On changing Rhodes’s name: why we can’t win – and why we have to fight it

Originally published on The Daily Vox.

As the protests against the Cecil John Rhodes at UCT spread to Grahamstown, an online poll (still open for voting) currently shows that more 80% of those surveyed think Rhodes University should keep its name – despite its colonial legacy. STUART THEMBISILE LEWIS thinks changing the university’s name isn’t a battle that’s likely to be won – but argues it’s an important one to keep fighting. ip within the institution about the name of Cecil John Rhodes. The responses I get are always the same and, I would contest, indicative of the paralysingly slim chance of the name ever getting changed. Let me begin by dealing with these responses.

1. “The university’s brand is sufficiently removed from the brand of Cecil John Rhodes. There is no need for change.”
This one is fairly easy to take apart. If Rhodes had indeed sufficiently separated their brand, then we would not be having this conversation. No protests, no emergency student meetings, no nationally-trending hashtags. But it hasn’t, so here we are.

2. “It would cost millions to rebrand.”
This is not inaccurate. A brand as big as Rhodes University requires extensive marketing campaigns to build, let alone replace. Never mind just the costs of replacing every branded item on campus and in town. The costs are simply prohibitive, especially considering Rhodes needs another R1.3-billion just to upgrade its infrastructure over the next five years.

3. “We need alumni donations.”
Rhodes, like all academic institutions, relies partially on donor funding. Unfortunately for us, this funding often comes from alumni and most of the alumni over the last 111 years attended this institution under the apartheid education system – so don’t expect much hatred for Cecil John Rhodes from them.
Also, they have heavily bought into the Rhodes brand. If they are the kind of alumni who are willing to donate their money to a university they no longer attend, then it’s most likely that going to Rhodes is an integral part of their identity.
If Rhodes canvassed its alumni (and particularly the juicy donation-giving alumni), they’re likely to find that the overwhelming response, I suspect, will be to keep the name intact. In order to provide services and infrastructure to current students, Rhodes must appease its alumni.


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