The Chancellor, Justice Lex Mpati

The Vice-Chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela

The Chairperson and members of the Rhodes University Council

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Dr Peter Clayton

The Public Orator, Distinguished Prof Paul Maylam

Deans, academics, support staff, and students

Distinguished guests, ladies, and gentlemen

And, not least, new graduates, and families and guardians of graduates

Molweni, dumelang, good morning, jambo, goeie more, sanibonani

Thank you for the great honour of this Honorary Doctorate. I doubt that I am deserving of all the wonderful words uttered by the Public Orator. Nonetheless, I enjoyed hearing his erudite, eloquent, and generous citation.

Chancellor, I originally planned to speak this morning on why the arts and humanities are so important and why the one-sided emphasis on science, technology, and engineering is dangerous.  An important, but safe topic.

Instead, I find myself obliged, on the basis of my forty years of experience of universities on three continents, thirty years of research, writing, and policy advice on higher education, and fifteen years of leadership at the highest levels, to share thoughts on recent developments at the universities of Cape Town and Rhodes. An important, but perhaps awkward and even unpalatable topic for some.

My discipline is historical sociology. Sociology looks behind and beyond everyday appearances. It tries to discover the deeper processes at work in society that maintain and reproduce, or/and erode and transform social relations, institutions, and everyday practices. The historical dimension ensures that there is a keen awareness of the past and the present, how they intermesh, and create both constraints and possibilities for human actions and social change.

Alberto Melucci, the great theorist of social movements, conceptualises social movements as “a form of collective action” that is “based on solidarity,” that expresses the existence of “a conflict,” and that requires “the system in which (its) action occurs” to alter its structure.

The recent developments at the University of Cape Town and at Rhodes mark the beginnings of a social movement. It comprises students and academics, mainly black, but some white. This social movement is likely to extend to other universities, expand, and strengthen over time.

Those who constitute the movement are exasperated and angry at the slow pace of change in the institutional cultures, in the academic staff body, and in important aspects of the academic programs of the historically white universities. Invoking the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and higher education policies, they are demanding greater social justice in higher education.

The renowned political theorist, Andre Du Toit, draws attention to what he calls the historical “legacies of intellectual colonisation and racialization” at South African universities. He warns that colonial and racial discourses (and we can add patriarchy) stand in the way of “empowering intellectual discourse communities,” and that “ongoing transformation of the institutional culture” is critical.

In this view, social justice requires systematically decolonizing, deracializing, demasculanizing, and degendering our universities. This means that we have to engage very seriously with research, scholarship, learning and teaching, curriculum, pedagogy, and a host of other issues and their meanings in a society that must overcome its apartheid past and ensure human rights and justice for all.

While there has been some progress over the past 21 years in social justice at historically white universities,for example in access and success for historically disadvantaged social groups, the plain truth is that much has not changed in important areas and the pace of change has been very slow.

The historically white universities continue to be suffused by historical, class, racial, and gender privilege, and by images, symbols, names, traditions, customs, and norms associated with their colonial, cultural, religious, and linguistic origins.

Injustice rooted in beliefs, prejudice, and stereotypes, and chauvinism, and intolerance of people who are different in terms of colour, class, sex, gender, sexual orientation, culture, religion, language, nationality, and geographical origins continues to exist on campuses.

The historically white universities remain the tramping grounds of mainly those from privileged white and wealthy and middle-class black families, and comprise largely white and male academics. Despite the presence of many more black and women students, they lack a critical mass of black and women academic role-models, especially in senior positions.

On the one hand, those who are white and from privileged backgrounds experience the environments and cultures of the historically white universities as natural, feel very much at home, don’t see or feel any problems, and generally blossom.

These social groups are largely oblivious to the association of the current cultures with power, privilege, and advantage, and how they disadvantage blacks and women in myriad ways, affront their dignity, and cause bitterness, anger, pain, hurt, worries, and anxieties.

On the other hand, those who are black and come from disadvantaged backgrounds experience the environments and cultures of the historically white universities as discomforting, alienating, disempowering, and exclusionary.

These culturesexact a significant personal, psychological, emotional, and academic toll on black students and staff, compromise equality of opportunity and outcomes, and diminish the idea of higher education as an enriching and liberating adventure. They also impede theforging of tolerance, more fluid and new identities, reconciliation, non-racialism, non-sexism, and social cohesion.

It is painfully clear that the greater presence of black students and staff does not automatically translate into genuine respect for difference, appreciation for persity, and meaningful social and educational inclusion, whether social, linguistic, cultural, or academic. As under apartheid, inclusion tends to be of a subordinate nature, with simultaneous exclusion in a variety of ways.

Blacks, women, gay and lesbians, and other historically disadvantaged or marginalised groups are expected to accept, integrateand assimilate into the discomfortinginstitutional cultural norms.

Consistent, concerted, comprehensive, and sustained efforts to change what exists, to forge new inclusive cultures, and build universities that are genuine ‘homes for all’ have been lacking for one or other reason.

Some social groups and inpiduals have been content with the existing institutional cultures, unwilling or slow to appreciate how what they are comfortable with and consider to be natural could be discomforting for others, and to embrace necessary and long overdue changes.

The responses to the movements at UCT and Rhodes are all too familiar and no less disturbing: the spewing of racist invective, patronizing efforts to teach black people about the benefits of colonialism, and generally avoidance of the real issues. 

‘Rhodes must fall,’ ‘Rhodes too white’, and the demand for changing the name of Rhodes University are metaphors for much larger and deeper issues. They are a reminder that there is unfinished business, that there can be no reconciliation or peace without social justice at universities and in the economy and society more widely.

Pretending that there are not major problems at the historically white universities won’t make them go away. Not addressing the problems diligently means that they will fester and undoubtedly explode in the future.

The students of UCT and Rhodes are to be commended for bringing sharply into focus the question of social justice at our universities. They do so not just for themselves, but so that future generations may have a richer, fuller, and better quality higher education experience.

The Rhodes students embody magnificently the university’s motto – Truth, Virtue, and Strength - and its slogan: “Where Leaders Learn!”They personify the Jewish sage Hillel dictum: “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

It is a great mistake to treat the expressions of very visible anger on the part of black students and staff as ‘irrational’, as some white students and staff have been wont to do. This is a time to listen, and to learn about what causes the bitterness, pain and anger.

Those who are privileged are, unfortunately, not very good at listening. They do not recognize that their privilege is “an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” that they “can count on cashing in each day.”

They assume it is their birthright to enjoy opportunities that others do not have, to exercise leadership, to set the agenda, define what are and are not problems, to propose the solutions, and to dominate in meetings and conversations.

It is time, in Martha Nussbaum’s words, for people so inclined “to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have.”

Telling black students and staff at UCT and Rhodes to ‘stop living in the past,’ that ‘apartheid is over,’ and to ‘forget the past’whenracism, sexism, prejudice, and intolerance continue to rear their ugly heads and undermine their dignityis not helpful. To imagine that we are a ‘rainbow nation’ is to seriously confuse aspirations with realities.

It is also an error for counselling personnel to think that therapy can overcome the pain and hurt that black students and staff feel. These will only come to an end when we eliminate the institutional conditions that cause the hurt and pain.

We displayed wonderful imagination, ingenuity, and courage to embrace democracy in 1994. Yet, we appear to blithely assume that the advent of this democracy would miraculously erase centuries of inequality and domination and other nasty legacies.

We seem to be unwilling to vigorously, honestly, and sensitively confront issues of privilege and disadvantage, of race, gender, culture, identity and language, and the fractures, wounds, hurt, and pain that exist at our universities and in our society. I greatly fear that if we continue in this vein we will hugely regret our reluctance to do so.

Ladies and gentlemen,despite the social justice challenges that face Rhodes, those of you who graduate this morning do so from a very special university: an institution which takes knowledge and intellectual work seriously, which has an enviable academic reputation, and that strives to create an environment to support you and to enable you to succeed.

Your years at Rhodes have hopefully helped you develop wisdom, knowledge, understanding, expertise, and skills, embrace the values of human dignity, non-racialism and non-sexism, and respect for difference and persity.

You leave Rhodes, I hope, as critical citizens, with a commitment to re-imagine and reshape our future, to forge just and humane ways of conducting our affairs, and to ensure that empathy, reason, justice and human development are at the heart of all of our conduct and actions.

Go forth and exercise, with humility, leadershipwherever you find yourself. Work not only for private gain but also for the public good, so that all those who reside in South Africa may lead secure, decent, productive, rich, and rewarding lives.

I wish you every success, and you and your loved ones joyous celebrations of your wonderful achievement and your future promise.

Thank you.