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Tensions rising at Rhodes University over race and transformation

Sep 2, 2015
Tensions rising at Rhodes University over race and transformation

Tensions are mounting between Rhodes University in Grahamstown and a student movement calling itself the Black Student Movement (BSM) over what the movement alleges to be a lack of transformation at the institution.

The BSM has over the past week or so occupied the Vice Chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela's office, interrupted a Senate Meeting and the annual Highway Africa Conference, which is hosted at the institution, while the university also hit back with allegations of BSM activists stealing confidential information and other property from the Vice Chancellor's office during their occupation.

Rhodes University's Communications and Marketing Division, in a statement that was published electronically via the Student News Digest on Tuesday said; "A communique was sent out on Thursday, 27 August regarding the recent developments on campus. In it we noted that there had been some behaviour that disrupted staff from working and the disruption of meetings," the .

It said that on Friday, a Senate meeting was due to take place in the Council Chamber. Out of respect for the Black Student Movement (BSM), who have been occupying the Council Chamber in protest, a new venue, the Gavin Reilly Post-Grad Village (GRPGV) was chosen as it was available at such short notice.

"The BSM became aware of the change in venue and proceeded up Lucas Avenue. The gates at the GRPGV were closed in order that Senate could proceed without disruption as there were urgent items for discussion on the agenda including a discussion with regards to a long-term solution for the vacation accommodation. The BSM had not been invited to the Senate meeting as SRC members represent students at these meetings."

The univesity said that BSM students began pushing the gates and out of fear for the safety of students and property, as the road outside of the GRPGV, where the students were, is outside of the jurisdiction of CPU, a call was made to the South African Police Service (SAPS) who were carrying out routine vehicle checks on the N2, off of Lucas Avenue.

"They had been there since 10:00am on Friday doing the vehicle checks. The SAPS made their way towards GRPGV. One vehicle had a Police dog in it, members of the Dog Unit do patrol with their dogs as part of routine vehicle checks. At no stage was the dog let out of the vehicle. Although there was Police presence, there was no active involvement by the Police."

The BSM eventually forced the gate off the rails and made their way through the side of the gate. At this point, the BSM came into the Senate meeting and started to disrupt the meeting.

"Many staff members felt disrespected and threatened by the students who were singing, toyi-toying and jumping on the table and filming without permission. This after the BSM recently took journalists to task for filming without permission. Rhodes University requests that both staff and students remain dignified and respect each other.

"The Vice-Chancellor has repeatedly called for engagement and has stated that no matter how strongly you may believe in the correctness of your position, views and perspectives, you must accept and respect the position, views and perspectives of others and resist the temptation to launch ad hominem attacks on them," the university said.

"We note with great concern that a staff member behaved in a manner which is unacceptable by throwing water at one of our students. This does not in any way represent what we stand for as a community."

Misrepresentation of events in BSM video

The university claimed that it had made strides in transforming the institution and that a video released by the BSM titled; 'Apartheid 2015' is a "misrepresentation of the events that took place on Friday at the Senate meeting".

"To imply that Rhodes University has a culture of apartheid is patently untrue and cannot be allowed to stand as fact.

"Rhodes University will not tolerate racism, sexism and other inappropriate and chauvinistic behaviours against any of our students and staff members regardless of their race, religion or sexuality as outlined in our Constitution. Rhodes University is a home for all students and staff and nobody is to be discriminated against," read the statement.

"The 'Apartheid 2015' video implies that the Management of this institution are all white and uphold apartheid principles. The video has blatantly falsified the events that took place at Senate on 28 August 2015 to fit a particular narrative which does not represent Rhodes University in 2015."

BSM students stole from Vice Chancellor's office

According to the university, BSM students were caught photocopying documents in the Vice-Chancellor’s Office in the evening of Wednesday.

"A case has been filed with the SAPS as the photocopying of confidential University documents kept in the Office of the Vice-Chancellor without authorisation is theft of property.

"The BSM have removed the tapestry which was hung in the Council Chamber in October 2011. This is unfortunate as the tapestry was an active part of the transformation process and had been commissioned out of debates about the appropriateness of the images displayed at the institution and suggestions that the University should look towards commissioning art which could assist in reconfiguring the campus into a space which is sensitive to diversity.

"The tapestry was created by the Keiskamma Art Project, an Eastern Cape based organisation. These were commissioned after the portraits of previous Vice-Chancellor’s and Chancellors were removed and relocated elsewhere as part of a process to move towards a more diverse and inclusive institutional culture. A call was put out to the University staff, students and alumni for ideas and these were made available to the Keiskamma group to incorporate in their designs."

Disruption of Highway Africa Conference

On Sunday, members of the BSM disrupted the Highway Africa conference. The organisers of the Highway Africa gave the BSM members an opportunity to engage with them.

Dr Mabizela also addressed the members at Highway Africa saying:“We are a nation founded on democratic values of freedom, equality, and human dignity. Our Constitution contains a Bill of Rights with the rights to which every citizen is entitled. The rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights are not absolute. In the exercise of our rights, we have a responsibility to respect the rights of others.

"Our rights end where and when we start to encroach on the rights of others. Also, the exercise of our rights should be within the bounds of the law. As members of the society, we must treat each other with respect and dignity. Members of our society have a right to protest. This should however be done within the prescripts of the law and with due regard to and respect of the rights of others.

BSM response to interruption of Senate meeting

In a statement released in response to their interruption of the Rhodes University Senate meeting last week, the BSM said that they have been raising "concerns around decolonisation in general and vacation accommodation in particular at the University currently known as ‘Rhodes’" since March.

"In March, students were expected to pay R3 900 to be accommodated for two weeks; similarly students needing to stay would be charged R2 080 for accommodation during the upcoming September vacation. Many students from working class backgrounds are not able to afford these excessive fees and are also not able to afford transport costs," read the statement.

"After running into countless bureaucratic obstacles, the BSM wished to engage the Senate of the University currently known as ‘Rhodes’ regarding the pressing issue of an exclusionary vacation accommodation policy. In order to ensure that this discussion takes place, the BSM decided to continue its occupation of the BSM Commons, formally known as the Rhodes University Council Chambers, where Senate would meet at 14h15 on Friday 28 August 2015."

The BSM claims that after going to a new venue that had been chosen for the Senate meeting, "students were confronted by armed police officers with canine units, and general hostility".

"It ought to be noted that the University administration was well aware of the BSM’s intention to  address Senate on Friday at 14h15. It was clear that the police, campus protection unit and security guards were deployed to deny the BSM engagement with the decision-making bodies within the institution.

The BSM claims that the police were already there before their arrival and the university clearly inteneded to shut them out.

"Members of the BSM were not given any legitimate reason for being denied entry to this part of University property. They were subjected to both verbal and physical violence and intimidation. The BSM insisted that it is entitled to enter the gate to talk to Senate about pressing issues – as it said it would.

"As members of the BSM confronted those who were aggressively trying to exclude them, more SAPS officers of different units were called. By the time BSM entered the gate, there were at least 7 police cars present. These included numerous – mostly armed – officers as well as canine units," read its statement.

"The degree of force that was employed by the university was absolutely disproportionate to the possible ‘threat’ posed by the students. Since its conception, BSM has not given any indication that it has violent tendencies, and the ultimate goal of the BSM was always to address the Senate of the university."

It said that once the BSM finally managed to enter the venue and it became clear that many members of Senate would not listen to the concerns of the students, and the BSM  agreed to let them leave.

"The – mostly white and male – Senate members who left were only slightly more conservative than those who remained behind. The legitimate concerns and demands of the BSM were trivialised and their action was widely criminalised.

"Many members of Senate, including the Chair, smirked at the issues raised by students. One member of Senate threw water into the face of a young female BSM member. When she asked him why he disrespected her in this way, he arrogantly blew her a kiss. Receiving neither empathy nor cooperation from the Senate, the BSM was eventually frustrated enough to leave the Senate meeting," the movement claims.

"The BSM condemns the lack of transparency in this institution, it also condemns the decision to move the meeting of Senate and to call the SAPS force rather than engage with the legitimate concerns of students.

"We condemn the criminalisation of the BSM by the University administration – which coincidentally failed to remember the Marikana Massacre on 16 August.It is disgraceful that SAPS were called by the University; this has not happened at any South African University where student movements have been very active this year."

It said that it also denounces the "hostility and reactionary attitude with which the members of Senate ‘received’ students who wished to urgently address them".

"We are disappointed in the passivity of Senate when students were being intimidated by the SAPS and other security forces. We question where the loyalties of Senate lie, if not with the students of the University? The BSM, as part of an undertaking to decolonise the University, has made it clear that it seeks a sustainable solution to the exclusionary arrangements for short vacations.

"Seeing that the concerns of the BSM were not even listened to, the Occupation of the BSM Commons will continue. The regressive individuals involved in the events on and around 28 August clearly are stuck in their pasts. They are obstacles to transformation and remain adamantly opposed to meaningful change. Their ideas and actions do not have a place in a fully transformed and decolonised university.'

The BSM also appealed to Rhodes University funders, Alumni, government and other stakeholders to reconsider the terms on which they affiliate themselves with the institution.

"The time for moral clarity has come. The actions of the Senate and Senior Administration at this institution represent the violent and colonial legacy of Cecil John Rhodes. The BSM has distanced itself from this legacy, and we will continue to fight until black lives really do matter. Until the imagined student is the African student."