On a Wednesday night in July, Dan Corder sat in a Cape Town bar with a friend. They’d spent the day in Stellenbosch where a student movement had staged a flash protest at a careers fair. Corder’s friend, a student at the university who had participated in the Open Stellenbosch protest, had just found out he would face disciplinary charges.
They talked about how the charges could silence the movement and how their experiences were largely ignored by the community, civic organisations and media. They knew it was a crucial moment.
“I just said, ‘Mate we have gotta’ make a movie’,” recalls Corder.
In 17 days, Contraband Cape Town, working with Open Stellenbosch, had made Luister (Listen). Since its release on 20 August, the 35-minute documentary has trended on social media nation-wide. It has elicited statements from the university, the African National Congress (ANC), the Democratic Alliance (DA), the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), and the Freedom Front Plus. It has over 200,000 views on YouTube. Debate over the film even led to the suspension of Metro FM host Unathi Msengana. Today, Stellenbosch University management will appear in Parliament for an urgent meeting on transformation.
“I feel like it’s wrong to be black,” a student says as Luister begins. “I sometimes ask myself when I’m alone, why did God make me black when a lot can happen in a good way when you’re otherwise?”
The film includes interviews with 32 students and one lecturer at the university. They detail their experiences of racist abuse, in the community and at the university, and their struggles with learning under the language policy they say clearly favours Afrikaans speakers. Personal experiences of discrimination, racism and exclusion from learning are piled on top of each other, impossible to ignore. Conform to the culture or fokof. Even if you confirm, you can still fokof because you’re black.
That night Corder left the bar and went straight back to Stellenbosch. He asked students to write down their experiences. When he read them back they were shocked to hear someone else say what they had been through, how desensitised they might have become, said Corder.
Within Contraband Cape Town, making a documentary on the exclusion of black students in Stellenbosch led to exhaustive discussions. Contraband launched this year and makes content focusing on youth freely available. All four members of the company study at the University of Cape Town. Corder is an honours literature student and hosts a radio show on Good Hope FM. Erik Mulder majors in English literature, German and Spanish. Markus Hegewisch studies economic history and film studies. Declan Manca is doing a Bachelor of Arts degree in film production. They’re all white males, none with experience at Stellenbosch.
Rather than try to judge or legitimise the students’ experiences, they wanted to ask one question: “What is it like to be a black person and exist and be alive at Stellenbosch University?” They asked what the students wanted to say and worked their comments into a narrative on the overwhelming responses on racism and language as alienation. All 32 student interviews were filmed over six hours on 2 August.
Corder remembers driving home with Mulder that night. “That car journey was one of the most exhaustive, complex, emotional spaces I’ve ever been in.”
One of the students said he’d rather his family die than go to the university. Another says: “The colour of my skin in Stellenbosch is like a social burden … I mean just walking into spaces, there’s that stop, pause, and stare where people cannot believe that you would enter into this space.”
“Being black within the Stellenbosch community you know that you’re not accepted and you kind of ask yourself what’s wrong with me, like what did I do wrong?” says another. “In the beginning I actually started to assimilate, you know, wanting to lose myself and attain whiteness. Maybe this will work better and they’ll accept me more because I’m trying to be like them. And I realised that I cannot do that. I’m not willing to sell my soul to whiteness. I have to be proudly back.”
The night before Luister was released, the Contraband team played it for Open Stellenbosch. Watching themselves, the students again heard their own experiences. But it’s their daily reality. “For us it was in a sense almost normalised,” Open Stellenbosch’s Mohammed Shabangu said on watching it for the first time. The group’s Majaletje Mathume said he was aware of the issues to some extent, but as an insider was partly desensitised. It led to doubts – will anyone care, will the students look like spoilt black kids, will the film have an impact?
“We’ve got the attention. We’re yet to see if that manifests in change,” Corder said on Monday.
After Luister trended on social media, the ANC hammered the university, calling it an “erstwhile laager of white supremacy” that’s failed to provide leadership on transformation. Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande said instances of racism and discrimination are occurring seemingly unabated. The DA’s Mmusi Maimane said the allegations show that race still matters. The EFF said racist groups are trying to maintain spaces as white enclaves, using Afrikaans as a tool to do so.
Stellenbosch University vice-chancellor Wim de Villiers said it’s sad that some students are exposed to racism and discrimination. “However, to insinuate that the university is not serious about transformation, that it turns a blind eye to flagrant racism or that it in some sense advocates or maintains a culture of Apartheid at the university, is simply not true and cannot go unchallenged.” He’ll be challenged on that claim in Parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education and training today.
Shabangu says he’s happy about the attention Luister has brought to the issues, but questions why they have been allowed to continue 21 years into democracy. “The political parties that have shown their concern and have addressed it still need to answer the question as to why they’ve allowed this space to fly under the radar for 21 years,” he said.
He said Stellenbosch faces some of the same issues as other student movements demanding transformation at the University of Cape Town, Rhodes University and the University of the Witwatersrand, but they’re also dealing with crude racism reminiscent of the 1970s in a town he says is run by the Broederbond.
Open Stellenbosch is also working with other documentary makers looking at the conditions in the area and is using the current attention to push its demands. In a press release sent through a publicist on Monday, Open Stellenbosch announced a march that coincides with the university management’s appearance in Parliament. It wants all classes to be available in English and an emergency council meeting on transformation. “As the testimonies in Luister demonstrate, the culture of Apartheid is alive and well in Stellenbosch, both in the town and the university,” the statement reads.
On Monday, Mathume, who was in the film, thanked those who have taken an interest and called on the rest of the country to support their cause. Advancing beyond immediate outrage is another challenge. Politicians allowed the situation to continue. Stellenbosch academics aren’t engaging on the issues. And the white students and staff “in whose names the atrocities the university committed” aren’t moved, he said.
After featuring in the film, white students have been asking Mathume how he feels. Each time they respond with an inevitable “but …”.
“Lately I’ve decided I’m not going to entertain anyone on that level. It’s not emotionally healthy for me,” he says. “Something must happen. There can’t be any other way.” DM
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