Open Stellenbosch: “Yeah but you said it” – revisited

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Heleen Hofmeyr

Three years ago I wrote an article on about the institutionalised racism at Stellenbosch University, of which the allocating of roommates on the basis of race in university residences was a prime example. I wrote about how everyone had noticed the pattern in room allocations, but no one wanted to say anything about it. The piece was titled “Yeah but you said it: racio-normativity in Stellenbosch”, a phrase which alludes to a line in a movie where one person says, “You were thinking it!”, followed by the response, “Yeah but you said it!” I tried to make the point that not saying what you think for fear of offending people, which is pretty much an omnipresent fear in South Africa, is harmful to the healing we need to do as a nation. Three years later I find myself leaning towards the same sentiments once again, but this time under very different circumstances.

Responses to my “one settler, one bullet” article have been numerous and varied. The response that surprised me the most, and which has been most common, is that I was brave for writing it. I could not at first understand what exactly is brave about saying I will not stand with a group that uses racism and violence to get their point across, and in so doing makes me feel unwelcome and threatened. Little did I know that saying this would automatically put me in a camp with every other voice that has been critical of Open Stellenbosch (OS) to date. Which, unfortunately for me, has been limited to the singular voice of AfriForum Jeug.

The joke’s on me, I guess, for mistakenly thinking you can voice criticism of a movement and avoid being associated with the other extreme. I guess that’s why no one other than AfriForum has publically expressed criticism of OS so far – unlike me, they could foresee that criticising OS would mean supporting every conservative, anti-transformation group for whom preserving Afrikaans as a language is higher on the moral value hierarchy than providing as many South Africans as possible with quality higher education.

During the course of last week someone engaged me in a discussion about “one settler, one bullet” and said I should think about what it is about my article that makes right-wing conservatives share it on their Facebook pages. I think this is a fundamentally misguided question to ask oneself when writing in the public domain. I’m not going to try to imagine how every person reading my article may wrongly interpret my words. I should be able to say how I feel without fearing that someone, somewhere is going to think I meant x, y, or z. We’re so afraid of offending one another in South Africa that no one says what they really think. Not publicly, anyway. There is in fact a place for our true feelings, and it’s called A Braai On A Friday Night. And this is where writing what I really think about OS becomes reminiscent of trying to talk about race in this country. Everyone is thinking it, but no one wants to say it.

I’ve been to enough braais since the beginning of the OS movement to know I’m not alone in my sentiments regarding the destructiveness of the methods they employ to rally their troops. It is not okay to sing “happiness is hitting the white man” at a protest in this country. It is not okay to carry “one settler, one bullet” signs. A movement that alludes to violence in order to make people feel threatened is not okay. We all know this, and we’ll say so to our friends, and yet when someone says so on a public platform everyone is very, very scared indeed to admit that they know this. Everyone except AfriForum Jeug, apparently.

The thing is, I don’t think OS wants a white genocide. I don’t think they’re anti-white at all, in fact. This is clear in the movement’s official response to my article, which was to dissociate themselves from the “one settler, one bullet” phrase, saying they do not align themselves with such party-specific slogans, and the person holding that sign was using the march to promote his own agenda, which does not align with that of OS. Unfortunately, making such a statement when your cause sings “happiness is hitting the white man” at your meetings is more than a little confusing to those of us trying to figure out how we feel about your movement.

The guy with that sign did not happen to come across a protest which he thought looked like fun on his way to work that day. Say what you will about people hijacking your cause to promote their own agenda. If someone advocating “one settler, one bullet” feels it would be okay to voice his sentiments on your turf, you’ve got a problem. And dissociating yourself from such sentiments in the press ex post is not going to solve it. If you’re really upset about that guy bringing that sign to the march, OS, you don’t stand up in front of him and say, “Thank you for interrupting whiteness today”, because guess what? That encourages him. And hearing those words while seeing this sign in front of me makes me think he’s at the right protest and I’m not. If you really don’t want this guy at your protest, you tell him to leave. You’ve got your megaphone and the attention of the whole crowd, so don’t tell me you don’t have control over who joins your march. If you really wanted to, you could tell that guy that there is no space for racism or violence in your movement, and that he can either take his sign down or leave.

If you don’t, the cause you so tirelessly fight for will be hijacked by these “fringe elements”, as they’ve been called, and that will leave you with very little to show for your efforts. This is what saddens me most about the “one settler, one bullet” poster. Carelessness in the methods employed by OS is creating a real threat to the success of the biggest movement for transformation that this university has ever seen. I, too, have worked hard to promote transformation here. That’s precisely why it saddens me to see my efforts, as well as those of many, many others, being undermined by a movement that uses unnecessarily exclusionary and alienating methods to fight a very necessary fight.

Once again, I find myself perplexed by your intentions, OS. You’re quoted all over the world as saying all you want is for all classes to be available in English at Stellenbosch. You need to stop doing that, because it’s clearly not all you want. You need to jump off this taaldebat train, because it’s clear your demands for transformation go so much further than language – and rightly so. Stellenbosch University needs to transform, but Afrikaans is the least of our problems. You only need to read Lovelyn Nwadeyi’s piece to see that. You’re confusing us with the contradictions in your demands and the way you’re going about making them, OS, and it severely weakens your movement.

I don’t make this point because I want to see your movement weakened. I make it precisely because I want to see the transformation in terms of racial and gender equality you’re pushing for happen on campus that I find it pertinent to point out your weaknesses.

Using the threat of violence to get your point across is never okay. And you don’t have to be AfriForum to see that.

>>>Back to The Open Stellenbosch Seminar

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  • Johannes Comestor

    Die saak van Afrikaans word nie bevorder deur Hofmeyr en feitlik iedere skrywer op bonfire wat in Engels skryf nie. Dit wek die indruk dat die US eentalig Engels is en dat dit goed so is. Sake word vererger deur Die Burger wat Hofmeyr se teks in Engels in daardie Afrikaanse koerant geplaas het. Alles wat geskryf is, kon in Afrikaans geskryf gewees het. Afrikaans is 'n volwaardige taal waarin aan enigiets uitdrukking gegee kan word.
    'n Mens moet jou nie laat mislei deur OS wat beweer hy distansieer hom van geweld, rassistiese uitsprake, ens, nie. Thabo Mbeki se verweer teen die geweld wat die ANC gepleeg het, was bloot dat dit nie ANC-beleid is nie. Kyk in hierdie verband Willie Esterhuyse se boek Eindstryd, wat ook in Engels beskikbaar is. Desmond Tutu het voorgegee dat hy teen geweld is, maar het dit voortdurend aangehits en net soos Mbeki nooit sodanige geweld veroordeel nie.
    Dit is 'n ernstige aanklag dat OS-lede en hulle meelopers nog nooit deur die US-bestuur kortgevat is nie. Blykbaar het OS nog nooit toestemming gevra of gekry vir sy skandalige gedrag op die kampus nie. Dit is uittartende optrede wat die gesag van die rektor ondermyn.
    Dit is gelukkig darem nie waar dat net AfriForum beswaar teen OS se gedrag opper nie. Leon Lemmer het reeds by talle geleenthede hierdie saak op 'n nie-rassistiese grondslag op Praag bespreek.

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