Plea from the vice-chancellor – the future of Rhodes University is under serious threat

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Vice-Chancellor at Rhodes University, Professor Sizwe Mabizela
Vice-Chancellor at Rhodes University, Professor Sizwe Mabizela

By Professor Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor at Rhodes University


Just under four years ago, in 2020, Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) commemorated the second millennium of its blood-soaked history of heroic struggles in the nascent years of the Constitution of South Africa as we know it today.

In 2024, Rhodes University, the city’s crown jewel, is preparing for a massive celebration of its 120th anniversary of global scholarly excellence.

Makhanda emerged from its chequered history to become a once-thriving former “capital city of the Eastern Cape province”. The city’s reputation grew over time to become a leading educational centre in the country. 

The location of the seat of the Eastern Districts Division of the Supreme Court, the headquarters of the police force and the founding of Rhodes University in the region under the colonial government, contributed to the “prestige” that Makhanda once enjoyed.

The decline in the political and economic fortunes of the city goes back to the late 19th century. Its continuing misfortunes today are well documented in the reports of the Auditor-General, Statistics South Africa and innumerable judgments by the high court relating to the failures of its municipality. 

Today, Makhanda, South Africa’s consistently improving and leading educational centre, as well as Rhodes University, a consistent educational gem, face an even more serious, if not fatal, existential risk.

In its interim report, the Committee on the Rationalisation of Areas under the Jurisdiction of the Divisions of the High Court (the Moseneke Committee), chaired by retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke has recommended that the seat of the Eastern Cape Division of the High Court be relocated from Makhanda to the provincial capital, Bhisho. The university is doing everything possible to oppose this.

Rhodes University’s submission to the Moseneke Committee seeks to deepen the appreciation of the inevitably disastrous consequences of the potential move of the seat of the Eastern Cape High Court. The university cannot function without the town. Neither can the town survive without the university and the schools in Makhanda. Any decision that places the future sustainability of Makhanda in jeopardy also places the future sustainability of Rhodes University in similar jeopardy.

Their collapse would result in an unmitigated and irreversible social catastrophe. This is serious. 

The university will be unable to function normally, and its expansion and growth programme will have to cease. The ability to attract talented students and staff will be severely compromised. Jobs will be lost with declining student uptake. As a research-intensive university, the institution has the highest concentration of South African Research Chairs per capita. It has the highest number of academics with doctoral degrees per student. It is an absolute gem of an institution.

The relocation of the seat of the high court would have a considerable adverse impact on this. 

The Moseneke Committee argues that the seat of the Eastern Cape Division of the High Court, which has been in the city for 158 years, should be in the provincial capital. There is no sound rationale behind this. Replicating the court in Bhisho will cost an estimated R1-billion. Furthermore, it would result in the loss of about 5,000 jobs in Makhanda and further weaken its economy, which is extremely fragile. The government could use that money to upgrade, refurbish and renovate the many courts around the country that are in a poor state.

A study, led by economics professor Emeritus Geoffrey Antrobus, shows that Makhanda’s financial outlook is already extremely vulnerable. The city’s gross domestic product from 2010 to 2020 “grew a mere 0.3% annually compared to the Eastern Cape province of 0.4% and South Africa’s 0.6%”.

Without the high court in Makhanda, the local economy would collapse. The rates base would be seriously eroded. Service delivery would grind to a complete halt.

The relocation of the seat of the high court would be nothing short of a death knell for this city. Makhanda would become a ghost town.

The university is the biggest employer in Makhanda, followed by the local municipality, and then the Makhanda High Court and the associated legal services. The university is also the largest contributor to municipal rates, and many business services in the city exist primarily because of the university.

Almost a third of the town’s businesses would no longer be viable and would have to close down once the court is relocated. The municipality, already in a parlous state, would lose millions in rates revenue. This would seriously undermine its capacity to deliver services, maintain and upgrade infrastructure and plan for the future. 

The city would become less attractive and less liveable for our staff and students. This would place the viability and sustainability of the town as an education centre at a great, and potentially irreversible, risk. An increase in poverty, hunger and hopelessness would be the inevitable consequence for everyone.

It is not far-fetched that this move, were it to materialise, would also cost Makhanda the National Arts Festival that generates R90-million annually. A number of life-sustaining jobs provided by law firms and associated businesses would disappear in an instant. 

recent survey calculated that 9,000 households in the city were food-insecure. We estimate this equates to 50,000 people in our community who cannot reliably provide one meal per day. The social disaster that this move would deepen is unimaginable.

This is the fourth attempt to move the seat of the court. In 1995, President Nelson Mandela appointed Judge GG (Gus) Hoexter to lead a commission of inquiry into the proposal. Justice Hoexter said the move would “prove crippling to the city” and would be “nothing short of catastrophic”, with the brunt being “borne by the economically most disadvantaged”. 

This conclusion is more true and relevant today than then.

The university is of the firm view that access to justice, and the cause of justice as a whole, can be attained without creating new socioeconomic struggles and inflicting devastation on the livelihoods of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens of Makhanda.

If this recommendation is implemented as proposed, the result would be tantamount to the commission of an injustice against the people. DM

Professor Sizwe Mabizela is also deputy chairperson of the Makhanda High Court Action Committee that has been established to fight this recommendation.


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