This article was originally published on 3 September 2015.
The student movement Open Stellenbosch organised a protest on the 1st of September 2015 in Stellenbosch. Lovelyn Chidinma Nwadeyi shares her thoughts.
Today was hard. It was beautiful to be part of the march today. It was very emotional for me and a few others as well I suppose. I cried a lot today. For Stellenbosch, for our country, for the earth. We are such insensitive beings, and easily remove ourselves or ignore what people just next to us are feeling. It was a tough day though, to watch students from UCT and UWC articulate the needs and struggles of black students better than I think we can articulate it ourselves. It was tough to watch them hijack the movement and make it more about occupying buildings rather than claiming equal spaces. It was tough to see how the university brought in special security operative forces (not USBD) all big black men dressed in black attire, there to protect an enclave of systematically privileged whiteness from a group of [multiracial] peacefully protesting students and staff members. The breaking point for me today was watching them barricade Admin B and then barricade and lock the library doors in front of students as they approached the bib to talk about and contextualise the plaque and statue JS Marais. They locked people in the Bib and they kept the rest of us outside until we dispersed. They closed the bib; they closed Stellenbosch in our faces. And some of management were there and they watched it and let it happen. And they had black men in black everywhere. It was so eerie, as though terrorists had descended on Stellenbosch today, but it was just students calling for change. It was hard. It was uncomfortable. I hated being part of the march because it wasn’t always organised and coherent. But I loved being part of the march because I think I and many other black students and staff members got to claim back a little bit of space and dignity. Black people never come out in such numbers and masses on campus. Today for the first time we were the majority – and the march leaders didn’t care whether us as a majority was of concern to the spaces of privilege around us. For the first time, today I was unconcerned with white feelings.
I sent this text to some friends of mine yesterday, 1 September 2015. After hours and hours of trying to digest what had happened in Stellenbosch, that text message was all I could come up with. It was complex. It was ugly. It was true. Yesterday was not an easy day for anyone. The march was disappointing and exciting in so many ways. Stellenbosch University’s management in Parliament yesterday was exciting and disappointing in so many ways.
“Why are there only men representing the university today, of which one is black and the other is coloured?” one MP asked. “What about the sustainability of promoting Afrikaans and English as equal languages of instruction at SU?” another MP asked. “If Stellenbosch is holding onto Afrikaans in order to cater for the majority of Western Capers who are Afrikaans speaking, then it must acknowledge that most Afrikaans speakers in the Western Cape are rural Coloured people – so what is the university doing to accommodate the coloured child?” a portfolio committee member asked. “Why are all your talks of transformation essentially just about adding more black people to the university? What other measures are in place?”
Parliament was asking the tough questions yesterday, sparing no feelings and refusing to ignore the untouchable sacred cows of language and its interactions with race and power in Stellenbosch University.
It was a difficult day for me because I was both torn and relieved by the march. Staff members from different units were present at the march as well; I walked and talked with some of them and a deep sense of introspection was evident. What happened yesterday in Stellenbosch was extremely necessary, but it was painful, it was uncomfortable and it made participants like me question everything about myself, my time in Stellenbosch and more importantly why I am still here.
For the first time in a long time, I have been confronted with my privilege (albeit limited) in a space like Stellenbosch.
Ek is ‘n swart Nigeriese Suid-Afrikaanse meisie, wat vlot Afrikaans praat en ek is blykbaar een van die suksesvolle studente wat baie geleenthede op Stellenbosch opgeneem het en gebruik het om myself tot hier kon bring. As ek krities oor die universiteit, die bestuur, of die studente en personeel wil praat, kan ek. Want ek kan dit in hulle taal doen. Ek kan dit doen op ‘n manier wat hulle sal aanvaar, op ‘n manier wat vir hulle geldig sal wees.
In practice what this meant was that for the three and a half years I spent at Maties before I left, I never confronted the real elephants in the room. For my undergrad years I facilitated workshops, debates and seminars on race, diversity and multiculturalism. I would sit on university leadership panels that aimed to transform campus by making it an inclusive space for all students, in whatever way possible. I was in and out of the former Rector’s office, with other black and coloured students. We would talk to Prof Botman and some of his management team about our experiences. Being called kaffirs in Stellenbosch, being told by lecturers we don’t belong here because we made the mistake of asking for a word or two to be translated in a class, not being allowed to share rooms with white girls/guys in residences because white and black don’t mix, being told that we don’t deserve to be at Stellenbosch because we just fill part of the Equity quotas necessary for our courses and residences - not because many of us were A students right through high school till Matric finals. We told stories of how during “skakels” the white boys would refuse to shake our hands or talk to us, others would laugh in our faces. So while our white sisters got their “skakel” on, we would sit in a circle together at the back until the skakel was done, and then we would walk altogether back to res and listen to our sisters tell us of how great the guys at [insertKoshuis/PSOnamehere] were because we obviously did not meet the same people.
Indeed, we had become skilful at the rhetoric of narrating our tales without experiencing the pain. The university became well-versed with the challenges of being non-white and non-Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University. It became so normal at a stage that we started making jokes about it.
All these things happened, and for some reason myself and many other friends just shoved these things to the back of our minds, put our heads down, got our degrees, graduated in the DF Malan Sentrum and left Stellenbosch for our next adventure. We didn’t make massive movements, we didn’t kick up a storm and so many people were proud of me and us for doing that. “Well done,” they said, “you survived”. Your hard work has paid off for you. And it did pay off. Because we didn’t fight and argue and we limited our complaints and experiences to the tea-parties held for us in the Admin buildings by representatives of management, we became the go-to people for conversations on race and diversity and language and inclusivity; we could have those conversations not just on our own terms, but on their terms as well.
It was like helping an abusive partner understand why their being abusive to you was wrong while you were bleeding and trying to dress the wound from the last injury they inflicted on you. At some stage, you start to rationalise that it isn’t that bad, that they are doing their best to change, and that you must just be strong for the both of you. “Dit sal beter raak,” you tell yourself.
Yesterday for the first time, I had to ask myself, why did I not kick up a fuss, and today a bunch of first and second years are? Why did I keep quiet, and not make a big deal about the fact that little by little in subtle and overt ways my dignity was being stripped off of me? Were cookies and coffee in the admin building really enough to keep me quiet?
Three years ago, I wrote an article in which I was very pro-non racialism, all about let’s not see race, let us be one happy family, let us be nice. And in an ideal world, I would unashamedly stand by that statement. I really wish that we could operate and live that way because right now I am uncomfortable in my own skin as I am sure everyone else is too. But we can’t live that way because it is not reality for everyone. It is a very easy thing for my white friends to do in Stellenbosch. You can be blind to race when your race is the default. You can be blind to what privilege really means when your voice is the loudest in the room.
Whiteness is the norm in Stellenbosch; white Afrikaans-ness is the norm. Thus spaces, offices, shopping malls, classrooms all reaffirm norms that make sense to that. So when I come into class, residence, offices etc., I am an exception to the norm and must thus navigate the structural conditioning of the place without upsetting too many, while still claiming my space.
And for an 18, 19, 20, 21 year old, that is just f****** hard. You don’t even know what that means at that stage. All you know is that it’s not nice to not be fully accepted in a space that you thought you would be welcome in.
Afrikaans is vir seker my gunstelingtaal in Suid-Afrika. Dit is vir my die een taal wat gebeurtenisse, emosies, natuur en mense die beste kan beskryf. En my gunstelingwoord in Afrikaans is “koester”. Dis ‘n woord wat ‘n mens meestal by troues hoor, en omdat ek baie Afrikaanse vriende het, het ek die woord al baie keer gehoor.
The English definition of “cherish” is to care for tenderly.
En toe het ek besef, ek is terug in Stellenbosch en ek is so hartseer oor dit wat nou gebeur omdat ek vir Stellenbosch in my hart koester en wil aanhou koester.
I love this place because of the potential it has. The fact that the thesis for apartheid was written in the walls of this university, the fact that this place was established to keep some out and welcome others in, the fact that this town has been the birthplace of some of the best and worst figures in South African history all bode for a fatalistic picture. But so much can be done with that. And I really believe that if Stellenbosch can get it right, South Africa will be fine. I love Stellenbosch because when I did facilitate talks and sessions on diversity and change etc., those conversations (albeit with a very small group of students) were small victories and they were what gave me hope.
I tremble to think that my children must one day attend another university. I want them here! But I want them to walk down Victoria street without having eggs thrown at them from some male residence because (probabilistically speaking) my children may not be white. I want them to ask tough questions in class and not be viewed as radical communists. I want my kids to come back from a night out in the town and not be afraid that some inebriated guys will trail them and call them kaffir and p**s and then be excused for it because they were drunk. I want my daughters to feel that a dress worn outside in Stellenbosch is not an invitation be ravaged by a horny lad.
I never want my children to hear the words, “Jy is nie soos ander swartes nie, dis hoekom jy so goed presteer.”
The ugly truth though is that my love for Stellenbosch and its potential does not change anything, in fact, my love and hopefulness for Stellenbosch is what keeps me comfortable. Because somehow it blinds me to think that dialogue and conversation is enough. Which it isn’t. Dialogue is a means to an end, it is not the end in itself. If dialogue was all we ever needed, I wouldn’t be at Stellenbosch today, heck – South Africa wouldn’t be what it is today.
My concern however is that thus far, neither the media nor Open Stellenbosch I think have been clear on how a fight for language equality became a race issue as well. What I understand and support is that the current protests and challenges are primarily directed at making Stellenbosch dual medium university as its previously Afrikaans counterparts are now i.e. UOFS (Kovsies) & UP (Tukkies). I think it is very necessary that Stellenbosch adopts dual medium as this means everyone has a good chance of knowing what’s going on in class, and it is the most practical option. A system in which MOST classes are available in Afrikaans, some are available in T-Option (50-50 Eng/Afr with Translation services) and some classes are available in English is problematic because at any given point someone will be disadvantaged by the language of instruction. Currently, the language policy does privilege Afrikaans people (regardless of race) as most of them understand English anyway. For most non-Afrikaans students, if English is their second language they are lucky. For many, English is most likely a third language and Afrikaans is a fourth/fifth language.
Am I against Afrikaans? No.
Am I against Afrikaans people and Afrikaans culture? No.
Am I against learning Afrikaans? No.
Am I against white people? No.
Am I against forcing others to learn IN Afrikaans? Yes.
Much of the response you hear to what’s happening today in Stellenbosch is summarised as follows:
“Stellenbosch is an Afrikaans University, if you don’t want to learn in Afrikaans, go somewhere else or go and build your own Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana University.”
“Rome was not built in a day, have patience – Stellenbosch can and will change soon but in the meantime let us all calm down and be objective.”
“Hoekom is dit skielik ‘n raskwessie? Ons moet die Afrikanervolk en ons taal beskerm teen die kanker van Engels en swart kommuniste.”
I take issue with these statements for several reasons. Firstly, choosing to come to a place does not make everything about that place right neither does it invalidate people’s unpleasant experiences/complaints in that place. If I chose to live in Nazi Germany, my disgust at the Jewish genocide would not have been invalidated purely by the choice I made to stay in Nazi Germany. Similarly, the fact that so many people stayed in South Africa quite comfortably during apartheid did not mean apartheid was okay; neither did it mean that those who challenged the system were wrong. Such logic is flawed and must be addressed.
Secondly, I want to problematize the precedent we are setting when we insinuate that spaces in South Africa will belong to some by virtue of their racial or linguistic associations. It is very dangerous to say such things in a post-1994 South Africa. To be part of this country, the underlying thesis that we have all implicitly accepted is that South Africa belongs to all who live in it. When we make exceptions to that, we can then start to assert that some public spaces will only welcome men while actively discriminating against women, that some public spaces will only welcome religious people, while excluding the non-religious, that some spaces will only welcome heterosexuals and not welcome others. It is a big problem, because when you set that precedent you can’t draw a line.
Thirdly, such statements ignore the fact that universities like Stellenbosch were sustained by the very redirecting of state resources to develop and uplift a very small part of the population at the expense of another. It is very arrogant to assert that people must just go and build their own universities. If an entire state machinery was needed to maintain and sustain one, two or three purely Afrikaans universities, can you imagine what it would take to sustain three Xhosa, three Zulu, three Tswana universities all at the same time? But even beyond that on a level of practicality, the development of Afrikaans as an academic language is wonderful and I think we should honour and respect that BUT this does not mean in practice that it can be the same for other languages. Where we have 11 official languages in SA, English is indeed our best compromise in academic spaces to maintain our international standing as graduates. The alternative is unsustainable and impractical.
Fourthly, and this is the most important point – Stellenbosch is a PUBLIC university, funded by people like you and me. It is a university - which by the very definition of public – is and therefore should be open and ACCESSIBLE to all who attend it. And if we are very honest, Stellenbosch, instead of spending R80mil on translation services, should consider redirecting those funds to dual medium classes. A university’s primary responsibility is NOT to preserve culture. A university’s primary role is to educate and foster learning. Should universities conduct events and activities that celebrate its culture and history? BY ALL MEANS – but not at the expense of actively excluding people in the academic space and by extension all other spaces.
It is very disturbing and surprising indeed that for 21 years Stellenbosch has managed to get away with the status quo. I think that even though Rome was not built in a day, Stellenbosch has had time to change – we have BEEN talking, and I think that if the RAU’s, UPs, Kovsies etc of the day could change – it is hard to understand why changes here have been so limited.
And yet it is not. The answer, I believe, lies in understanding how language, race and power intersect in Stellenbosch and essentially South Africa. Afrikaans on its own is not a problem. The problem is the way Afrikaans interacts with race and power on campus and this is what facilitates an exclusionary and discriminatory environment for those who fit neither of the most dominant categories: white/male/Afrikaans. We must be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that (in this case) language is not neutral. It is laden with meaning, with history, with culture and with power.
Thus when a language [Afrikaans] is given a privileged position in an academic institution [Stellenbosch University & Elsenburg] and this makes the lecture hall an environment in which mostly [white] Afrikaans people will be benefitted by the language of instruction; it facilitates an experience of exclusion. In a town like Stellenbosch, where most spaces are already dominated by males who are very white and/or very Afrikaans, the academic space simply reinforces what is normal outside without accounting for fairness and neutrality that should be visible in an academic space. So when Afrikaans and whiteness unfortunately can be used as an exclusionary tool in the academic space, this by extension allows and facilitates the use of Afrikaans and whiteness as an exclusionary tool in social spaces as well i.e. residences, offices etc. And this is the crux of the problem.
University is meant to be a critical space with diverse views, representations and perspectives. If the university keeps reinforcing what is already happening in the town, the town keeps reinforcing what is happening in the university, and nothing changes.
Furthermore by allowing Afrikaans to facilitate exclusion and having white Afrikaans males at the forefront of the struggle to keep things as they are or stall change, we rehash historical narratives about Afrikaans hegemony and white male superiority and most importantly we rehash an speculative fear and incompatibility between Afrikaans-ness and whiteness and a new South Africa.
So what about white English speakers you ask? They are being disadvantaged in the classroom as well and we don’t see them protesting. Indeed. And the reason for this is because they are white. While I will concede that a few of my white English friends have said they have been told they don’t belong in an Afrikaans university, the reality is that such a statement does not limit them from having access to university or social spaces because they are white and do not carry the social and racial baggage that comes with being non-white in this town. They can also occupy spaces and blend in. They can, if necessary, walk into a lecturer or a tutor’s office and get further assistance on the parts they did miss in class, without being seen as “whiny” or “incompetent” or “the equity quota”. And essentially, beyond the classroom, they are welcome in all spaces in Stellenbosch because their skin and the access and social capital that comes with it is still the norm.
When you are black and you do the same, it is naturally up for question whether you actually didn’t get what was said because you don’t speak Afrikaans or because you actually shouldn’t be at university? In a space where you are not the norm, everything about you constitutes an alternative narrative up for debate and questioning.
Campus security will not troll you around on campus if you are white with dreadlocks and barefoot walking at night – they will if you aren’t white. You will not be asked for Student Card and ID and Drivers Licence at a party or a bar if you are white unless you obviously look like a child, but after 4 years in Stellenbosch they will if you are black. You will never be called a kaffir, you will never not have someone shake your hand as a way of introduction because you are white – no that comes with non-white turf. Of course, we don’t expect the university to control the streets and pubs and clubs of Stellenbosch – definitely not. But as the university, as the heartbeat of this town, when we facilitate exclusionary spaces that privilege Afrikaansness and privilege whiteness within our walls, we indirectly make it normal and okay outside our walls.
So what about Coloured students who prefer Afrikaans as a medium of instruction? I feel they are well within their rights to prefer that and that isn’t threatened by calling for a dual medium university. What I do take issue with is when this specific argument is used as a reason to stall change at SU or maintain SU as it is. If we as an institution were really interested in Coloured people and all that Colouredness meant, then our expressions of Afrikaans language, culture and people would go beyond what it is now. Then we would see an institution-wide celebration of the Kaapse-Klopse and we would have active conversations about the Bo-Kaap and District Six and the emergence of Afrikaans as a kombuistaal. We would talk about how Afrikaans was appropriated from the non-white slaves and became arguably the biggest component of the Afrikaner nationalist movement. If we were really interested in Coloured people’s struggles and challenges, then the face of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University would not be mainly white Afrikaans males. It would be coloured Afrikaans women too. And black Afrikaans women too – because they actually exist. But it is not. We would celebrate that and problematize it too. And this would go beyond our Afrikaans en Nederlands or History departments. But we don’t. Because the use of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch has not yet matured to a point at which it can be used to facilitate those conversations openly and honestly.
Ek dink ons moet ook eerlik met mekaar wees. En ek dink, veral wit Afrikanermense moet ‘n eerlike gesprek met hulleself hou. Afrikaans is baie tale, dit is baie verskillende kulture. Meer as dit, Afrikaans is in ons eie geskiedenis (en selfs vandag) baie keer gebruik teen mense wat nie wit is nie. As ons vir ‘n Afrikaanse-universiteit wil verdedig, dan moet ons aanvaar dat dit behels onder andere ‘n verdediging van: Kaapse Afrikaans, Swartlands Afrikaans, Bolands Afrikaans, Overbergs Afrikaans, Weskus-Sandvelds Afrikaans, Karoo-Afrikaans, Oos-Kaaps Afrikaans, Oranjerivier- en Gariep-Afrikaans, Boesmanslands, Griekwa-Afrikaans, Namakwalands, en Richterveld-Afrikaans. En dan moet ons erken dat die gesig daarvan is meestal nie die gesig van ‘n wit Afrikanerman nie. Ons moet erken dat baie min mense is verbind tot die beskerming van alle vorme en alle gesigte van Afrikaans in die nuwe Suid-Afrika.
Ons moet erken en herken dat die ontwikkeling en onderhoud van Afrikaans as ‘n akademiese taal, as ‘n kultuur en as ‘n magtige ekonomiese en sosiale gereedskap was nooit bedoel of bestem om ‘n nie-wit bevolking te beskerm nie. Dus kan die teenwoordigheid van ‘n Afrikaans-sprekende Kleurling-populasie nie gebruik word as ‘n rede om US te behou soos wat dit nou is nie net omdat dit gemaklik is in hierdie gesprek. Dit wys dat ons net belangstelling in kleurlingstudente en mense het wanneer dit die doeleindes van ‘n wit Afrikaanse agenda pas en dit is baie oneerlik.
I cannot claim to fully understand the challenge of being coloured and Afrikaans in South Africa, let alone Stellenbosch. I don’t fully understand what it means, but I can imagine the complexities and dichotomies it creates and allows. Regardless of whether the coloured student does understand Afrikaans in the classroom, they still have limited access to certain spaces in the town by virtue of the narratives attached to their skin. Narratives that, ironically, were entrenched and upheld for years by a white Afrikaans supremacist state and university. That again is why an academic space that facilitates exclusion through language needs to be eliminated. We really have undermined how much almost 100 years of protected supremacy can affect the psyche, development and cohesion of a diverse nation such as ours.
When we accept only cosmetic changes to an institution or a language or a culture, we only do ourselves an injustice. Apartheid may be over as a legislated practice, but socially, culturally and even institutionally, in Stellenbosch and South Africa it is very much alive.
Am I against Afrikaans? No.
Am I against Afrikaans people and Afrikaans culture? No.
Am I against learning Afrikaans? No.
Am I against white people? No.
Am I against forcing others to learn IN Afrikaans? Yes.
The fact that SU till very recently did not have a discrimination policy is exactly what proves that even if individuals want to claim they are not racist, discriminatory or exclusionary, the institution implicitly is – because before now, there was no concrete procedure of punishments for acts of racism and discrimination. In fact, it was always up for discussion, “…but is it really racism? Is it really discrimination..?” And if the institution is exclusionary, it means that those who support exclusion and racism and discrimination get to feel comfortable here. That is not okay.
It would have been nice in this time to see Stellenbosch academics write and make statements about the challenges being raised by the protests on campus now. It would have been great to have open lectures from for example the Anthropology department where all students are openly invited to learn and talk about Colonialism, decolonisation, language, identity and power. It would have been stunning to have maybe our Politics Department or Sociology or History or Philosophy departments offer open lectures on Student Movements, how struggle songs have been used to form identity, what social capital means, what white privilege, black privilege, equality, revolution actually means, what objective and logical reasoning is, what role academic critique should play in the Stellenbosch of 2015? It would have been great to have academics especially stand up and claim space in the current discourse which very actively is criticising them; and provide alternative, nuanced insights to a divided campus that is getting more and more sensationalised. That is what an academic space is for. But nothing of the sort has happened, because we haven’t got there yet at Stellenbosch University.
I don’t know, maybe staff members are afraid to say something bad about their workplace, maybe they don’t have time and are overworked or maybe some are simply not interested. I can only speculate. But I do know this is a missed opportunity to give a different narrative to what the academic space at SU is like. By keeping silent, we reinforce the assumptions – that the academic space here is not open to the negotiation and re-navigation of existing structural privileges.
Finally, I will say that beyond all these arguments, we must be able to visualise what an Open Stellenbosch would be. A transformed Stellenbosch would be a place where people can be taught in a language they understand but that would be the start of it. It would be a place in which we could both celebrate and problematize English and Afrikaans diversity and how both interplay with race and power and culture. It would be a space in which we can discuss and challenge the development of English as a language which indeed still has colonial undertones no matter how much we try to make it ours. It would be a space in which racists are not welcome all be they “Kill the Boer” kind of racists or “Kaffir-calling” kind of racists.
Yes, I will agree that some people were very offensive at the march yesterday, that some political parties are really taking advantage of the calls for transformation for their own aims. But we must acknowledge that the social movement taking place in Stellenbosch is made up of different people with different ideas and cleavages. It is unfair to judge a movement by what people on its fringes do – that by no means discredits the cause or the current criticisms levelled against the university and the town.
I don’t believe that a transformed/transforming Stellenbosch should welcome both those who are endeared by calls to kill the Boers or kill the kaffirs.
An Open Stellenbosch would be a space that allows me to flourish, not in spite of an experience of inequality, but BECAUSE of an experience of equality. An Open Stellenbosch would be a space where blacks and whites can share residence rooms, where orientation week for first years would not perpetuate patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes already present in most of our cultures, where verbally abusive white drunk boys are not excused because they are drunk in res, while black boys are given disciplinary action.
An Open Stellenbosch would be a space that for once allows me to be upset that the response - to my being called a kaffir, to white boys laughing in my face at skakels, to my being told by lecturers that I don’t belong or deserve to be here - was cookies and tea and a whole lot of talk. Not consequential disciplinary action.
Do I love Stellenbosch? Yes.
Is Stellenbosch a great place to study? Yes [the best].
Does challenging where Stellenbosch has faltered make me love it any less? No.
I am here. As Black, Afrikaans-, English-, Xhosa-, Igbo-speaking and Womanly as I am. And I am here to stay.