It was money that led the founders of Rhodes University to name the institution after Cecil John Rhodes – and money that will hinder changing the name.
This is according to historian Professor Paul Maylam, setting the scene for a debate at the university over the name change issue.
It cost Rand Afrikaans University some R50-million to change its name to the University of Johannesburg and it will cost much more to re-brand Rhodes University internationally and at home, it was argued at the debate.
Maylam said that by naming the institution after Rhodes it had managed to access a slice of £5-million at the time sitting in the Rhodes trust for start-up funding.
He said the name change debate had only really gained traction with the #RhodesMustFall campaign in 2015, which had made the Rhodes brand toxic.
Rhodes had been an arch imperialist, racist, and had ridden roughshod over African societies, and the only argument against changing the name was a pragmatic one as it would be extremely costly, he said.
“Really, it is just cosmetic. It’s window dressing. Therefore you have to ask how much money you want to spend on this?
“How much of a priority is the name change over other transformation imperatives?”
Activist and Rhodes doctoral candidate in the department of sociology, Leroy Maisiri, said changing the name in the absence of real transformation was a waste of time.
“[Name change] doesn’t really fix the real issues.”
The university was the economic hub of Grahamstown and if the name change issue was used to “suffocate” the only good thing in Grahamstown then “we are making what is essentially an 8000 student issue affect the livelihoods of an entire town.
“I’m not here about the name. It’s not about the name. I don’t care what this institution is called. If you changed the name tomorrow the name Rhodes will never leave my CV.
“I am smarter than that.”
Prominent journalist and founder of the Media and Writers Firm, Rich Mkhondo, said the institution had to be strategic about name change as it could be dangerous, superficial and expensive.
Money was scarce and poverty in the Eastern Cape was endemic.
“It is a waste of time and effort. We should be talking about many things we should be doing in this country rather than name change.”
But artist Songezile Madikida said the #RMF campaign had captured the everyday pain and emotional trauma experienced by black people in an institution of learning where nothing had changed.
A total overhaul of society was needed, not just of knowledge-producing institutions
“If Rhodes University wants to be a home to all the people of South Africa and not just to the small group of people that relate to its name and legacy … it needs to undergo some serious introspection,” Madikida said.
“As part of its community we need to force it to reconsider its identity in terms of what it is labelled so that it can be part of the future.”