[Makhanda] Since its inception in 1904, Rhodes University has continually made significant strides in the realm of higher education, carving out a distinguished place for itself among academic institutions globally. Over the years, Rhodes University has evolved, reflecting changes in society, academia, and the broader global landscape, constantly adapting and growing to meet new challenges and opportunities.

A pivotal moment in the institution’s ongoing journey of reflection and growth occurred at an #RU120 event on Friday night, where Professor Paul Maylam, a distinguished historian and academic at the university, delivered a seminal lecture that turned the lens inward on the intellectual history of Rhodes University itself.

His lecture was a critical introspection into the institution’s academic evolution, highlighting how its focus, research areas, and intellectual discourse have transformed over the decades. This introspective look provided valuable insights into how the university has navigated its complex history, addressing its achievements and the challenges it faced.

Rhodes University’s tacit acceptance of apartheid and its complicity during the era of segregation cannot be denied. That is according to Professor Maylam. In his address, he critically reflected on Rhodes University’s 120 years of existence and outlined the progress the institution has made to right its past wrongs.

The university, named after prominent colonial figure Cecil John Rhodes, holds a rich yet controversial history intertwined with South Africa’s tumultuous political journey. His legacy sparked angry student protests in 2015.

Reflecting on the first five decades of its existence, Maylam said Rhodes University adopted what it claimed to be an apolitical stance, taking the position that teaching should stay outside the realm of politics.

“This was a spurious stance. As a university, Rhodes largely acquiesced in this system of racial segregation – and such acquiescence was highly political. The white Rhodes community of staff and students, like the vast majority of white South Africans at the time, viewed racial segregation as perfectly normal,” he said.

Rhodes University did not admit a single black student until the late 1940’s. Maylam said only a few people at the university spoke out against segregation during the first five decades. Among them was WM Macmillan, Rhodes’ first history lecturer from 1911 to 1917, who expressed his shock at the conditions in Makhanda’s African township where the death rate exceeded the birth rate.

Maylam said the most radical, outspoken figure at Rhodes before 1951 was English master’s student Michael Harmel. Stating his views in a student magazine in the late 1930s, he argued that black people would never be free ‘under a capitalist economy and a political oligarchy,’ adding that ‘every white man in South Africa is responsible for every foul act of oppression and brutality and repression and exploitation which takes place in our land today.’

“The prevailing socio-political climate deeply influenced the intellectual life at Rhodes during the apartheid era,” said Maylam. “In 1962, the university awarded an honorary doctorate to CR Swart, a former Minister of Justice notorious for his repressive policies. This decision sparked outrage among academic staff who protested against the award, facing severe reprimand from university authorities.”

As apartheid tightened its grip on South Africa, Maylam said academics found it increasingly challenging to remain disengaged from political issues.

“There was a growing demand that left-leaning academics should pursue research projects and teach courses that assisted and furthered the struggle against apartheid. This gave rise to fierce debate, pitting such academics against those who argued that scholarship should not be tainted with political agendas,” said Maylam.

However, the Surplus People Project emerged as a groundbreaking collaborative research initiative against this backdrop. Led by a group of people associated with Rhodes University, the project shed light on the plight of black African communities subjected to forced removals and a life of impoverishment. The group played a crucial role in bringing the story of injustice to the fore through oppositional research.

Maylam said that while the Rhodes University educational curriculum was at first heavily Eurocentric, there has been a steady shift away from this since the 1940s.

“The main shift towards a more African focus came in the late 1970s. African literature was introduced into the English Department’s curriculum; the history department developed African courses, and African studies were brought into the Politics Department. African languages also gained momentum and in 1978 the renowned International Library of African Music was brought to Rhodes by Andrew Tracey.”

During his reflection on the 120-year history of Rhodes University, Maylam also touched on the discrimination that women academics faced.

“Until 1941 married women could not hold academic posts; and for decades the salary scales for women were lower than those for men. Student life was long characterised by a macho, sexist culture which subordinated and often humiliated women.”

Maylam said it was only in the mid-1970s that the student newspaper began to include feminist perspectives in its pages.

“More recently, there has been a shift, as academics, predominantly women, have adopted a more integrated approach, incorporating gendered perspectives into a whole range of courses, as has been the case in several humanities departments. In some cases, this gendered approach is Africanised with courses being offered on African feminism.”

Maylam said that while Rhodes University has much to celebrate, including a catalogue of excellent academic achievements, its 120th anniversary is also a time to critically reflect on its history and some of the mediocrity that has characterised the university’s intellectual journey.


For media queries, contact Mo Senne, Senior Communications Officer, Division of Communications & Advancement: Rhodes University at 073-197-2242 or mo.senne@ru.ac.za


About the speaker: Paul Maylam is an esteemed figure in South African history and has had a distinguished academic career. He completed his bachelor’s degree with honours at Rhodes University in 1970, followed by a Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, in 1972 and 1976, respectively. His career included significant contributions while working at the University of Natal as a lecturer, senior lecturer, associate professor from 1974 to 1991, and later as a professor at Rhodes University from 1991 onwards. Maylam served as the South African History Society President from 1993 to 1995 and is a member of the African Studies Association. His scholarly work includes the notable publication ‘Rhodes, the Tswana, and the British: Colonialism, Collaboration, and Conflict in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, 1885-1899’, which provides insights into colonialism and its impacts in Southern Africa.