Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Open Letter to St Andrew’s Rhodes Scholarship Candidates

Update: 31 October 2015

I have received welcome feedback on this post - supportive and critical. In response to this feedback, the following change have been made.

1. The unfairness of targeting Will personally is acknowledged unreservedly. While I believe personal reflection from those privileged is essential, the manner of this letter was not appropriate. Will - my apologies, I certainly don't intend any malice. The letter is now addressed to future scholarship candidates. I also don't pretend to understand your specific circumstances, and as was pointed out to me by my wife among others, it is not reasonable to expect you to turn down such an opportunity.

2. It was noted that it is perhaps not within the power of the candidates to transfer their scholarship once awarded. On that basis (if it is so) I urge potential candidates to apply for the national scholarship and the Schools to find a middle ground where the school candidates are interviewed for national scholarships. 

3. Most negative comments were about my motivations in writing this. To clarify: there are few dissenting voices within the OA community on our privileged position. I believe dissenting positions, voiced publicly and accountably are an essential component of the discourse. This conversation needs perspectives from within the system identifying the inequities of the system.

4. Ideally, St Andrew's (and the other named schools) would take steps to address the equity of their privileged position. I do not hold much hope of that. And so this appeal is to the scholarship candidates (and scholars-elect in general) - use the platform you have to drive change.


Amended letter:

Dear St Andrew's/DSG Rhodes scholar candidates,

Congratulations on your selection/short-listing forthe St Andrew’s/DSG Rhodes Scholarship – it is a commendable achievement.

I’m going to ask you to consider something difficult; no, implore you to do something very difficult: to decline the opportunity and interview for it alongside the national scholarship candidates, even interview again for it yourself in a national context - by all accounts you would be a very strong candidate.

There are three main reasons for my request; Impact, Equity and Growth.


Your selection makes clear you have both substantial capability and the desire to impact South Africa for the better. I believe you will achieve far more in this regard by taking a stand against entrenched privilege, then by any additional benefit you will gain from an further study at at Oxford.

Through St Andrew’s and university, your start in life is without peer, globally. You do not need Oxford to give you an edge in achieving the goals you appear to have set yourself.

If your desire was to get picked up by a global bank, tech company or corporate consultancy; then the scholarship is for you. But if you want to seriously impact sustainability and energy, you can achieve that with the education you have. 

And on the other hand, you have before you an opportunity to take an unprecedented stand against entrenched privilege. A stand that would set you on a path to transcend the petty self-interest that infects so much of South Africa’s talent.

You are in a privileged position – you have at your fingertips both the platform to make a public statement about privilege and also to hand an opportunity to someone for whom Oxford will make a life-time’s difference.

Were you to be the ‘Scholar-Who-Walked-Away’, you could have Impact. As just the next St Andrew’s Rhodie, you’ll have to work much much harder for that same impact, and the years you spend at Oxford might not help you on the journey.


The Schools scholarships remain one of the strongest examples of entrenched privilege within the South African (and the Rhodes Trust) education system.

There is no meritocratic reason for four highly privileged schools to have dedicated scholarships in this modern time. No matter how the Institutions themselves portray their own, and their students’ merits, this is largely undebatable (even within the Rhodes Scholar community at Oxford).

And yet the schools scholarships are untouchable as they are written into the will of Cecil Rhodes by name.

The schools themselves are unlikely to forgo their rights in law – having a dedicated Rhodes scholarship is a major drawcard to prospective parents. And so the responsibility falls to the scholars-elect; this year to you; to take a stand for equity.

I cannot overstate the importance of symbolic and material gestures of equity and the breaking of entrenched privilege are to the social fabric of South Africa – something that is clearly under immense strain.

Again, you have the opportunity to take that stand.

I would add here, that the cost to you is real, but not severely damaging. Oxford is very cool and you would miss out on that experience. But the education aspect is replaceable and the kudos you would receive for taking a stand would exceed the plaudits you have already received for being the successful candidate. You would always have the CV that notes you were a successful candidate and that you voluntarily gave up the opportunity to take a stand for equity.

I think you would come out ahead.


The final point I’d ask you to ponder relates to personal growth.

St Andrew’s and Africa's Universities set us up very well on many fronts, but neither challenged our preconceptions about who we are as people nor our place in this world. If anything they entrenched the belief that we are owed something by the world, that through our privilege we are somehow special.

It has taken me a long time to begin to challenge those assumptions. But I guarantee you that without challenging them, making important contributions at the scale you seem to want to, is very hard.

Oxford will not help you challenge those assumptions about yourself. It will support the narrative that you have been told all your life. Becoming the first Schools scholar-elect to decline on the grounds of equity would put you on a path that you can perhaps scarcely imagine in terms of your own inner growth.

Closing Comments

So, who am I to be asking this of you…? Well, to a point, I’m not that dis-similar to you, just older and without quite the distinguished list of achievements you have.

I write to you as an OA - I attended St Andrew’s (pre-school to matric , class of ’99).

I write to you as a UCT Engineering Alumnus – I studied mechanical engineering at UCT (2000-2003).

I was, however, an unsuccessful Rhodes Scholarship candidate in 2003. And so I write to you as someone familiar with territory, if not the decision.

Finally I write to you as a professional in the sustainable design and low-carbon economy – I have been working in sustainability in the built environment in South Africa and Australia for a decade and currently lead the Sustainable Places teams within the WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff Aus/NZ business. In many ways, not winning that scholarship was the best thing happened to me, as it put me on the path I am on today.

Finally, I would ask that you speak to past scholars in South Africa in considering how you move forward (I can provide the details of some good people if you wanted to explore your thinking further). Get some perspective on your options now, for they are options unparalleled. And of course, I would be only too happy to talk as well.

And take your own council. Try not to be swayed by the conservative whisperers and doom-sayers. You have an opportunity to truly lead.

If you choose to take the opportunity at Oxford, then go well and make of it what you can. I really hope you have the will to achieve what you have set yourself and contribute in the way you dream to.

Good luck.

Kind regards
Richard Palmer

OA (1984-1999)
UCT Alumnus (2000-2003)

e| Rich.Palmer@wspgroup.com


  1. This post has been edited since its original publication:

    - remove the names of some Rhodes Scholar contacts from the post itself.
    - remove my completely personal (and highly contestable) perspective on masters degrees.
    - occasional typo and grammar errors.

  2. I think it was mean to send this to the boy at this stage. Let him enjoy his achievement and YOU make a stand all by yourself!

  3. Thanks Anonymous. That's a fair point.

    A short response:

    - On the meanness. Yes, it is personal in a way that might be unfair. However on the question of the schools scholarships, the conversation at an institutional level has not resulted in addressing the inequity of the schools scholarships. And so appealing to candidates offers another point of consideration.

    - on what I should/am doing; I'd be happy to engage offline about decisions I have made.

    But regardless, I don't believe my personal actions are a factor in whether to voice a position that would rarely be heard in challenging the status quo.

  4. I still think the real argument - and the real impact- should be made from another angle: lowering all university fees to be more equitable across the board.
    The issue is structural injustice and should therefore be tackled systemically.
    One person missing out on their dream won't guarantee others achieving theirs...
    If I had been granted a scholarship to anywhere, for any reason, I would have grabbed it with both hands!