movements for protest or change and, indeed, many of us do. It is often said that the Rhodes lifestyle is like living in a bubble, separated and excluded from everything else in the world. In many ways this is very true, but with just a little bit of will and effort one can find oneself deeply involved in something which truly does matter, whether to the University, Grahamstown or even the world.
Fighting for ‘the cause’ – whatever it may be – is a part of the Rhodes University way of life and has been since it was first built. Everyone has an opinion and Rhodents like to have theirs heard. We must not, however, forget how lucky we are that we have the right to protest without the threat of police brutality. In this day and age, we have the ability to protest anything, anywhere and at anytime, but we also have the responsibility to pick our causes with care.