Rus­sel Bot­man: The­olo­gian and first black vice-chan­cel­lor of Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity


Sunday Times - - OBITUARIES -

RUS­SEL Bot­man, who has died at the age of 60, was closely in­volved in draw­ing up a fa­mous dec­la­ra­tion con­demn­ing apartheid as a heresy.

In 2007, he be­came the first black vice-chan­cel­lor of Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity, the in­tel­lec­tual cra­dle of apartheid.

Al­though con­sid­ered an aca­demic light­weight com­pared with his pre­de­ces­sor, who was an A-rated sci­en­tist with many peer-re­viewed aca­demic pub­li­ca­tions to his name, Bot­man, a friendly, like­able man with an ap­peal­ing sense of hu­mour, was a pop­u­lar choice. He was voted for by a large ma­jor­ity of the mostly white Afrikaans coun­cil, who be­lieved the time had come for a black rec­tor.

He had been dean of the fac­ulty of the­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of the Western Cape (UWC), which was closed down in 2000 be­cause of dwin­dling num­bers. The Dutch Re­formed Church ar­ranged for his fac­ulty to be ab­sorbed into the fac­ulty of the­ol­ogy at Stel­len­bosch. He be­came a pro­fes­sor, dean of the fac­ulty and deputy vicechan­cel­lor.

When he be­came vice-chan­cel­lor, he in­her­ited the mother and fa­ther of all rows about the univer­sity’s lan­guage pol­icy. His pre­de­ces­sor, Chris Brink, had been widely re­viled for em­brac­ing a pol­icy that his many and pow­er­ful de­trac­tors saw as the be­gin­ning of the end of Afrikaans as the main medium of in­struc­tion on cam­pus.

Bot­man’s man­date from the univer­sity coun­cil was to ap­ply a dual-medium pol­icy so that Afrikaans was used at least 50% of the time in all classes. He failed to do this and in many classes, de­part­ments and fac­ul­ties, dual-medium in ef­fect meant English. He was heav­ily crit­i­cised for not im­ple­ment­ing the dual-medium pol­icy ac­cord­ing to his agree­ment with the coun­cil.

Stu­dents who could not speak English felt they were at a se­vere dis­ad­van­tage. A num­ber of prom­i­nent coun­cil mem­bers quit in dis­gust, com­plain­ing that Bot­man was turn­ing Stel­len­bosch into an English-speak­ing univer­sity.

When Bot­man was ap­pointed, he said he would turn Stel­len­bosch into a univer­sity where the daugh­ter of a farm­worker could feel equal to the son of a farmer. His de­trac­tors felt that by not en­forc­ing Afrikaans he was not hon­our­ing this com­mit­ment, be­cause it was in­vari­ably the farm­worker’s daugh­ter rather than the farmer’s son who bat­tled with English.

They blamed Bot­man for the fact that Stel­len­bosch was be­com­ing a home for white English-speak­ing stu­dents at the ex­pense of coloured Afrikaans speak­ers.

This was not the only con­flict he had with the coun­cil. Soon af­ter be­com­ing vice-pres­i­dent, he ap­pointed his per­sonal as­sis­tant and fam­ily friend act­ing dean and then dean of the fac- ulty of mil­i­tary sci­ence at Sal­danha Bay with­out ad­ver­tis­ing the post, even though she had no mil­i­tary knowl­edge. Her lead­er­ship was a dis­as­ter, and when her con­tract ex­pired the coun­cil re­fused to re­new it.

Last year, he es­tab­lished a

He in­her­ited the mother and fa­ther of all rows about the univer­sity’s lan­guage pol­icy

Cen­tre for In­clu­siv­ity to pro­mote trans­for­ma­tion with­out coun­cil ap­proval and ap­pointed a for­mer UWC stu­dent of his to head it with­out ad­ver­tis­ing the post.

The cen­tre sparked huge con­tro­versy by propos­ing that the DF Malan Cen­tre, named af­ter the for­mer prime min­is­ter and chan­cel­lor, be re­named af­ter Nel­son Man­dela and an­nounc­ing that the univer­sity was too white, Afrikaans, male, Chris- tian and het­ero­sex­ual.

Af­ter a heated meet­ing five days be­fore his death, the coun­cil is­sued a state­ment to the ef­fect that the cen­tre’s em­pha­sis on trans­for­ma­tion was com­pro­mis­ing the univer­sity’s tra­di­tional fo­cus on aca­demic ex­cel­lence and alien­at­ing donors and alumni, and that pro­pos­als would be drawn up for a “cen­tre of ex­cel­lence” in­stead.

The ten­sion be­tween him and the coun­cil was such that on the day of the meet­ing, an Afrikaans news­pa­per ran a front­page story to say he was fac­ing a mo­tion of no con­fi­dence.

An­other source of fric­tion was the feel­ing that Bot­man, the re­cip­i­ent of many over­seas awards, spent too much time abroad.

Bot­man was born in Bloem­fontein on Oc­to­ber 18 1953 and at­tended Klip­town Se­nior Sec­ondary School in Jo­han­nes­burg be­fore en­rolling at UWC. He was the pub­lic re­la­tions of­fi­cer of the stu­dent rep­re­sen­ta­tive coun­cil dur­ing the 1976 stu­dent up­ris­ings.

In 1982, he was or­dained as a min­is­ter of the Dutch Re­formed Mis­sion Church in Wyn­berg. He was de­tained un­der the state of emer­gency in 1985 and in 1986 helped to draft the “Con­fes­sion of Bel­har”, which la­belled apartheid a sin and a heresy.

He wrote and edited a num­ber of books and pa­pers on sub­jects such as the the­o­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal as­pects of truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, the eth­i­cal di­men­sions of repa­ra­tions, po­lit­i­cal rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, faith and truth telling.

Last year, he re­ceived the Prince­ton The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary’s Abra­ham Kuyper prize for ex­cel­lence in re­formed the­ol­ogy and pub­lic life, one of the high­est ac­co­lades be­stowed on re­formed the­olo­gians world­wide.

Bot­man, who died of a heart at­tack, is sur­vived by his wife, Beryl, and four chil­dren. — Chris Bar­ron


CON­TRO­VERSY: Pro­fes­sor Rus­sel Bot­man in Stel­len­bosch ear­lier this year

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