/ 10 November 2022

How are we complicit in the structural racial issues such as Stellenbosch University?

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Zero tolerance: Students march against racism at Stellenbosch University. Photos: Brenton Geach/Gallo Images & ER Lombard/Gallo Images

It has been more than 25 years since our beautiful Constitution came into effect. Most of our laws implemented since then have focused on race, racism and the need to transform our unequal society. Yet institutions, government and the private sector fight for true equality on paper and in lip service only.

This week Justice Sisi Khampepe’s report from the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of Racism at Stellenbosch University was released. She was appointed on 3 June, a month after Theuns du Toit urinated on fellow student Babalo Ndwalaza’s belongings at their Huis Marais residence. 

Black staff members indicated to Khampepe that a culture of intimidation discourages them from reporting their grievances and that they frequently experience subtle forms of racism and exclusion. They believe that they have to work harder than white colleagues to progress in their careers and earn the respect of students and fellow workers. 

Khampepe heard testimony that a toxic and exclusionary culture exists at the university. There is a perception among black students that this culture favours Afrikaans preferences and fails to cater to diversity. Black students too experience subtle racism and exclusionary acts.

This is similar to the business sector. And please don’t choose outliers as the norm in a rebuttal to this point.

This is the situation in many other predominantly white spaces, be it schools, universities, neighbourhoods, businesses, JSE-listed companies, you name them. 

The question becomes: Why is this still the norm? Why do we have to point to the outliers as examples to show that transformation works and racism is not a thing?

Khampepe added in her report a paragraph that should make us all think: “Although the university has adopted a fairly comprehensive transformation apparatus, its transformation journey has taken place in a piecemeal and uncoordinated fashion.”

The majority of previously white-dominated spaces have these transformation apparatuses, yet change won’t come. Most previously white-dominated rooms, such as the private sector, say they are transforming, pointing to a growing number of black faces on their boards and among employees. But these numbers do not speak to fundamental transformation. 

There are many examples of where black faces are simply that, faces.

No decision-making powers to change the structure and “subtle” racism that thrives. 

Look at the black economic empowerment (BEE) legislation that Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana has been changing this past week. Simply put, state-owned entities will no longer be forced to disqualify suppliers based on low BEE scores. The BEE ecosystem indicates that the numbers game and box-ticking exercises will not change the structural racial issues of this country. 

Power and capitalism thrive on inequality. 

It is evident at Stellenbosch University and everywhere else in this country. Change is slow and we refuse for it to be radical. Why? Why, as a people, no matter our colour, will we not make racial transformation and an equal society top of mind in everything we do? 

Because we benefit.  

Another line from the report that may help us realise our complicity in this system is from former public protector Thuli Madonsela and several other witnesses who explained that sometimes the only way to cleanse a toxic environment is with radical change.

When will we all, black and white, make that radical change?