A Paper by Thembinkosi Lehloesa (1993)

Tranformation Logo
Tranformation Logo


A paper by

Thembinkosi Lehloesa


As an institution Rhodes University was established in 1904 as an exclusively white university. It served white interests and British capitalism. The importance to differentiate between the two arises from the fact that white racism had its own consequences on black and African people. It destroyed their self-esteem, their sense of achievement, dignity and humanity for over 350 years. British capitalism established white businesses that were owned and managed from London. In that sense it did not even recognise the existence of Afrikaners. Afrikaners achieved dominance in the South African political landscape in 1948 with the ascent of the National Party onto the political scene. Africans could not because white racism unified Afrikaners and the British. To the extent, until 1994 all successful white owned mining companies were British. Their CEOs had links with Rhodes University because they were taught there. Afrikaners had education primarily at new Afrikaans speaking universities they established like the University of Pretoria.


The year 1994 opened a new chapter in South Africa’s political, social and economic landscape. Nelson Mandela was elected President and the African National Congress became government for the first time. That ushered in a period of transformation. What the ANC had for the process was the Reconstruction and Development Programme, otherwise known as the RDP. It had five basic aims. They included


  • democratisation,
  • meeting basic needs,
  • the development of South Africa’s human and economic resources, and
  • the management and monitoring of reconstruction and development


What was important for education was the development of South Africa’s human resource. All universities were called upon to do that. No university was forced to change through legislation being passed to adhere to the RDP. A guide was given from the Office of the Presidency. Rhodes University still had a white student population. All academics were white. After the 1994 general elections the trend continued. The South African Student’s Congress, which was an organisation composed mainly of black students, had to fight from that year against academic exclusions. This was because the university attempted to admit a few African students that were mainly from the Transkei. When they failed because they did not have preparation the university refused to increase their intake. Patronising arguments were made for doing so. They were that it was in the interests of the students themselves to be saved from the pain of exclusion after a year. Hence, by 2000 the university still had 1 464 black undergraduate students to 2 549 white students.[1]


Africans are in the majority in South Africa. They made up 35 million of the total population in 2001. Coloureds constituted 3 million, Indians 1 million and whites 4 million.[2] No country can become sustainable and live in peace when the majority of its population is refused access to education. The issue of numbers is not about domination. It is about giving equal opportunity to all.


In the 1 464 black undergraduates 623 were from Zimbabwe and 294 from other African countries. That fact reduced the number of black South African students further. Astoundingly, when being audited in 2006 by the Council on Higher Education Higher Education Quality Committee the university justified the numbers as it has been doing so since 1993 on ‘geographical location’ and ‘the poor matriculations records in the Eastern Cape’.[3] It did not seek to rectify poor black education. South Africa’s population was growing younger. Estimates were that the country had 63 percent of people between the ages of 15 and 30. Their concentration was in the poorest provinces. About 46 percent were in the Eastern Cape and were below 20.[4] In the other provinces the comparative percentages for the contribution of the 0 –19-year-old groups ranged from 34 percent in the Western Cape to 49 percent in Limpopo. Over 65 percent of the entire youth had no employment. This was despite the fact that the population with matric increased from 16 percent in 1996 to 29 percent in 2011.


When the university was faced with yet another round of protests from SASCO in 1996 that included demands against financial exclusions it agreed to the formation of the Broad Transformation Forum. That outcome came as a result of pressure students through SASCO had to put to the university demanding the dismissal of the Dean of Finance, Moosa Motara. The trigger was his calling of students at night to come and pay fees. He had the audacity to challenge students to ‘sing like Brenda Fassie’ to earn money for fees. SASCO joined the demand with the demand against academic exclusions. When the university recognised that SASCO had strength because the organisation disrupted classes it succumbed. But this was half-hearted. For when the meeting for the BTF was convened with all the Deans in attendance in 1996 including the Vice-Chancellor and the Registrar they decided to leave the meeting with only the introductory speeches having been made. As a consequence, the university faltered in transformation. Workers and students could not force it to change. As a consequence, today shock results can be obtained when comparisons are made with what was formerly known as the University of Port Elizabeth. The university responded immediately after the publication of the RDP to calls for change. It immediately agreed to the formation of the BTF. The profile of its student population changed drastically. Now it has a new name: the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. Academically, it changed focus so it aligned itself with international trends focusing on the development of IT skills for the economy. It had sustainable development studies as a new field.


Perhaps, to even mark more Rhodes University’s reticence to change regard must just be had to the fact that students had to force the university in 1996 to recognise 27 April as a holiday. They had to disrupt classes. The date needed no justification because it marked South Africa’s first experience with democracy. But not to Rhodes University. When the university sought to deal with the pressure SASCO placed on it during the same year it gave the SASCO leadership 127 files of students, all black, to sift through and decided whether they deserved academic inclusion or not. The students had been taken in in that year. They had just spent six months at the university. Without reference to any academic tool because SASCO wanted to help the students it agreed. The result was SASCO excluded a few of those students who did not attain more than 40 percent in the June results. That decision must rank as one of the most painful the SASCO leadership has had to take. It was a betrayal of students, for it was never discussed with them. A scar was opened in some of the leadership who witnessed the development.         


The #Fees Must Fall movement triggered a refocus on the need for change. This was when the student movement internally at the university was at its weakest. But here again the focus seems to be about preserving the old status instead of looking at the real problems.


There is no visionary statement the university has for wanting change. It is simply reacting to the #Fees Must Fall movement. That much is evident from a statement that was read for the Vice-Chancellor at Convocation and old Rhodian Union meeting on 8 June 2017. The focus in the speech was on the demands of the #Fees Must Fall movement, academic exclusions, name change. This even as the #Fees Must Fall movement is a temporal development on the South African scene for it will pitter out in a few years. The statements addressed the issues in general without giving any direction on what must happen regarding each one of them. A consequence was a white attendee of the meeting read a statement from a black person that was anti-transformation giving it as justification for not wanting change at the university.


Three issues have to be addressed by the university if it has to remain relevant in South Africa and stop patronising. These are:


  • the admissions policy (encompassing both the academic and financial aspects),
  • academic research and output, and
  • the composition of Council and Senate.


Transformation at South African universities and tertiary institutions is no longer driven by student demands. There is the issue of the economy. Graduates with engineering and IT skills who must fill up posts in government and the private sector are few. The Department of Trade and Industry records that in manufacturing, which is key for the economy to grow, artisans representing the largest proportion (72 percent) of the key technical occupations decrease each year by 0,7 percent per year. The university must have a plan for five years on how to deal with this issue. Each aspect of transformation must be reviewable after five years. There is need to help advance the school education system. Those issues were at the core of the RDP as they are now.


Here the university would be on the right course if concentrated on giving learners at schools within Grahamstown programmes that increase their knowledge of the subjects they deal with. The university must offer free after school classes for grades 7 to 12. In the classes it must identify the best students to groom for taking up learnerships at the university once those learners had reached and passed grade 12. There must be coordination with other universities on transformation to learn results and expand the scope of transformation. Students must be capacitated with resources consisting of a full-time employed researcher/coordinator and coordinators for transformation. The lesson from SASCO is that students do not have the time to attend to the business of transformation. Full-time researcher/coordinator for a period of two years will be given the time because they will be employed. The SRC fails this function because it too has student leaders that are more concerned about studying than leading issues of transformation. The impact of the researcher/coordinator can be reviewed after five years.        


A transformation forum must be institutionalised consisting of technical committees on vision (for five years), academic and financial exclusions, admissions, schools within Grahamstown, name changing, Council and Senate composition and research output. This forum must be given powers to raise issues directly with Council and the Senate. Its decisions cannot be overridden by those institutions. The students’ transformation researcher/coordinator must sit in the transformation forum in addition to the number of students that will be allowed. He/she must be the key driver of the transformation agenda for them inside the forum. How the researcher/coordinator is selected or employed must be the prerogative of students themselves without supervision from the university.


There are implications for academic exclusions that affect Fort Hare University. For Fort Hare accepts students that Rhodes University excluded on academic grounds. Those students, most of them, leave the institution having been awarded loans and bursaries from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme. To have students leaving the institution in that way when they are supposed to do their second year places always Fort Hare at a disadvantage. The university must all the time refund the students for entrance there from the NSFAS. That is not just a financial loss to the students because they would have to repay funding at Rhodes University too, which was lost. Now they also have to pay for studying the same year at Fort Hare. This established the importance of linking transformation issues with Fort Hare. The forum being proposed must have discussions with that university seeking to understand this impact. This will be part of a task to help the Eastern Cape. More, universities in the province can be included in this way so cooperation can be harnessed for the purposes of using resources from government more beneficially for higher education for the Eastern Cape. This task will necessitate the formation of another technical committee.     

[1] Rhodes University Academic Planning and Quality Assurance Office. Digest of Statistics. Version 5: 2001.

[2] StatsSA Census 2011 Fact Sheet.  

[3] Council on Higher Education Higher Education Quality Committee. Executive Summary. Audit Report on Rhodes University. December 2006.

[4] See Bureau of Market Research (2006) Population Estimates of South Africa by Magisterial District and Province, 2001 to 2006. University of South Africa.