The beautification of Stellenbosch University

The arrogance of apartheid-denialism at Stellenbosch University.

Image: Open Stellenbosch.

The management of Stellenbosch University has announced that they will remove the plaque honoring H F Verwoerd, President of South Africa from 1958 until 1966, when he was assassinated. The management clearly intends to use this act to show that they are transforming the university and that this is linked to the appointment of the new Rector and Vice Chancellor, Wim de Villiers, who will be inaugurated next week.

As Nic Spaull, an economics researcher based at Stellenbosch University, observed in May 2014, questions about the university’s failure to transform cannot be so easily swept under the carpet. Spaull writes of Stellenbosch as “the crucible for Afrikaner Nationalist thought in the 20th century” and notes that, “Between 1919 and 1978, every single prime minister of our country hailed from Stellenbosch University – Jan Smuts, JBM Hertzog, Malan, JG Strijdom, Verwoerd and BJ Vorster – whether as students, professors or chancellors. They then went on to become the architects and implementers of the oppressive apartheid regime of legislated racial exclusivity.”

Between 1964 and 1970 people who were classified as coloured and as black were forcibly removed from the area in Stellenbosch known as Die Vlakte. Their homes and livelihoods were destroyed. The building at Stellenbosch University, now called the Arts and Social Sciences Building, was erected in 1974 on the site of what once were people’s homes. Until 2002 the building bore the name of one of the most iniquitous proponents of apartheid, BJ Vorster. Students at the university still refer to the building as ‘the BJ’, many of them without knowing why.

Everybody knows that the university is an important site for Afrikaners, and that the university remains a key site where Afrikaner history and culture are preserved. The sense of white ownership of the space is clear. What is also clear is that many young white people, along with most of the faculty and management, do not see this as a problem. This is connected to the widespread ignorance and willful blindness about what really happened during apartheid. Everyone admits the university played a central part in the production of apartheid ideology but no one admits responsibility for this. No one wants to acknowledge how the injustices committed in the past are connected to injustices in the present.

On the 22nd of April 2015 Open Stellenbosch, a collective of students, staff and faculty at the University of Stellenbosch who are challenging the university to confront the legacy of apartheid, held a mass meeting to call for justice for the people of Die Vlakte. The gathering took place outside of the Arts and Social Sciences building and was addressed by community leaders who had lived in the area during the time of forced removals, and who spoke of the ongoing psychic and material harm caused by the destruction of their homes. Sheikh Yusuf, the Imam of the Stellenbosch mosque, spoke of how the area had once been his playground, a vibrant neighborhood where his friends all stayed. He spoke of the effects the forced removals had at the time and about how the children of those who were forcibly removed remain excluded from the university today. He spoke of the central role Luckhoff School played in the life of the community and of how it was appropriated by the university. “The university should pay for what it has taken from us.”

After the Imam spoke a young white man in the audience asked a question: “If the university pays for bursaries for these people you are talking about, how do we know that the money would go to the right people?”

The Imam replied that the bursaries would go to the descendants of the people of Die Vlakte.

The man asked again, aggressively, “But do you know these people personally? How will we know that the money will go to the right people?”

The arrogant and callous response of this student at a site of racial injury, in the presence of those who were subject to this particular act of violence, is not an aberration. Young white people in Stellenbosch behave as though Apartheid never happened. They behave as though they have nothing to apologize for or to be ashamed about. Their position is one that is authorized by the management and faculty of the institution of which they form part.

The ignorance and blatant racism of students at Stellenbosch University is an indictment of those who teach there who, for the most part, affirm rather than challenge racist thought and behavior. This was evidenced clearly when three black students were attacked by seven white men in what the university referred to as an “allegedly racist incident” in February 2015. The students who were attacked were told: “You don’t belong here, you don’t speak Afrikaans.” In spite of the fact this was reported on the front page of the daily newspaper, the Cape Times, not a single faculty member wrote to the paper to condemn racist violence and exclusion at the institution. Failing to speak out against racism is to be complicit with its violent effects.

The Open Stellenbosch collective have identified Afrikaner nationalism as the means through which the persistent racism at Stellenbosch is advanced. There is a growing number of white students and staff who are complicit in sustaining white supremacy in the university. This complicity is in the form of their approval for the approach on language, by invoking the history of Afrikaans, which therefore necessitates its ‘preservation’ at all costs. When those who espouse that we ought to protect Stellenbosch as an Afrikaans University, and then proceed to invoke the history of the place as a reason for this protection, we should shudder. This call to preserve the privileged status of Afrikaans speaks directly to the appointment of a Stellenbosch alumnus, whose father was the Dean of Law at Stellenbosch University during apartheid, being appointed as the Rector and Vice Chancellor. 

While the Dean of Humanities, Professor Johan Hattingh, has publicly supported the call for bursaries for descendants of those forcibly removed from Die Vlakte, broader faculty support for the Open Stellenbosch collective has been slow in coming.

Apartheid denialism reigns at Stellenbosch University where the official rhetoric asks us to forget the injuries of a fifty-year political configuration based on racist hatred that was incubated and nurtured at the institution, and continues to be celebrated rather than condemned. We should remember that in 1959 Verwoerd passed the Extension of University Education Act that created separate universities for those classified as Coloured, Indian and Black. Undoing this legacy takes far more than removing a plaque.

  • This post was written by Open Stellenbosch, a collective of students, staff, and faculty interested in purging the oppressive remnants of apartheid in pursuit of a truly African University. They will be hosting a mass meeting on Stellenbosch campus called Confronting White Supremacy this Wednesday at 12:30pm.

Further Reading

The skeleton in the closet

The novelist Nadifa Mohamed complicates Britain’s troubled, racist legal history through the personal tale of one otherwise insignificant person, a Somali immigrant to Cardiff in Wales.

Life to the sound of gunfire

Nigerians fleeing extremist violence at home take refuge across the border in Niger among an already fragile population. Together they proceed to carve out a way to live better lives for now.

Democraticizing money

Cameroonian economist Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi died in 1984, either poisoned or by suicide. His ideas about the international monetary system and the CFA franc are worth revisiting.