J C McConnachie (1972)

Transformation Logo
Transformation Logo


The word “transform” means to change completely.  Literally transforming a university would therefore mean that at the end of the process the university is no longer a university but is something else or functions completely differently.

That is surely not the purpose of transformation as proposed for Rhodes.  The purpose must surely be to reconfigure and reposition the university ie to change certain aspects of the university and how it functions but not to change its fundamental educational aim.  The word “reform” would therefore seem to be more accurate but would seem from the Transformation Summit Project Plan not to be acceptable:  “Without coherent transformation goals that have been adopted by the institution and a clear transformation road map, there is [sic] danger that the transformation efforts that are being made in the various corners of the institution will be largely experienced as ad hoc, uneven, incoherent, reformist and even as non-existent.” 

Be that as it may, by whatever name it is called, transformation/reformation/change is inevitable and necessary in any context to remain relevant to the times.  But producing a once-off “transformation plan” or blueprint for change which will be valid for all time is impossible.  Such plan will need to be constantly revisited and revised and some objectives may be more realistic than others and some may be unrealistic or not immediately implementable.  As is stated in the document “Grahamstown Transformation Consultation 2017”:  transformation is not an event but “a perpetual process of improvement; a continual quest to get better.”

The description of Rhodes in the introduction to the “Transformation Summit Project Plan” as an “apartheid university” is incorrect.  It suggests that Rhodes promoted and supported apartheid. Rhodes was indeed previously an almost exclusively white university as a result of the country’s apartheid policy of the day but as a “liberal” academic institution and unlike some other South African universities, Rhodes was an opponent rather than a supporter of apartheid.  The sentence should rather read:  “Rhodes University has embarked on a process of transformation from the university it was during apartheid…”.    

The document seems to suggest that the process of transforming/reforming/ changing Rhodes is only now beginning whereas the process has been ongoing for many years, as it should be.  The signs of change are obvious and some significant changes at Rhodes even pre-date the end of apartheid, such as those brought about by the “Student Disobedience Campaign” in 1971 when students successfully protested against unduly restrictive dress and residence rules.

Some of the most urgent and perhaps most controversial changes identified in the discussion documents are in the area of “visual representation” (which refers to “the pieces of art that adorn our public spaces and passages”) and in the area of the “names and naming of buildings and other spaces” (Grahamstown Transformation Consultation 2017).    

A relevant document accessible on the university’s Transformation Summit face book page is a “Report of the Visual Representation, Arts and Culture Task Team” (VRACC)  dated 18.11.14 which is instructive regarding how transformation/ reformation/change has been approached at Rhodes and which raises an important point of principle. 

Some background is necessary: the task team was formed in 2010 but “fell into abeyance” due to the resignation of its chairperson and was then resuscitated in October 2013 with the formation of a new task team and the appointment of a new chairperson. 

The report outlines the measures taken by the original task team such as the relocation of portraits of vice chancellors, chancellors from the council chamber and their replacement with a tapestry depicting the history of the university.  Another change was the removal of Old Rhodians killed in war (including those killed “in the border war”) from the front corridor of the main administration building (seemingly at the behest of Nehawu), criticism of which prompted the formation of the new task team. 

The report also outlines the activities of the new task team, in particular its circulation of a questionnaire to staff, student bodies and alumni inviting opinion on certain existing symbols and university insignia such as its crest/coat of arms and the representations of “Physical Energy” which came to be associated with Cecil John Rhodes and which, according to the report, is “a powerful symbol of imperialism” and has “a significant visual presence at Rhodes” on the university crest and on Rhodes car stickers.  A miniature replica of the statue is also given each year to the recipients of the Old Rhodian Award.

Although the question of the university’s name was not part of the task team’s focus, the question of the university’s symbols is obviously a closely related and almost equally controversial one and the report notes with reference to the responses received to its questionnaire that “The vast majority of respondents…were largely content with existing symbols and insignia, with some objecting strongly to the idea of any change at all…Only a small minority believed the crest/coat of arms and ‘Physical Energy’ to be inappropriate for Rhodes.”

According to the report “These responses posed a problem for the task team, most of whose members believed that such symbols and insignia are inappropriate for Rhodes at this time, and that there is a need to create a more inclusive visual culture as the university community becomes more diverse in its composition.”

The task team then proceeded to effectively over-rule the views of the respondents to its questionnaire at least insofar as the symbolic use of “Physical Energy” is concerned with an albeit rather cautious recommendation that “it be gradually phased out, as far as possible, from the university’s visual culture.” 

It is wrong in principle that a task team which has obtained the views of the Rhodes community on an issue can supplant its own view in conflict with that of the community and to ensure that the discussion groups at the summit do not follow the example of the VRACC the principle should be adopted that no recommendation of the various discussion groups should be made independently of the broader Rhodes community, including alumni, and that no such recommendation should supersede the views of the broader Rhodes community, including alumni.

Frustration with the pace of transformation at Rhodes is clearly evident from the “Transformation Summit Project Plan” which, it says, is resulting in “transformation conversations fatigue”.

Such frustration, it would seem, relates in particular to the issue of the name of the university: “Some of the issues raised as needing urgent attention by protesting students are issues that the institution and the institution’s leadership has deliberated on and has addressed on an ad hoc basis rather than on a planned basis over long periods of time.  An example which can be given here is the short vacation accommodation issue.  Another example…is the future of the name of the institution.  A strategy designed by the Institutional Forum in 2015 to address this matter could not be implemented due to matters external to the functioning of the institution.” 

The summit will hopefully be informed what those external matters were as they may be relevant to discussions on the issue.

Furthermore, no mention is made in any of the Summit documentation that on 23.11.1994, following a proposal that the name of the university be changed to University of the Eastern Cape, the Rhodes University Senate endorsed a sub-committee’s recommendation that “the name should remain unchanged until compelling evidence was produced to justify consideration” (“The Cult of Rhodes”, Paul Maylam p.69).  It would be relevant to ensure that those participating in the Summit’s deliberations on the issue are aware of the Senate decision.

Participants in the summit ought also to be reminded of its scope and purpose: the convening of the Transformation Summit on 28-30.7.17 follows a decision of the university Council in May 2016 that an “inclusive, consultative, open and well publicised” summit should be held “at which transformation would be discussed holistically and systematically” to “inform the crafting of the institution’s transformation trajectory.”

The purpose of the summit is, therefore, not to make decisions but is only part of a process to assist the university to arrive at such decisions in determining its “transformation trajectory.”