Rhodes University & the Asphyxiation of Necessary Consciousness

The truth about the recent changes in the atmosphere at Rhodes University, is not about the widespread quasi-irrational fear that the campus will combust into spontaneous violence anytime soon. The atmosphere at Rhodes University has changed as a result of an imperative shift in the emotional, intellectual and social consciousness of a collective that is doing the silent work of uniting together.

A group of individuals- currently known as ‘The Vandals’- who are responsible for evoking this atmospheric change caused necessary uproar when inscriptions such as “Black Pain”, “Black Lives Matter” and “Marikana”  were found to have been painted and spray-painted on the walls, pillars and streets of Rhodes University. The Vandals also wrote an open letter addressed to the higher authorities of Rhodes’s institutional leadership, which was recently published in a student news publication. While these incidences have elevated levels of socio-cultural awareness around the campus, it is most tragic to witness these necessary attempts at raising imperative consciousness still being structurally, socially and morally assassinated. Investigation of vandalism and hate-speech are being pursued, while the cowardly and accusatory nature of Rhodes’s social voice deems these acts regressive and unnecessary. It is not the first time Rhodes culture has bludgeoned the beings of those who act against its hegemony. As a result, Rhodes is still an institution that is obsoletely reactive and endorses a sloppy liberalism which paralyses a group or an individual’s need to be emotionally, intellectually and socio-culturally present.

There are three popular, yet basic notions which contemporary Rhodes culture pulls from its library of arguments when engaging issues that are related to this ‘era’ of transformation. These notions require problematizing, engagement and annihilation, as they continue to be used as rhetorical defence mechanisms during tough engagements and practical solution seeking.

  1. “My focus is to get my degree. I mean, that’s what we’re all here for anyway”.

It can be taken for granted that all individuals who enter institutions of higher learning aim to graduate with their desired tertiary qualification. To reason with the practicality of this notion would be a reductive exercise.

However, it is interesting to see how this very notion struggles to have a legitimate space to be brought up outside any context that does not relate to issues of identitive consciousness and social politics. Individuals who perpetuate this notion make this claim from a place of narcissism and absolutism, which is designed to reinforce the existing hegemony. It is unjust to police women into protecting themselves from sexual predators; to demonise mattering of Black lives; as well as, to negate the lived realities those of who experience Xenophobia because “getting a degree is more important”. People’s lives beyond academia cannot continue to be treated like anthropological exercises. People may have the same privilege of attending an institution such as Rhodes University, yet that does not integrate them into the existing hegemony and absolve them from issues which require their active attention.

Individuals who perpetuate this notion are also often ignorant of the reality that attaining one’s degree and being a part of society are not mutually divorced. Those who use this notion as a tool of defence take it upon themselves to think that those who are concerned about the state of their identities as individuals who are not appreciative of being a part of an institution such as Rhodes and are wasting space. Using one’s focus on attaining one’s degree diminishes the importance of perceiving and treating the campus space as a site of learning practical lessons about how the greater world functions. Those who utilise the knowledge acquired from their academic lives use it to make a constant, necessary and intelligent sense-making of their lives. The relationship between academia and broader life is interdependent. They do inform each other. They are intersectional. Constant navigation of these two specific area in life is what causes people to awaken themselves and re-imagine the spaces which they occupy.

Using academics as an excuse demoralise issues of identity, consciousness, transformation and social politics is lazy and utterly offensive.

It is important for those who choose not to engage in these issues to not feel indirectly offended or compelled to retaliate when they are inevitably influenced by the very phenomena outside their academic arena they chose not to engage in.

  1. “It’s a pity that people who orchestrate politically charged vandalism don’t think about those who have to clean up after them”.

What is interesting about this particular notion is its inflexibility. This notion cannot be legitimately re-contextualised to suit any scenario beyond the one it constructs for its own safety.

Rhodes University recently hosted the Intervarsity Sporting Weekend. While significant emphasis was placed on the playing of sports and supporting of teams, Intervarsity weekend is infamously and preferably known as a weekend of unashamed debauchery. This is where Rhodes culture has the opportunity to maintain its title as the ‘drinking capital of all universities in South Africa’. Although there is staff hired to maintain cleanliness in and around the university during this particular weekend, the level of litter is always telling. When individuals who go beyond their private capacities to clean the streets after this particular weekend, Rhodes culture rewards them with recognition on the SRC page and words of saintly praise. Without taking any merit away from the initiative of these very individuals, why is it that staff who are supposedly obligated to remove the work of the vandals are not praised for cleaning the fields after parties and festivals? Why are they not sympathised with and appreciated for cleaning the ablutions of residences which house up to 150 individuals, every single day of every week? Rhodes culture would argue that their recognition comes in the form of the meagre wages and salaries they earn. Yet, it is ironic that there be a sudden disclaimer of sympathy for those who are employed to maintain the external aesthetic of a university they are historically, statistically and systematically less likely to benefit from beyond their remuneration.

What is even more interesting about this particular notion is its nature to self-righteously reclassify acts of rebellion against an emotionally; intellectually; socially; economically and ideologically violent hegemony, as acts of “vandalism”. It is the typical of the nature of Rhodes’s cultural hegemony to classify and treat attempts at raising any form of counter-hegemonic consciousness, as social disobedience. This classification is not only evident that a hegemony of privileged whiteness exists, but also, how this hegemony just does not know what to do with the feelings and livelihoods of those who exists outside of its boundaries.

The sad truth about Rhodes University is that it is a hostile space with a stagnant social atmosphere which fails to recognise the mattering of things outside its hegemony. If it is not in Rhodes University’s practical and genuine interest to recognise the need to alter the state of its current institutional and cultural hegemony by providing a space for otherred identities to matter, then those individuals will simply not matter.

This discussion is not about cleaners, morality contests or the legitimacy of vandalism. It is about the importance of mattering and the tragedies of ignoring this importance.

3. “Why #BlackLivesMatter? Surely, #AllLivesMatter too?”

To those who are who subscribe to this train of thought, you are legitimately correct in highlighting the mattering of all people’s live.

Yet, the first mistake that the liberal culture at Rhodes University makes is that it is content with endorsing the mattering of all lives until it is time to deconstruct society, dissect people’s privileges and assess people’s social positioning. In the context of Rhodes culture, #AllLivesMatter means everyone who attends Rhodes University is equal, because they’re MIP (Minimum Initial Payment) is secured; everyone has a bed to sleep in; and has an education to enjoy. This is a deliberate evasion of doing the work of discerning intersectional identities and why certain parts of an individual’s identity matter more than others during different courses of time. It not to that the lives of Black people are the only lives to matter in this specific space and time. It is that Black people from all walks of life (both at Rhodes and across the world) are coming into the consciousness of who they are and what it is going to take to become who they want to be.

Perhaps it is the responsibility of Rhodents to contextualise the mattering of lives so that it may make practical sense moving forward with a solution. Perhaps there is a need to rewire the grammar with which is used to have dialogues about identity and transfomation within the context of Rhodes culture and various cultures across South Africa.

Because,

Black Lives Matter.

LGBT Lives Matter.

Women’s Lives Matter.

Lives of International Students Matter.

Lives Sold to the Locomotion of Capitalism Matter.

Lives of the Victims of the Marikana Massacre Matter.

Lives of Men Who Have Been Displaced by their Own Masculinities Matter.

The list of intersectionalities goes on.

Rhodes culture is not yet ready to afford the need to have these conversations with the freedom of expression which has less emphasis on offence and more emphasis engaging with progressive articulation. The need to be recognised and treated as important is still very much in the distant imagination of Rhodes culture and will remain that way until the identities of people who are otherred triumph to be acknowledged, accepted and accommodated.

It is still a devastating truth that Rhodes University continues to be a site which hosts and ritualises the asphyxiation of the necessary consciousness.

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