The "Luister" video remains with me like the Andries Tatane one, and the Mido Macia one. Such a public display of violation, visual images in our democracy that cut through the soft belly of Mandela's enormous strides towards our democracy. However, as with Tatane and Macia, the video clearly demonstrates the immense work that lies ahead of us. In many instances the rainbow nation is working so well – children playing together, going to school together, former enemies finding one another and foreign investment continuing successfully. In many other instances our nation is not working well at all. And yet, the nerves touched by the video have laid bare our South African fragilities.
So many voices have been raised on the video – the Open Stellenbosch movement, Afrikaans, racism, it is almost refreshing to be confronted with such raw, and brutally honest debate. The issue of language cannot be brushed aside anymore. We hoped that The Use of Official Languages Act 12 of 2012 would provide the guidance we so sorely need for our South African languages. The lacklustre performance of government departments and other relevant authorities around The Use of Official Languages Act 12 of 2012 recently caused the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Arts and Culture to express themselves quite strongly towards the Department of Arts and Culture. This Act in short requires of government departments and other authorities such as public enterprises to develop a language policy that will include at least three official languages. Out of the 139 language policies that the act requires from government departments and related institutions only about 30 were presented. Let them therefore not preach to universities about language when in their own backyard very little is done.
It was quite a watershed to observe the University of Stellenbosch's management and council explaining themselves to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Higher Education. This was no longer a debate within the university itself, or its council, or within the Afrikaans media. Now it was an accountability discourse to the national parliament. The level of the debate was quite incisive and instructive, particularly from the university.
And yet, the video speaks with voices that are honest, clear and rattling all my cages. Said one young man in words that opens the wounds of slavery, colonisation, apartheid, resistance, struggle; etching large question marks over our liberation: "I feel it is wrong to be black. Sometimes I ask myself when I am alone, why did God make me black?"
The young student openly expressing this centuries-old cry really came as quite a surprise to me. Is it possible that young people, and this young man in particular, could have such a perspective on life? I think back on the liberatory message of black consciousness in the midst of apartheid: the most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.
Black consciousness that became ingrained in our living under the wrath of apartheid said we should free our mindsets, so much so that even in prison you will be free and the prison guard will be in bondage. The power of the powerless and the powerlessness of power we learnt to understand and embrace. At school we could engage on this awareness, we could shift the debates from sex before marriage to the realities of the invisible hand of racism. In church we could move from me and my God to the God of liberation exactly within the context of the police state of the ‘70s.
The official Dutch Reformed Church at the time was hand in glove with the apartheid state. Resistance to these realities was encapsulated in the discovery of our blackness as pride in who we are, pride in being black. Yes, those days black consciousness was "a state of mind, a consciousness of kind", difficult to explain to the people outside the university, but that is what sustained us. “Say it out loud: ‘I'm black and I'm proud.’”
We never dreamt at the time that one day in a liberated South Africa we would have the ANC's "blacks in general, and Africans in particular". But that is a story for another day. We lived in different worlds at the time and the one thing that united South Africans of colour and progressive white people was the resistance against a criminal system of apartheid – inhumane, unjust, unholy and unchristian.
At the University of the Western Cape we came into contact with students (largely coloured) from the whole of South Africa. Apartheid at the time did not allow access to universities as we have it today. Then you could enter English universities only under the conditions your permit stipulated. Otherwise, access to higher learning was restricted for black people to the correspondence learning of Unisa. Coloured students from Johannesburg had no access to Rand Afrikaans University, or Potchefstroom or even Wits at the time, where access was severely limited.
You had to travel all the way down to Bellville, more specifically Bellville South or Belhar, and more specifically Bush College. Access, language, race and racism were intertwined. Under those conditions you had to access your higher learning. Limited, restricted and yet you had to excel. The market was not going to ask or give any favours because you came from Bush. On the contrary, you had to perform even better. So it was for the students in dentistry, education, law, theology, the whole happy lot.
And yet the social consciousness was the most influential discipline, not so much in class but outside of it. This is where we could develop our thinking, analyse society, politics in the country, the economic system and its close alliance with apartheid, understand racism, the international struggles against colonialism, capitalism. It became one constant avalanche of knowledge and conscientisation. We were exposed to literature that was mostly banned by the apartheid state.
In some disciplines the status quo was turned upside down. In Afrikaans-Nederlands we heard from Jakes Gerwel, then still Mr Gerwel, that despite the fact that Afrikaans was experienced as the language of the oppressor, and that the majority of Afrikaans speakers were suffering the indignity of racism by fellow Afrikaans speakers, Afrikaans was the language of liberation.
It is not the language but the users. As Franklin Sonn stated, "Afrikaans to us as Afrikaans speakers was the language of the police van, the language that told you to get in at the back door." The language of the privilege of the few. In theology we found that the Jesus Christ we followed cannot be the same one that stood on the side of the oppressor.
They who went to church on Sundays got into their mission buses on Sunday afternoons to tell us about the wonderful love of their Jesus, and then went to their parliament on Mondays to legislate white supremacy and draconian security legislation. That is why apartheid was declared a heresy.
We found a different Christ, the Son of a Liberator God, the God who stood on the side of the poor, the widow and the orphan. “Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).
The God in whom our dignity is restored, the God who created us black, in His image.
In this alternative education we came to learn of the lies of apartheid and colonialism, that Roman-Dutch Law did not come with Van Riebeeck, that Van Riebeeck and colonialism stole the land of the indigenous peoples. The perspective changed. We were given a limited, and biased, education. This is where life outside the university became the alternative education, the site where dignity, humanity and the lies of apartheid were illuminated to us as students.
This is where the social consciousness renewed and energised our time at university. This line continued within the resistance and the continued liberation of our consciousness till the day that liberation did indeed come. Our Constitution that became the blueprint for the new South African society enshrines the values of dignity, equality and human rights.
To hear from a black student at an advantaged university such as Stellenbosch in 2015 that he feels it is wrong to be black, that sometimes when he is alone he wonders why God has made him black, stopped me in my tracks.
This may be explained as a very personal experience, of course. It may be that this is fabrication, as some want to claim, that the "Luister" video was orchestrated by a third force. Some say that some of the video's contents are true and based on facts, some not. Be that as it may, I want to address myself to the question of the personal experience of a young man that made his way against the statistics, perhaps against many odds, to the portals of learning of Stellenbosch University. A university that came from its apartheid past with such apparent distinction, a university that had the benefits of vice-chancellors such as Chris Brink and Russel Botman.
It is as if this student turns back all the gains of the past 40 years. And with him this immense reaction that the Open Stellenbosch movement has unleashed. What is happening in our society, and at the University of Stellenbosch in particular, that a whole century of struggle is being turned on its head?
Is this the reflection of the mind of the oppressed? It cannot be, I must convince myself. We raised our children differently; we approach our work at the Afrikaanse Taal- en Kultuurvereniging (ATKV) with respect for the dignity of individuals and cultures; at the Human Rights Commission we are mandated to monitor the protection and promotion of human rights and human dignity as a constitutional mandate. And yet the sharp contrast is there: “Why did God make me black?”
What is being taught at universities today? To what extent is the transformation of our society reflected in our curricula? My understanding during my time at university post- 1994 was that there was a conscious process to transform. I want to believe that Steve Biko is taught at university, the struggles of the Khoisan against colonialism too; that Nelson Mandela and the resistance against apartheid feature prominently, the dehumanising experience of black people in South Africa has prominence, the struggle for liberation has found its way into academic discourse. It may be useful to obtain a better understanding of this process at the University of Stellenbosch. Even if all these are answered in the affirmative, the lingering question continues to linger: Why does this one student have to turn to God about his blackness?
Reflecting on the following statement by the then minister of education, Naledi Pandor, in 2004 we note that this process of transformation at universities has been fraught with deep challenges: "Our universities have been racially desegregated in student composition if not yet in staff composition, but changing their way of doing things, is a far more complex process. Much worse difficulties than student profiles will face us." Institutional cultures, said Pandor, are embedded at many different levels and require changes in both structure and attitudes and consciousness on the part of academic staff and administrators. If we "fail to frame a unifying institutional culture the promise and potential inherent in the institutional restructuring process is likely to be compromised".
A unifying institutional culture, thus. I see Wim de Villiers walking in this direction.
Fast forward to September 2015: Zola Saphetha, deputy secretary-general of Nehawu, says the fight for mass-based education is on:
So as we venture into a radical second phase of our transition, which calls for a radical economic transformation to liberate Africans in particular, we need to think out of the box and start to ask difficult questions to respond decisively to the immediate challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality.
In line with the interconnectedness of education and social transformation, there is a need to revolt against the commodification of education and to create a mass-based education for all. We need to radically change the form and content of the current model of co-operative governance into real organs of people power.
The strong voice of the trade union.
So many voices, so many opinions said the Romans. Strange to say, but some of these opinions are reaching some South Africans for the first time.
One of the contributors to this LitNet discussion, Leon Wessels, speaks about “the elephant in the room”, the one we want to ignore but cannot:
During language debates the elephant in the room is often racism. I have sat around dinner tables when interlocutors will boldly say: "I am not a racist" and then continue to demonstrate the opposite. There are many Afrikaans pundits who are not racists. There are, however, also many who shield their racist attitudes by glibly citing constitutional provisions.
Racists nowadays ain't what they used to be and they don't look alike. They are to be found on different sides of the argument. They have to be exposed because they will not find constitutional protection. To isolate them will not be difficult if peace-loving people stand up to be counted; normally this is not what they do when the heat is on. There is too much at stake now to allow hot-headed racists – from all sides of the divide – to dominate the discussions.
For multilingualism to succeed at our tertiary institutions we have to rekindle the spirit of the drafters of the Constitution: to listen to one another and to believe that a solution to harness the interests of everyone is possible.
Breyten Breytenbach in an interview recently on YouTube (see above):
Stellenbosch should have seen this thing long ago. I have little sympathy for the difficulty Stellenbosch is in. Honestly. If I was a black student I would have raised hell long ago, or specifically a brown student. Why do young black and brown students feel excluded? There is a point there. We know that it was legal to do so before and now it is not so anymore. Of course. But we know that you cannot trust the boers. You know they talk amongst themselves, they have their own codes. You don't have to spell it out. You know they are going to appoint people that are like them, you know that. We grow up with it. This is how our communities work. There is a measure of exclusion. You can feel it. You can sympathize with it.
Stellenbosch moes hierdie ding lankal sien kom het. Ek het baie moeite om simpatie te ontwikkel vir die verknorsing waarin Stellenbosch is. Eerlikwaar. As ek ‘n swart student was sou ek al lankal herrie opgeskop het, of 'n bruin student spesifiek. Hoekom voel die jong swart en bruin studente uitgesluit? Daar is 'n punt daar. Ons weet vantevore was dit wettige uitsluiting gewees en nou is dit nie meer so nie. Natuurlik waar. Maar ons weet ook mos jy kan nie die boere vertrou nie. Jy weet mos hulle praat onder mekaar, hulle het hulle onderlinge kodes. Jy hoef dit nie eens uit te spel nie. Jy weet mos hulle gaan mense aanstel soos wat hulle is, jy weet mos. Jy weet mos dis dit ou dinge. Ons word daarmee groot. Dis hoe ons soort gemeenskappe werk. Daar is 'n mate van uitsluiting, jy voel dit aan. Jy kan daarmee simpatiseer.
We yearn for the leadership of a Nelson Mandela, a Desmond Tutu, some saintly intervention. We do not have these luxuries. We have to find one another and we have to find solutions. Perhaps Leon Wessels has a point: "… to listen to one another and to believe that a solution to harness the interests of everyone is possible".
I wish the university and its transformation processes well. You are in the heart of it. May you reach your transformation soon. Peter Fisher wrote about "Getting to Yes"; may you get to your university "yes" with vision, compassion and leadership.