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