'Stellenbosch is not racist but we do have racists'

Stellenbosch University. (David Harrison, M&G)

Stellenbosch University. (David Harrison, M&G)

The path to a transformed Stellenbosch University was far from finished, nor was it without its problems, Rector and Vice-Chancellor Professor Wim de Villiers told Parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education and training on Tuesday.

“Our journey is imperfect, incomplete but we remain steadfast,” said De Villiers.

De Villiers, along with the rest of Stellenbosch University’s management were called before the portfolio committee to respond to allegations of racism made in an online documentary called “Luister” recently.

The 35-minute video has been trending on social media since its release last month.

“I watched ‘Luister’ with my wife … it was uncomfortable and upsetting,” said De Villiers. “I do not enjoy knowing that students – my students – are suffering. It is painful.”

The student movement, Open Stellenbosch, was first to post the film online.

It documented 34 students and a staff member’s accounts of racism on campus. De Villiers said he would not “attempt to defend the indefensible”.

“It’s wrong. Racism, discrimination, human rights violations, exclusion and marginalisation are wrong,” he said.

However, De Villiers pointed out certain “nuances” omitted from “Luister” and in the dialogue that followed thereafter.

Among these, De Villiers said clarification on off-campus incidents had not been made and that Elsenburg, a campus mentioned in the documentary, was in fact not part of Stellenbosch University.

He added that Open Stellenbosch refused to engage with the university and its structures and processes.

De Villiers said despite this, the university was committed to travelling the path set by late rector, Professor Russel Botman.

Part of this was exceeding the department of higher education’s projected student enrolment for 2019. The department projected that white students would make up 56.2% whereas De Villiers said they were aiming for a majority black, coloured, and Indian student body come 2020.

He added that transforming Stellenbosch Univerity’s academic staff was their biggest challenge but that a “Strategic Personnel Fund” would help contribute to change.

De Villiers also stated the university was sorry for its contribution to apartheid but was now focused on progressing the ideals of democracy.

“We are not quite there but we have come a long way,” he said.

“Change is always difficult and I am of the thinking that if change is not uncomfortable … well, then you aren’t doing it right.”

Outgoing student representative council (SRC) chairperson, Stefan Lang, told the committe in his address that the university could not collectively be called racist. 

“Stellenbosch is not racist but we do have racists,” said Lang.

“Our vision is to create a welcoming ethos and anything that is against that must be removed,” he said.

Lang said that although racism was “unequivocally” present at the university, it was “hidden in the corners”. He added that the university community needed to work together to tackle discrimination.

Incoming SRC chairperson Axolile Qina echoed Lang’s final call to action, saying it would be the essence of the new SRC’s term. He added that it was time the university celebrated its commonality, that was its humanity. – ANA

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