Rhodes reacts to M&G discrimination

By Kyle Robinson

The Crane Soudien report on discrimination in South African higher level education, which was set up after the racist incident at the University of Free State in 2007, has highlighted fundamental concerns regarding the implementation of transformation policy at university level.

It was reported in a Mail & Guardian article that one of the findings of the Crane Soudien report was that, at Rhodes, male student “thugs” allegedly get away with the rape of lesbians, to “cure them”. There was also a mention of assaults on black gay men. The Rhodes University submission to the committee consisted of the individual voices of staff and students, even if there were disagreements. Dean of Students, Dr Vivian de Klerk, commented that [Mail & Guardian] journalists have taken those to reflect the general situation of the University. “What journalists have done is they’ve picked little, sharp, harsh things that relate to what a particular Rhodes student or staff member said. Sadly, that does distort perceptions in the media,” said De Klerk.

The research for the report was carried out over six months. Committee members visited 23 higher education institutions, including Rhodes. Information was gathered from questionnaires, interviews and submissions made by university management and staff, student representatives, and anyone else who wanted to express their opinions.

The report noted that, “every single institution in the country is experiencing difficulties and facing challenges in being both transformative and successful.” It went on to say that “there are sufficient grounds to believe that serious problems exist.” The most alarming discovery is that many black people feel they are merely tolerated in historically white institutions.

Whilst acknowledging the enormity of the task tackled by the report’s committee, De Klerk said the report was very general and vague. “It’s trying not to pinpoint any particular institution,” she said. “The consequences might be that the stereotyping continues about certain institutions, so it would have been more helpful if it provided some facts about certain institutions.” She gave the example of Rhodes being grouped together with all other white, English-speaking universities.

The report refers to “powerful institutions whose history and residual character is colonial and white”. De Klerk admits that Rhodes does have this history, from which a “traditional white institutional culture” emerges. “It affects the way we think. It affects the state of our policy engagement. The fact is, we do have a very white male academic staff and it is difficult to shift things quickly,” she said.

Despite criticisms on the thoroughness of the report, De Klerk acknowledges that it has provided a firm platform for further debate and discussion. “I think it serves the purpose of raising awareness and reminding the universities that they are of prime importance in leading transformation,” said De Klerk.

Jacob Phamodi, the Student Representative Council (SRC) Activism and Transformation officer, stressed that the problem now lies in keeping the discussions going. “We are finding that a problem,” he said. “Even in our University, where we’ve had these discussions for years and years, there’s just been no follow-through on them. So we need to formalise a process where a follow-through can happen and we can start seeing results.”

One of the key issues Phamodi raised was the absence of the Institutional Forum, which is a body that has to exist by law. “I can’t remember the last time the Institutional Forum in this institution sat,” said Phamodi. This forum is the third of the University’s statutorily recognised bodies, including the Council and the Senate, and is supposed to deal specifically with transformation and the race and gender composition of the institution. Instead, this forum has been absorbed by the Senate, which is meant to deal only with the management and governance. With the Senate now having to adopt two roles, Phamodi believes it does not adequately address transformation.

The student body is active and is taking initiative and there were over 400 students who took part in protests this year, which is double last year’s amount. But there is no support at institutional level. “Activism is viewed as a hobby by the institution,” said Phamodi. An example would be that, unlike most other universities, Rhodes relies on the student-run Student HIV/Aids Resistence Campaign (SHARC) as its HIV/Aids unit, whereas other universities have their own institutionally-run HIV/Aids programmes. “The commitments are not coming from the institution, but from the students themselves,” he said. “The students come and go and so there is no continual policy sustainment in the area.”
SRC president, Kholosa Loni, says the SRC’s new constitution is taking the report’s recommendations into account and will help establish the principles upon which the constitution will rest. The Gender Action Forum, a Senate committee, also “has become more active and has more biting power,” according to Phamodi.

De Klerk rejects the report’s conclusion that none of South Africa’s universities have actively “engaged with the challenges of transformation in an open, robust, and self-critical manner”. De Klerk said that, “Rhodes has made an honest attempt to engage critically with its own efforts at transformation.”

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