Rhodes University has experienced a great number of protests since the beginning of last year, the first year that the university has had an African vice-chancellor at the helm.
Dr Sizwe Mabizela took office in November 2014.
When plenty of people celebrated with Dr Mabizela about his new position, no one predicted the massive challenges he would face.
His predecessor, Dr Saleem Badat, did not go through what Dr Mabizela has gone through, and is still going through.
The current VC has been woken up at midnight for a great number of protests.
The campaigns started with #RhodesSoWhite on social media. Posters with messages about decolonising Rhodes went up all over campus.
University property was “vandalised” with slogans spray-painted in front of the main administration block and the senate chambers were occupied. But this could not be classified as an uprising.
Then the #FeesMustFall protest started at the University of Witwatersrand. At some point things changed. The nation reacted. The tweets and Facebook #FeesMustFall messages were countless.
It happened so fast and in a matter of a week Rhodes University students were also to sit their vice-chancellor down in a circle.
Dr Mabizela explained clearly that university finances were beyond the university’s control. He committed himself, with other management team members, to stand in solidarity with the students.
The fruits of the protest were welcomed by everyone. The minimum initial payment (Mip), which obliged students to pay 50% of their fees before the beginning of the academic year, fell. A fees increase did not take place. Many of us thought that was the end of it.
This year I imagined Dr Mabizela might not be woken up at midnight because of protests.
I was wrong. On April 17 around midnight I was studying in my room when I heard toyi-toyi songs. When I checked out of my window I saw a protest. It was against a rape culture.
At around 1am a great number of students, roughly more than 1500, were outside my residence. Some came inside, looking for an alleged rapist.
It seemed they knew a certain individual was inside, which is why one of the protest leaders said: “We won’t leave until he comes out.”
Within few minutes I saw Dr Mabizela entering my residence. He was accompanied to the alleged rapist’s room. Bear in mind it was around 1am. Some people were asleep when the protesters came in.
The alleged rapist was called names and not just referred to as an alleged rapist but called “a rapist”. Fingers were pointed.
People who had not been convicted of crimes were disrespected and verbally abused – and Dr Mabizela suffered in that experienced too.
Fingers were also pointed at him. “What kind of a man you are. Do you have a daughter?”
I could not continue watching such acts.
From last year’s protest to this year I have realised that the rule of law is being ignored on campus.
Earlier, protests were underway for food assistance. Several dining halls were invaded. Students staying on campus who had paid to eat at the dining halls were sometimes left without food after off- campus students invaded.
It is an undeniable fact that when protests take place university property is damaged. Benches are used as barricades, among other things.
While people have a right to protest, does this override the right people have to be respected?
This month I spoke to a graduate from Rhodes University. In our conversation he said “You [students] disappointed me with the latest protest of yours and you embarrassed Dr Mabizela.
“Why did you not protest to the police? When I watched TV I was really disappointed. Why were you [students] so disrespectful towards Mabizela?” He asked if it was because Dr Mabizela was African.
I could not answer that. I concur, Dr Mabizela is having a tough time.
But that should not cast any shadow on his leadership.
Some are comparing Dr Mabizela’s term to that of Dr Badat. But that is neither rational nor correct.
Some of the challenges Rhodes faces now were absent and others were there, but not problematic to the same degree.
The values and needs of society are constantly changing. What may be the needs for the current students may not be those of the next lot. What we as students at Rhodes are happy with now may be the first thing those who follow want to remove.
During Dr Badat’s term, students and staff gathered and protested due to water shortages. They marched to the relevant local government offices. The protesters were all on the same page. Enough was enough, water shortage problems were the crisis.
Last year the students of South Africa, including at Rhodes University, said enough about colonisation and oppressors’ statues at universities. They said enough about unaffordable fees.
This year, Rhodes University students had had enough about a rape culture.
These protests are not happening because of the current vice-chancellor. They have a good cause.
Not to protest and to sweep issues under the carpet will ruin the future and mean we ignore our responsibility as the youth.
The 1976 youth played their role and it is up to us whether we continue or sell out the struggle.
But Dr Mabizela has never said there was no such a problem as a rape culture.
He has been advocating for the rule of law. He has repeatedly said the law must take its course.
Rhodes University is lucky to have Dr Sizwe Mabizela as vice-chancellor. His leadership should not be distorted.
Thokozani Dladla is a second year BA politics, law and journalism student. He is also a presenter and producer at Rhodes Music Radio