A fundamental reimagining of who we are

Desmond Painter
Sean Jacobs

The future of Stellenbosch University does not depend on whether white people there can transcend individual stereotypes and prejudice. It depends on whether they can articulate anti-racism as a genuine political position.

Stellenbosch. Image credit Chris Eason via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

The report on racism at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University (SU) by retired Constitutional Court Judge, Sisi Khampepe, has received wide media coverage. Much of the reaction was predictable: On the one hand, it presented as more proof that SU is the last remaining apartheid higher education institution; on the other, the report’s critics argued, it is a barely disguised way of finally doing away with Afrikaans as an academic and colloquial language on campus.

The Khampepe report makes it clear that SU is not simply an apartheid relic, and that its existing transformation efforts are sincere; that it has drawn up a sophisticated policy and is making work of implementing that policy—not only in senior management, but at the faculty and departmental level, where work is being done to address historical injustices and inequalities. To say that SU has not yet moved on from the 1980s is unfair. The problem with a narrative of a mythical Stellenbosch with mythical Afrikaners simply stuck in the past, is that it makes it difficult to adequately understand the interests and contradictions that drive racism in the present.

There is certainly a lot to be said about the role of language in the decolonization of universities in South Africa, including at SU. To date, none of South Africa’s tertiary institutions has come up with a language policy that is practical or meaningfully overturns the colonial language order. African languages like Xhosa or Zulu do not come into their own at all, and it is naive to pretend that English doesn’t also come with sociolinguistic markers that are subtly mobilized to exclude people or make them feel like they’re not quite “up to standard.” Recently, one of my honors students, who is brown and English-speaking, wrote in an assignment about how her way of pronouncing the “r”—the rolled ‘r’ or alveolar tap—marks her and other students as sociolinguistically different. The result is these students internalize the idea that they should swallow their r’s when they speak English in order to sound sophisticated and be taken seriously academically.

In my own experience, it very rarely happens that black staff and students are hostile towards Afrikaans and its uses. What they oppose are the many explicit and subtle ways in which language, specifically Afrikaans at SU, is mobilized as an institutional, academic, and social barrier.

Yet SU, precisely because it has not yet fully opted for English, is ironically, of all the universities in South Africa, currently perhaps best placed to do something new and transformative in terms of creating a multilingual tertiary institutional, and academic culture. A lot of money is invested at SU in an infrastructure that supports large-scale translation and interpretation, and even if in practice classes are increasingly taught in English, and then interpreted in Afrikaans and Xhosa, it would absolutely be possible with the existing technology and help for a lecturer to teach not only in Afrikaans, but in Xhosa, with interpretation in English and Afrikaans. Just think how radical, how decolonizing, it would be if a module at SU were to be offered in Xhosa.

Students would experience the African language as an academic language. The majority of white students would be placed in the position where they have to fit in and adapt to a situation and an environment that is not simply a mirror image of the world they come from. It may be easier to make others feel welcome when you sometimes need to be welcomed yourself; when the possibility for alienation is a little more evenly distributed.

But I don’t want to write here about language and “the language debate.” It is unacceptable that the discussion about racism is time and again subordinated to the discussion about language—and specifically a discussion about Afrikaans, with “multilingualism” only becoming a convenient rhetorical maneuver to stabilize Afrikaans’ position. Reactions like that of Democratic Alliance MP Leon Schreiber only reinforce the idea that in the end a choice must be made between anti-racism and Afrikaans. This is morally unjustifiable, given the history of SU, and it is also undermining any position that really wants to get serious about multilingualism and the decolonization of our university. If you want to negotiate a place for Afrikaans by denying or relativizing racism, you will achieve nothing except to strengthen the perception that Afrikaans is part of the problem. What makes this relativization possible is the erroneous assumption that racism today only exists in the form of isolated individual cases of prejudice, discrimination, or hurtful language.

What Judge Khampepe’s report makes clear, and what black staff and students have been reporting for years—informally as well as in research reports, in private conversations with white colleagues and on public platforms—is that SU is still an alienating space: one in which black staff and students often feel they are tolerated rather than really being part of the institution and where they can say without reservation: “This is my university, my campus.” Here SU, and all its white staff, do deserve sharp criticism. Why was it necessary for another racism scandal and a commission of inquiry for us to take note of the relentless nature of racism at SU and in the town of Stellenbosch? Not only from the “newsworthy” cases of blatant racism, not just the incidents where white students urinated on black students or their property, but the hundreds of daily examples of belittlement and humiliation that black students and staff report, and that SU and especially the town of Stellenbosch, treat very lightly.

Or did our white colleagues and the university know it, but we are only being persuaded by national exposure and damage to our reputation and “brand” to actually do something?

Of course, we knew.

Racism at SU and in Stellenbosch is not a secret. On a personal level, I know many people—black colleagues, former students and friends—who have experiences with open racism at SU and in Stellenbosch. They can tell of how the K- and H-words are randomly hurled at them from passing cars. For them, SU is a place that can give you a degree or a salary, but the town of Stellenbosch is to be avoided as much as possible. The Khampepe report confirms what we already know. The SU, its white staff, the town, must do much more to understand how this underbelly of intolerance and, even more often, overprivileged indifference, is maintained.

It is necessary to say that with the word racism I do not only refer to conflicts between, or mutual prejudice or suspicion. I am referring, especially, to white normativity, white superiority, and white resistance to the substantial changes that take place at SU. The former can be relatively easily addressed by working on personal relationships across group boundaries and building cohesion and shared goals. This is important work, but not sufficient.

The second is much more difficult to tackle and will require more honesty, courage, and political imagination. One of the major obstacles is that we tend to depoliticize and reduce social problems to interpersonal and even psychological issues; which unfortunately means that they can easily be hijacked by political opportunists from all quarters. Racism is a political problem, and it is a political problem for white people too, and not just for those who are on the receiving end of it. Our racist reality was the primary ideological framework within which we, as white people, constituted ourselves politically and established a social and cultural world.

The future of SU, and of Stellenbosch, does not depend on the extent to which white people here can transcend our individual stereotypes and prejudices about others. That future will depend on the extent to which white people can articulate anti-racism as a genuine political position and, in accordance with that, fundamentally rethink ourselves, our environment, and our relationship with the continent and those with whom we share it.

It is going to take more than taking a stand against individual acts of racism. What it requires is a fundamental reimagining of who we are.

Further Reading