Is Stel­len­bosch lost in trans­for­ma­tion?

Univer­sity has come un­der the mi­cro­scope af­ter a doc­u­men­tary ex­poses the racism ex­pe­ri­enced by black stu­dents on cam­pus

CityPress - - News - S’THEM­BILE CELE sthem­bile.cele@city­press.co.za

On Tues­day, Pro­fes­sor Wim de Vil­liers, rec­tor and vice-chan­cel­lor of Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity, will be in Par­lia­ment an­swer­ing some dif­fi­cult ques­tions. He has been sum­moned by the port­fo­lio com­mit­tee on higher ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing to ex­plain why black stu­dents are racially abused at his in­sti­tu­tion.

Tues­day also marks ex­actly six months since his in­au­gu­ra­tion, which was dis­rupted by Open Stel­len­bosch, the stu­dent ac­tivists who have char­ac­terised his ten­ure.

City Press met De Vil­liers in his taste­fully dec­o­rated of­fice with its el­e­gant glass con­fer­ence ta­ble, clut­tered wooden desk and com­fort­able couches where he sits cross-legged and chats.

The seem­ingly end­less list of qual­i­fi­ca­tions of the man born and bred in the town – Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity, Univer­sity of Cape Town (UCT), Ox­ford, Har­vard, Univer­sity of Ken­tucky – and his pro­fes­sional achieve­ments – as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor, UCT dean of health sciences and many other ac­co­lades – are com­mend­able. But is he the right man to lead the in­sti­tu­tion? De Vil­liers was ap­pointed af­ter the sud­den death of Pro­fes­sor Rus­sel Bot­man, the univer­sity’s first black rec­tor, in June last year. The move sparked a fierce de­bate. Sup­port struc­tures “It was a con­cern to me,” he says of his ap­point­ment. “How­ever, I feel that my ex­pe­ri­ence as a sea­soned aca­demic and ad­min­is­tra­tor, and my heart­felt con­vic­tions about South Africa and its in­sti­tu­tions, mean that this is some­thing I want to take on and some­thing I could be suc­cess­ful at.”

The rec­tor looks un­ruf­fled de­spite the storm rag­ing over his in­sti­tu­tion af­ter the re­lease of the doc­u­men­tary Luis­ter, which was pro­duced by young Cape Town film mak­ers and re­leased on YouTube last week. It chron­i­cles the plight of black stu­dents at the univer­sity.

De Vil­liers says although he never knew Bot­man per­son­ally, he is proudly car­ry­ing out his legacy.

“We need to broaden ac­cess and main­tain this stan­dard of ex­cel­lence. But it is not enough to broaden ac­cess, we need to en­sure suc­cess,” he says.

“I think you do some­body a great dis­favour if you bring them into a space where they are un­likely to suc­ceed. That is why we have so many sup­port struc­tures for stu­dents re­gard­less of where they come from and we have wellestab­lished un­der­grad­u­ate sup­port sys­tems.” But stu­dents who be­long to Open Stel­len­bosch will dis­agree. Protests and mass meet­ings in the past few months re­sulted in po­lice ar­riv­ing at the cam­pus on one oc­ca­sion.

The stu­dents’ pri­mary de­mand is that the univer­sity’s lan­guage pol­icy be re­viewed. Although English was given equal sta­tus to Afrikaans in Novem­ber last year, many feel this is not en­trenched. They also want the univer­sity’s very Afrikaner-cen­tric cul­ture ad­dressed. Fac­tual er­rors

Open Stel­len­bosch called a meet­ing with De Vil­liers and sent him a mem­o­ran­dum of de­mands. He does not like the ac­tivists’ style of en­gage­ment. “I don’t con­sider Open Stel­len­bosch a chal­lenge. I con­sider it an op­por­tu­nity be­cause I have been doc­u­mented as say­ing I welcome stu­dent ac­tivism and protest. I’m not go­ing to de­fend racism, dis­crim­i­na­tion, sex­ism and clas­sism – that is just not on and we need to do some­thing about it.

“What I take is­sue with are the ul­ti­ma­tums, the de­mands on their terms. I don’t think that is the way to con­duct busi­ness.”

De Vil­liers speaks about his stu­dent days at the univer­sity dur­ing the 80s.

“At that time it was very much a univer­sity that catered for a par­tic­u­lar sec­tion of the com­mu­nity – white, Afrikaanss­peak­ing peo­ple,” he says.

“In my first year as a med­i­cal stu­dent, there were so-called coloured stu­dents ad­mit­ted to my med­i­cal class. I was so hor­ri­fied to learn they were not al­lowed to par­tic­i­pate in so­cial ac­tiv­i­ties. They were con­fined to cer­tain ac­tiv­i­ties and were such won­der­ful peo­ple – this was a bad shock.”

He was a mem­ber of Stel­len­bosch’s SRC, one of four “left­ies” on a 13-mem­ber team.

Af­ter Luis­ter’s re­lease, De Vil­liers re­leased a state­ment say­ing he was sad­dened by the stu­dents’ ex­pe­ri­ences, but added that the video con­tained fac­tual er­rors, bad jour­nal­ism and mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions.

“The ex­pe­ri­ences on the Luis­ter video are very emo­tional and I ac­knowl­edge that, but now we need to dis­till that and say, ‘What are we deal­ing with? Are we gen­er­al­is­ing? Are we blam­ing? Are we stereo­typ­ing?’ Let’s work at how we can work on that and take it for­ward.” Lived ex­pe­ri­ence

It’s the how to take it for­ward that has led to tense re­la­tions be­tween him and Open Stel­len­bosch.

“They want to act as a col­lec­tive. It is im­pos­si­ble to have con­ver­sa­tions with a bunch of peo­ple. Ad­di­tion­ally, we can­not be sum­moned to a meet­ing, that is just not done. Let us do it in a col­le­gial fash­ion.”

Although De Vil­liers ac­knowl­edges and em­pathises with the call for rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion on cam­pus, he ad­mits there are per­haps lim­i­ta­tions to what he can re­late to.

“I don’t think I can fully un­der­stand, as a white Afrikaans male, I agree. I can un­der­stand some as­pects and I can em­pathise, but it is not my lived ex­pe­ri­ence.

“My lived ex­pe­ri­ence is that when I moved from Stel­len­bosch to Cape Town to at­tend UCT, it was very un­com­fort­able. I was pre­dom­i­nantly Afrikaans-speak­ing and ex­posed to an English en­vi­ron­ment where I felt peo­ple were look­ing down on me.

“I have gained a heck of a lot from deal­ing with all sorts of ad­ver­sity and how to ben­e­fit from ad­ver­sity. But I am not say­ing they must suck it up, grin and bear it,” he says.

Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity, he says, is tack­ling the prob­lem by as­sign­ing Pro­fes­sor Nico Koop­man, deputy vice-chan­cel­lor and dean of the­ol­ogy, to “so­cial im­pact, trans­for­ma­tion and per­son­nel”. Is­sues of trans­la­tion

“He’s a coloured man and that gives him cred­i­bil­ity. He has been at Stel­len­bosch for 13 or 14 years, so he knows the cul­ture and has been very suc­cess­ful at uni­fy­ing the fac­ul­ties of the­ol­ogy at UWC and Stel­len­bosch in the past.” What will it take for the stale­mate be­tween him and Open Stel­len­bosch to end? As­sur­ances that he un­der­stands the stu­dents’ ex­pe­ri­ences? A grand ges­ture of sorts? He sits in si­lence be­fore say­ing he is open to sug­ges­tions. “I’ll take you back to Rhodes Must Fall. The statue fell. So? There are sig­nif­i­cant is­sues with in­sti­tu­tional cul­ture at UCT. That sense of English su­pe­ri­or­ity and colo­nial­ism, they have prob­lems with that. The Rhodes Must Fall move­ment, there is noth­ing left. There is no energy there.

“Will a grand ges­ture be to go English only? It took a long time to get to what they de­cided in Novem­ber. So it is what it is, it is equal sta­tus. We are also pro­mot­ing isiXhosa as an aca­demic lan­guage. We are deal­ing with is­sues of trans­la­tion and in­creas­ing par­al­lel medi­ums.

“The dan­ger of the grand ges­ture is that it is just that. It doesn’t ad­dress the un­der­ly­ing is­sues. If we say this is an English univer­sity to­mor­row, it doesn’t ad­dress the in­sti­tu­tional cul­ture.” Should the next rec­tor of Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity be black? “What I don’t like about that is, you can say in the South African de­mo­graph­ics of the 25 higher learn­ing in­sti­tu­tions two [rec­tors] should be white. Why do we do that? What did Madiba say? We should be non­ra­cial, we should be be­yond this, that is what I like see­ing. The di­ver­sity I see on cam­pus now is fan­tas­tic be­cause I have this mem­ory of what it used to be. Peo­ple are mix­ing, in my ob­ser­va­tion, to­tally nat­u­rally.

“But to come back to your ques­tion, it should be the best can­di­date,” says De Vil­liers.

PHOTO: EDREA DU TOIT

ADAPT OR DIE About 300 stu­dents gather at the univer­sity’s Rooiplein. They are call­ing for a change in the lan­guage pol­icy, which they say priv­i­leges Afrikaans-speak­ing peo­ple

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