The vice-chancellor’s office in Admin B was never a place of comfort to me. This was where student journalists were summoned when the rector — Andreas van Wyk in my time — was unhappy with the newspaper’s take on campus activities.
Nine years after graduating, I am back at Admin B, this time to meet Russel Botman, theologian, former UDF activist and Stellenbosch University’s first black rector.
Botman has his work cut out: this is a campus where the police still routinely stop and search black and coloured students who hang out in an area called District Six and white students pair up and dance the sokkiejol. Presiding over all this is no walk in the park.
Fortunately for me the change in rector has brought about a change in style — Botman is friendly and he is willing to talk about tough issues, such as race relations on campus.
“You can’t shy away from it. We have here a 7de Laan, rugby and sokkiejol culture. Even at functions in residences the black students don’t participate because at huisdanse [house dances] the white guys will anyway dance with the white girls and then the others would ask: ‘Why am I here?'”
Botman-era initiatives — such as “Courageous Conversations” — give students an opportunity to talk frankly to one other about their cultural differences; and special student houses, formerly designated for senior students, are laboratories for group integration. So are these initiatives working on the ground?
I head to the Neelsie Student Centre, the recreational heart of campus life. Back then it was full of coloured students playing klawerjas (a card game) and dominoes on wooden benches in a corner called District Six, while the white students would sit at the café tables and eat overpriced sandwiches and drink fancy coffees.
Coming down the stairs I am greeted by a sea of white faces. Not a single coffee table is peopled by coloured or black students. District Six has been replaced by a Nedbank and more shops with overpriced lunch fare.
“Forcibly removed,” quips Samantha Carolus, a coloured student in financial accounting, from where she sits with her friends, a mixed bunch of coloured, white and Muslim students, when I ask what happened.
I take a chance and ask her if she’s ever been called a “coconut” — a derogatory term for coloured people implying that they act like whites — because of her white friends and Model C accent.
“Yes, of course, but these days it is not that bad because there are so many of them! If you get called a coconut it shows you are above the stereotype of being coloured.”
My next stop is Irene, my university home of three years and later also to my sisters, one of whom, Megan, became the first coloured huiskomiteelid (residence leader) in the residence’s history.
I have an appointment to meet the head student, who is white. She begs me not to speak to any of the students or use her name after I explain my assignment to her. “I don’t want trouble from the top,” she says.
Integration in the residence is not a problem, she says. The residence makes an effort to make everyone feel at home.
“We have an Africa evening once a year. This year I was part of the gumboot dance group. It was great fun.”
She explains that at dances, which used to be a bone of contention for coloured students because they cannot sokkie and prefer kwaito to Kurt Darren, students get to choose which music they want.
“We put up a list at the residence door a few weeks before the dance. We don’t always find the music people list there, but we try,” she says, smiling.
Photographer David Harrison and I spend the next half-hour outside Irene, hoping to get a picture of a coloured or black student leaving or entering the residence. We see none and so decide to visit Metanoia, the largest and newest residence, housing 500 students.
It opened in 2006 and it shows: the building is vast and blank, with a feel of Cold War Eastern Europe that is out of step with the surrounding Cape Dutch confections. Still, it is the only residence buzzing with students from all race groups.
But it has become less popular with white students, says one Metanoia student, because the residence now has a reputation for crime and drugs, chasing away the more conservative white students.
The vice-chancellor may be coloured, District Six may be gone and being called coconut may even be cool, but true change will happen at Stellenbosch only once ordinary students buy into the vision that will make Metanoia, Courageous Conversations and new-look huisdanse work.
Mandy Rossouw is a political reporter at the Mail & Guardian and co-author of The World According to Julius Malema