Open Stellenbosch: A university education in exclusion


Students take a stand against racism and the use of Afrikaans as a language of learning at Stellenbosch University.

by Members of Open Stellenbosch

“I have gone through a bad experience. What happens is that we had girls and guys. So all the girls had to throw their shoe on the dance floor, and a guy had to pick up just one shoe and then raise it up. And if it was your shoe then he had to dance with you. So I did that and one guy picked my shoe. Then he and his friends just looked at me and he threw it at me and laughed with his friends. So that was something that was really … it hurt me a lot … that’s why I hate skakels. I hate them...” – Asie, a black woman, describing her experience at the Stellenbosch residence welcoming week event known as ‘skakeling’.

It is difficult to articulate to someone who hasn’t lived in Stellenbosch just how deeply entrenched structural racism and patriarchy are. That Stellenbosch University (SU), a public institution, took 21 years of democracy to realise that a plaque celebrating Hendrik Verwoerd should probably be taken down, is a strong outward indication of the strength of the institutional culture that continues to fester untreated within the Stellenbosch community.

Quantitatively, staff demographics provide some insight into the how the institutional culture defines the make-up of the university. Management claimed in their most recent statement: “In 2014, permanent black, coloured and Indian (BCI) employees at SU made up 43.2% of the University’s staff corps compared to 37.6% in 2008.” It is no surprise that the university has chosen to focus on this group, conveniently labelled BCI: these figures include every permanent employee of the university: security guards, maintenance and cleaning, administration staff, the employee who operates the photocopy machine in the library, and so on. It is not clear whether the many outsourced employees (who earn significantly less than they would in comparable positions at other universities) are included in these figures. In any event, when we look at research and instruction - staff employed in intellectual labour - the numbers tell a damning story. Only 25.69% of academic staff are currently BCI. In the professoriate, there are more staff members named Johan then black staff in total. Most importantly, the number of white staff in research and instruction has increased in both absolute and relative terms since 2008, and by bigger margins in higher positions. This is as a result of the university accelerating its employment of white academic staff members in 2004.

The Open Stellenbosch Movement was formed just over five months ago. Over a three-week period, we engaged with students and heard the stories of their shared experiences with the culture of exclusion at Stellenbosch.

“During the orientation programme for new students my friends were discussing what was holding South Africa back from becoming a more equal society and I said it was race. There were some people standing around and listening to our discussion. This guy came up to me and told the only reason I say race is because I&39;m black and that shouldn&39;t be at Stellenbosch because I&39;m black and that I should go back to Zuma and his wives. Then he started pulling monkey faces at me,” said a student. The engagements and discussions with students took place in open spaces, where they felt comfortable to air their grievances. We also drew on the insights of those who have engaged with the struggle to transform universities after the end of Apartheid. On May 13 we handed over our final memorandum to management.

The achievement of equality is one of the founding values of the Constitution. The right to equality is entrenched in Section 9 of the Constitution, and is elaborated on in the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act. In their public statements, Stellenbosch University and other supporters of the language policy have repeatedly drawn on the supposed constitutional protection the policy is supposed to provide. A long line of decisions by the Constitutional Court have not been kind to those who try to shield themselves from the need to transform by appealing to other legal rights. As court deputy president Pius Langa, writes in the Constitutional Court decision of City Council of Pretoria v Walker “In cases of indirect discrimination (there) is almost always some purpose other than a discriminatory purpose involved in the conduct or action to which objection is taken.” In casu, that purpose is said to be the protection of the language rights of the Afrikaans minority.

The fault in this line of reasoning is that it mischaracterises the conduct of the university as being the protection of Afrikaans culture. It is a constitutional imperative that we thoroughly interrogate. The Constitutional Court described this obligation in the Walker case as: “always be astute to distinguish between genuine attempts to promote and protect equality on the one hand and actions calculated to protect pockets of privilege at a price which amounts to the perpetuation of inequality and disadvantage to others on the other”.

At Stellenbosch, these calculated actions amount to the protection, not of an Afrikaans culture, but of a white Afrikaans culture. The term “Afrikaans–Nederlands” employed by the university, which denies the role of the coloured population in the development of Afrkaans, makes it clear that this is the intention. The fact that the majority of Afrikaans speakers in the Western Cape are not white, but that the majority of students at Stellenbosch University are, is proof of the effect of institutional culture.

“Orientation week is the most tedious thing in Stellenbosch. As a young black man, I felt like I was being forced into a system that wanted to change who I was and what I believed in. I was told that I should learn Afrikaans if I want to survive. Meetings were all in Afrikaans and it suddenly hit me that it was going to be a long three years,” said a student.

The idea of a protection of minority language rights is furthermore misplaced in so far as it seeks to protect a group that is not in need of protection. The proportionality exercise that is involved in a weigh-up of language rights and the right to equality will take into account the degree of unfairness inherent in the form of discrimination. As Justice Kate O’Regan noted in President of the Republic of South Africa and v Hugo, “the more vulnerable the group is, the more likely that the discrimination will be unfair”. White Afrikaans people are not, in the South African context, a vulnerable group.

In addition, what is missed in this argument is that many black students are not even translating into their second language when they are taught in Afrikaans. It is a third language to which they must now acclimatise. This is not the case for Afrikaans students speaking English.

“During my welcoming programme at one of the private student organisations, the programme and daily activities were all conducted in Afrikaans. Myself and other international students had no idea what was going on, and upon repeated request for an English programme or a simple translation, nothing pragmatic was done,” a student told us.

It must be emphasised that Open Stellenbosch is in no way anti-Afrikaans. We would support parallel medium classes. We are fully committed to multilingualism and language diversity. However, our understanding of language diversity is one that gives full effect to the spirit and purport of the Bill of Rights. It is absurd to talk about diversity, as envisioned by the Constitution and interpreted by the courts, as diversity of public institutions. What the Constitution envisions is diversity within public institutions. The fact that many other universities in South Africa are English cannot be a consideration, legally or morally, in light of the overwhelming evidence that the language policy at Stellenbosch University excludes students who cannot understand Afrikaans, and that the institutional culture excludes even those black students who can speak Afrikaans. Real multilingualism recognises that language diversity is a powerful tool which can be used to expand access to universities to all South Africans. Real multilingualism does not serve as a rhetorical front to restrict access by protecting Afrikaans, under the guise of multilingualism, to the exclusion of those who cannot speak the language. Management has repeatedly used investment in isiXhosa as a front for multilingualism. This is despite the inability of the university, notwithstanding repeated attempts, to even name buildings correctly in isiXhosa. We are fighting for a review of the language policy because the learning environment experienced by black students at Stellenbosch University cannot be maintained this far into our democracy. However, our goals are consistent with a common sense pedagogical approach that recognises the absurdity of requiring lecturers to speak in two different languages for an interactive lecturing environment. It is an approach that many lecturers and even Afrikaans speaking students have been calling for. Our vision is one of a university that is welcoming to everyone, multilingual, and diverse.

None of what has been said even speaks to the discrepancy between what is stated in the four corners of the policy, and what is in fact experienced by the student. As the Constitutional Court noted in South African Police Service v Solidarity obo Barnard “Ordinarily, irrational conduct in implementing a lawful project attracts unlawfulness.”

Experiences of flagrant disregard for the language policy are common. “I remember sitting is a lecture once, when a student raised her hand to clarify something with the lecturer in English,” said one student. What the student describes next is a minutes-long monologue in which the girl was personally attacked for having even dared to ask the question: “You people come to our university, and then expect us to change?”

And yet, the stories that are the most touching are often so much more subtle. One student recalls the way his lecturer, while following the language policy, would nonetheless make all of his jokes in Afrikaans. Jokes told in this way are not funny. It’s in these shared experiences that black students are systematically excluded.

These are not shortcomings that find their source in the difficulty of management to control the lecturer. The responses given by management, when they attended the student parliament, to the lived experiences of the language policy are now infamous: “This is Stellenbosch.” And “did you really expect to come here and not hear Afrikaans?”

If there remains any doubt about the incorrectness of the assumptions underlying these remarks, such doubts are quickly cleared up on a proper reading of the Constitutional Court decision in MEC for Education: kwaZulu Natal v Pillay, where the court, per Langa, had this to say in relation to a school policy which did not make effective allowance for the practising of the Hindu religion: “The school also argued that if Sunali did not like the code, she could simply go to another school. I cannot agree. In my view the effect of this would be to marginalise religions and cultures, something that is completely inconsistent with the values of our Constitution. As already noted, our Constitution does not tolerate diversity as a necessary evil, but affirms it as one of the primary treasures of our nation.”

What was perhaps much more telling though was the response to Sikhulekile Duma’s complaint about exclusion: “No. That is not true”. This response from the top is a perfect illustration of the manner in which the exclusionary application of the language policy is systematically defended through the discrediting and denial of any reports that there is a problem. It is for this reason that the university cannot defend the language policy and blames only its implementation for the problems that persist. A radical overhaul is needed, and it is needed now. That is what we are fighting for.

Open Stellenbosch has given the Stellenbosch community every opportunity to engage with the lived experiences of oppressed students. Prof Wim de Villiers attended our first mass meeting and was invited to listen to and respond to the oral testimony of black students. He chose instead to read off a pre-typed speech. Our memorandum contains an extensive appendix documenting some of the written submissions we received. They have not been responded to. At student parliament, the lived experiences of students were dismissed either as lies, or as something that we should have expected when we came here. The only invitation we have received to engage has been an invitation to a round table discussion with other student bodies that are not committed to transformation. On July 17, management finally replied to Open Stellenbosch’s memorandum. Our demands were categorically rejected. In desperation, Open Stellenbosch decided to engage in protest action on July 27, several months after our formation. The aim was to secure the attendance of management at a meeting. Our invitation to a meeting was rejected, and instead our protest action was met with the institution of disciplinary action against Open Stellenbosch members with the threat of expulsion. This town will not hear our stories. That is why we are turning now to the country. Share our story. Support Open Stellenbosch.

- The Daily Maverick

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