The name changing debate is quite frequently diverted to other issues. Efforts made by activist groups at Rhodes University, namely the Black Students Movement, are often dismissed. “Don’t you have more important things to worry about other than changing names?” is the typical question that arises. Luyanda Mahlinza attempts to explore this tension.
The recent Rhodes name-change saga and the #RhodesMustFall campaign have developed highly emotional and controversial debate not only in the small town of Grahamstown, but nationwide. We’ve heard all sorts of rash, and at times unfounded proclamations
The words of “V”, the very complex and interesting revolutionist character in the remarkable movie, V for Vendetta, are relevant to this discussion.
“A building is a symbol, as is the act of destroying it. Symbols are given power by people. Alone, a symbol is meaningless, but with enough people, blowing up a building can change the world”.
When we think of things as being iconic symbols, we often imagine these as being direct and ‘real’ representations of concepts. In thinking this, we too easily highlight their supposed “realness” and forget that these signs are, and will always be, representations. Buildings, statues and names are indeed all real and tangible. However, additionally, these seemingly simple constructs are significant historical representations rich in symbolism and meaning that cannot simply be ignored.
Let’s take a closer at Grahamstown. This town prospers through its recognition of being a leading, culturally diverse land booming in cultural and artistic excellence. But the dark cloud of its devastating and oppressive historical background, its prolonged social inequality and its rather current, deep-rooted issues of race, cast a detrimental shadow over these hopeful attributes. I find it unbelievable that the symbolic significance of a name change, or at least the necessity of continuous dialogue around the matter, is so frequently dismissed and contested. It’s even more incredible that it is contested with arguments that underplay the powerful symbols of the names, buildings and statues that still exist in Grahamstown.
Is there a severe lack of knowledge of the history of Grahamstown and its symbolic constructs? Or has this history been stripped of its gravity through years of myths, misunderstandings and misdirection. The histories of Grahamstown is complex, with many unanswered questions, but let’s try to realize the historic significance of some of the buildings, statues, and name changes that exist in the frontier country.
Residence names such as Allan Gray and De Beers
Many of Rhodes University’s residences, namely Allan Gray and De Beers, were named after companies whose financial investments contributed significantly towards the infrastructural growth of Rhodes University. Cecil John Rhodes (of whom our Rhodes University is named after) was an imperialist but was notoriously known as a perpetrator of genocide, responsible for the displacement and enslavement of millions of African people for the benefit of white settlers. One of his beliefs was that the Englishman was the greatest race in the world and that his rule would be a benefit to all. It was Rhodes and his partner, Charlie Rudd who, in April 1888, launched the ever growing diamond company now known as De Beers.
Raglan road to Dr Jacob Zuma drive
On the 27th of June, 2011 the Makana Council decided that Raglan Road would be renamed Dr Jacob Zuma Road. This was after various events, including a visit from President Jacob Zuma where he was awarded The Freedom of Makana Award. This award, which is Makana’s highest order, was explained by municipality spokesperson, Thandy Matebase, as being founded by the ideals and values of Late Xhosa chief-warrior, Nxele Makana.
“Makana was an astute warrior who relentlessly fought against the oppression of his people, in the same way that Zuma has done throughout his life,” says Matebase.
There is only one other person this honorary award has been bestowed upon, and that is former President Nelson Mandela.
Dr Jacob Zuma road is a main street that runs through Joza. The road, is an honorary symbol of Zuma’s “outstanding leadership, stewardship and contribution to the improvement of the quality of life of people”, but is ironically run down with shacks, broken down RDP houses and infrastructure lacking vital services such as water and electricity. In a town whose Municipality was criticised for fraud, corruption and inadequacy, and with a population who largely endure endless accounts of poor service delivery, education and basic facilities, it’s no wonder this name change was met with hostility and rage by many of Grahamstown’s residents. The Unemployed People’s Movement wrote an open letter to President Jacob Zuma proclaiming the ludicrousness of “a failed municipality wanting to give the freedom of Grahamstown to a failed president.” To some, this grand and abrupt name change may just be a name and might hold very little significance but to a large percentage, it is a constant symbol of the Zuma’s fraudulent and corrupt ways. The line of poverty and marginalization that lies on this road is a painful reminder of the inequality that the honoured Zuma has not bothered to address.
Yes, the dialogue surrounding the true significance of the name of “Rhodes” is highly contested and complex but as the incidents above prove, a name cannot simply be a name. To be fair, Rhodes is the name of an imperialist coloniser who died 133 years ago, but do we not all experience highly potent encounters of institutional racism, discrimination and social inequality all too frequently? Do extreme income inequalities not remain a persistently stubborn problem more than two decades after the end of apartheid?
When we claim that there are issues that deserve to be fought for more than the issue of a name change, do we realise that these issues are perpetuated by the prolonged ideals of the man that the name of this University represents?