[lg policy] South Africa: Open Stellenbosch: A university education in exclusion

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Tue Aug 25 14:41:55 UTC 2015

Open Stellenbosch: A university education in exclusion

   - Neil du Toit
   - 25 Aug 2015 12:58 (South Africa)
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The fact that it only occurred to Stellenbosch University’s management 21
years into democracy 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. The Open Stellenbosch Movement has engaged with
students and heard the stories of their shared experiences with the culture
of exclusion. It says 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

“*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'm black and that shouldn't be at
Stellenbosch because I'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

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

“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. *DM*

*Neil du Toit works with the media team of the Open Stellenbosch Movement. *


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