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By Natasha Joseph
Rhodes University's vice-chancellor has publicly apologised for the institution's "past failings and shameful actions" and spoken out about the ways in which it "practised racial segregation (of) its own volition" and barred black students from living on campus during the apartheid era.
Saleem Badat, who headed the Council on Higher Education before becoming Rhodes's vice-chancellor in 2006, made the remarks during a renaming ceremony at the university in Grahamstown, on Wednesday.
The university's student union building was renamed and inaugurated as the Bantu Stephen Biko Building.
In 1967, Biko attended the annual congress of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) at Rhodes.
Days before the congress was to start, Rhodes announced that it would not allow black delegates to stay in campus residences. Black delegates were also banned from social functions on campus.
Biko walked out of the congress and went to visit Barney Pityana, who was a student at Fort Hare University in Alice.
A year later, the pair established the South African Students' Organisation, which was the start of South Africa's black consciousness movement.
Pityana, who is the University of South Africa's vice-chancellor, attended yesterday's ceremony.
Biko's widow, Ntsiki Biko, was also there.
Speaking at the inauguration, Badat said: "The Rhodes authorities, in enforcing racial segregation, triggered the emergence of the (black consciousness) movement.
"At the same time they displayed, not for the first time, a disturbing tendency to acquiesce all too easily in the apartheid system.
"While we take pride in our university, these are aspects of our past which are inexcusable and shameful and in which we can take no pride.
"Before 1959, nothing in law precluded Rhodes from admitting black students or employing black academics and administrators. Instead, Rhodes practised racial segregation on its own volition.
"Preparing to become a fully fledged university, in 1949 Rhodes voiced its opposition to any legal prohibition on the admission of black students. In practice, however, Rhodes did not admit black undergraduate students.
"This meant that prior to the introduction of apartheid in higher education in 1959, Rhodes was not an 'open university', in the sense that the universities of Cape Town, Witwatersrand and Natal were to varying extents," said Badat.
"Today, as Rhodes University, we openly and publicly acknowledge shameful and regrettable institutional actions on our part during the apartheid period.
"We do this not as... vengeful condemnation or self-flagellation, but to bring uncomfortable truths into the open, wipe the slate clean and draw a line on a particular past."
Badat told The Mercury the apology had been "unanimously approved" by the university's senior managers, senate and council.
The approval was a matter of great "personal pride".
"We are freeing ourselves from past circumstances and committing to a different present and future."