Stellenbosch University’s intractable racism problem

The University of Stellenbosch in South Africa treats racism as an issue that must be soft-soaped to avoid alienating white people.

Stellenbosch. Image credit Kent Wang via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

The case of a white law student at Stellenbosch University breaking into the room of a Black student and urinating on the latter’s possessions and objects is one more episode in an ongoing story of racism’s resilience in South African social life. Of course, Stellenbosch University has a peculiar recidivist streak when it comes to these kinds of incidents (as a former student at the university, Simone Cupido, capably elucidated in this article). Those of us Black academics—I am a faculty member in the English department—who are positioned in a relationship of proximity to the event must diagnose what it means to be Black at such an institution. Diagnosing this event gives meaning to the sense of being caught up in something ugly, by allowing us to assign it to a certain pattern and category of behavior.

We are by now familiar with the way a racist incident generates its own language of understanding; the inclination to think of it in terms like “outbreak” and “larger issues.”  It rapidly becomes a scene in which we flail about for meaning. Racist incidents that happen in large institutions that have a strange, doubled life have seen, in the aftermath of this event, expressions of impatience proliferating on social media: What do you expect from Stellenbosch / Why are we surprised that this is happening at Stellenbosch/Stellenbosch has always…” etcetera. From the outside, this incident at Stellenbosch University is a self-evident case study of something that has always been there.

Internally, the gestures and statements tend to be ones of disavowal. Accompanying the anger at the actions of the individual student, one perceives a gathering sentiment along the lines of “well, of course, racism happens everywhere … / well, obviously it is unacceptable and does not reflect our values …”; statements in which racism is an inconvenient disruption of the work we are all doing. The brusque tone of these renunciations has the consequence of making those of us who want to dig beneath the surface of the event feel as though we are part of the inconvenience because we want to ask what is being taken for granted, rather than rushing to formulate palliative answers that make the problem go away. Our departments and faculties rush to issue assurances of our bona fides, more for the sake of the students than for the academics, who are meant to take it for granted that the space they work in is not actually a harbor for racist ways of being in the world. This assumption of our own criticality is how academics shield themselves against having to examine their own implication in “incidents” like this. But if we understand ourselves as being implicated in what goes on within the institutions where we work, then we understand our proximity to the problem in a different way.

I have worked at Stellenbosch University for 13 years and seen the different ways in which the university sustains and generates harmful ways of engaging with the world among its white students. It is a campus where I have repeatedly had white students bump into me on the sidewalk, or obliviously almost run me over as I walk onto a pedestrian crossing, only to express confusion at my presence, since their world is ordered according to the expectation that Black people will move aside for them. It is a campus where the Black nod is a ready acknowledgement among staff and students of the daily microaggressions that happen here. I have been here through language policy debates where white people needed to be convinced that Afrikaans, as it is used here, is frequently exclusionary. I have been here through residence policy debates where white people needed to be told that not wanting to share a room with a Black person is not simply a cultural preference. I have been here through Open Stellenbosch and the reactionary backlash that followed, and I was here when a white student decided to stick up posters with Nazi iconography on them, calling for white students to unite to preserve their culture. To the outside world, the frequency of these episodes generates an obvious question: “Why is nothing being done?” It is a question that proliferates in many variations because there is a perception of institutional lethargy or intransigence before incidents of racial violence.

I want to unfold this latest deployment of racism as what I term a history of bad relation. I define “bad relation” as a public interaction in which negative behavior occurs because the perpetrating party has sentimentalized attachments to ways of knowing that are harmful. At Stellenbosch University, the on-paper facticity of the university’s efforts at transformation exists simultaneously alongside an enrooted resistance to decisively confronting the problem of cultural and racialized parochialism. The university is an ongoing scene of intractability, in which the resilience with which racism resurfaces episodically is enabled by the university’s tendency to treat racism as an issue that must be soft-soaped to avoid alienating white people.

It seems almost a banal observation that the resilience with which racism persists at this university is due to the conditions which enable it to play out. I think that understanding what transpired in this way moves it beyond the logics of problem management, where the aim is to provide symptomatic relief: make the incident go away, and the problem is solved, goes the logic. Of course, there are many ways to tell the story of racism at Stellenbosch University. Some of them are divergent: some open up routes of questioning, while others close those foreclose those routes.

The late affect theorist Lauren Berlant coined the term “genre flailing” to describe a kind of crisis management that usually arises after a moment of disruption that intrudes on our confidence about how to understand the world. While I think it is necessary to talk about what has happened at Stellenbosch, I worry that in our flailing for a form of recognition, we risk departing from the scene of injury towards a more comforting abstract space where we shift the discourse to the enduring meta-problem of racism in South Africa. If these problems resist unseating, it’s because the premises are wrong. By insisting that we give our attentiveness to individual scenes of racist action, we move away from considerations of the embeddedness with which racism circulates here, the ways it finds new paths of renewal with each cycle of students, the way these intractable people attach themselves to the institution.

Sitting with the problem

My own path is to try to upend the issue. I teach classes where I engage with students about the ways in which we might understand political and cultural life through individual and collective experiences of mood and feeling. As a result, I’m interested in thinking about how Stellenbosch University’s ongoing racism problem might be traced to its insistence on soft-soaping racism. Whenever race ‘turns up’, to use Sara Ahmed’s phrase, it is always as an interruption of the fantasy that racism is a problem that is being dealt with successfully at the university. It is a fantasy we are exhorted to make our own as people who work within the institution, but one that some among us have a greater investment in than others.

When I started working here, friends, family, and strangers with whom I fell into conversation, would all ask a variation of the same question: “how do you work there?” The “you” in this question is implicitly “someone who is not white”, while the “there” corresponds to a perceived sense of the institution as unreformed from its history as an intellectual factory for Apartheid. The imagery that accompanied this question seemed derived from Apartheid’s hauntological picture gallery: intractable Afrikaners in khaki, a landscape deliberately scrubbed of Black people, a heartland stuck in the loop of an ugly cultural nostalgia.

The reality of Stellenbosch University is more Abercrombie and Fitch than AWB. The university has rebranded itself comprehensively as a future-forward institution of higher learning. It places its faith not in the clasp of tradition, but in the clean reassurance of corporate imagery. It aspires to run like a business. The varsity maroon t-shirt is a corporate uniform that expresses the idea that who is in the shirt does not matter once the shirt is donned.

My overriding impression of Stellenbosch University, 10 years on, is of a strange and unsettlingly ahistorical homogeneity designed to produce the idea that the unfortunate past has been banished in favor of an idyllic “racial harmony,” of the sort our oafish former chancellor called for recently. The vacuous sporting bonhomie of the Matie identity, and the persistent exhortation to embrace the empty signifier “excellence,” all seem to take very little stock of where we are, and who is populating the institution. Stellenbosch University is a predominantly white campus: the 2018 data (in a spreadsheet provided on the university website only in Afrikaans) has the numbers at 58.1% of enrolled students being white, and those demographic numbers give substance to the subjective impression I have of being in a demographically unrepresentative part of the country when I am on main campus. Most of my white students do not notice their whiteness because they are not encouraged to think of themselves as white people operating in a particular social moment, a social moment that is structured by various forms of inequality and dis/advantage. The workshopped discussions and student-circle initiatives that form part of the university’s diversity machinery do little to trouble the lived experiences of the many students for whom the fantasy of a white world is granted legitimacy here.

On the contrary, these students inhabit a world where they are encouraged to embrace a banal identity founded on the binding logics of the sports field. I recall how during the Open Stellenbosch disruptions, the recently installed Vice Chancellor declared that “[W]e are all 100% responsible to be the change we want to see.” He said this as though being untransformed was somehow the fault of those who came to Stellenbosch expecting it to be a South African university. A rejoinder to: “We are not all responsible for the work of change, because it is not the duty of Black people to educate people out of their racist assumptions of ownership and belonging.” During the week that this “incident” occurred, I noted with poignance the angry words of a Black student, who expressed her frustration that it was Black students who were being distracted by racism while white students quietly went on as though nothing had occurred.

When white students at this university behave in ways that are dehumanizing to Black people, it should not be read as occurring in a vacuum. Nor should it be assumed that these students are simply bringing their disagreeable styles of relation from home into the neutral university space. Rather, their intractability flourishes here because of Stellenbosch University’s seeming ambivalence towards it. I have seen enough to suggest that there is a sense, among many Black students and staff, of a latent ambivalence to the presence of Black people in this institution, which displays itself as a peculiar institutional lethargy. Suddenly, an institutional machine that runs as professionally as you would expect of a place that once saw fit to appoint Johann Rupert, the second wealthiest person in South Africa, to its chancellery, seems capable of only a befuddled shrug in response to racist behavior.

Whether perceived or actual, tacit indulgence gives validation to displays of obscene enjoyment by endorsing policies that endorse intractability as a socially unacceptable category of behavior to be negotiated with. Z“Socially unacceptable” is not a dynamically policeable category, which is why people drive too quickly or listen to music loudly in places where there are prohibitions against these things. As a result, we sit with the strange scenario where the university can point to the strides it has taken in recent years towards creating a transformed and integrated university community, while issuing reports that testify to its skewed demographic. The same intractability means that while our students have sporadic discussions in residence about “inclusivity,” the university also grants its approval to openly bigoted figures like Helen Zille—the leader of the dominant party among white South Africans, the Democratic Alliance—who is given a platform to say cretinous and anti-intellectual things to influential sectors of the university, things that seem very much at odds with the ideas the university wishes to communicate about itself.

It could be argued that the university’s journey toward transformation must be seen in a longer, historically informed context. The problem with this thinking is that it assumes a linearity of cause and effect, where the end goal of an enfolding set of measures will be the achievement of a transformed university. This logic does not reckon with the ways that certain divergent energies—intractable people, right-wing groups actively pushing in the other direction—have overtaken the conditions that form the groundwork for policies, rendering them passe as they are implemented. The effect of this, for Black students and staff, is the alienating feeling of being drawn into conversations about why one deserves to be treated with humanity, all the while feeling that not enough is being done to create a space hospitable for all.

In a recent Facebook post, South African political analyst Eusebius McKaiser—writing incisively of a similar instance of institutionally-located racism—offered up the following questions:

  • Do these schools have explicit anti-racism policies? What do they look like? What do they say?
  • What “up until now” has been the exposure of the perpetrator to curriculum content aimed at developing a young man who is anti-racist? Has he ever encountered such content, experiential learning modules, etc., or has it been assumed that simply having black classmates and the odd black staff member will guarantee respect for all people? Where is the evidence of EXPLICIT anti-racism curricula?
  • Similarly, what explicit policies and procedures are in place to respond to acts of racism?

I want to propose that a proper reckoning with racism at Stellenbosch University might begin with a consideration of these questions. While the cathartic expulsion of the “bad person” is a good step, one that can exist concurrently with the awareness that there are larger problems, the solutions being implemented need to move towards more robust anti-racist action that reckons with the constitutive violence of the institution.

We know that intractability is a globally resurgent psychosis, from North America’s conservative politics to the anti-migrant parochialism deforming Europe and Britain. There is enough out there to suggest that intractability is potentially lucrative, and so the depressing answer might be that Stellenbosch University’s lassitude arises because the intractable people who are persistently racist are also the people who bring in the money that keeps the institution afloat. But because a public university in South Africa is a shared object, those of us who are transforming the object through our backgrounds and our political projects must share it with people who want it to remain aligned with their fantasy. It is a problem of living that cannot be solved until we agree that being here means no longer accommodating bad relations in the name of a moribund idea of “inclusivity.”

Further Reading