RACISM REPORT ANALYSIS
Race relations report reveals how donors, alumni and interest groups hold Stellenbosch University hostage
The report into race relations at Stellenbosch University released this week has been dismissed by the DA for ‘scapegoating Afrikaans’. This is a mischaracterisation of a long and thoughtful report which could probably serve as a distillation of many of South Africa’s contemporary social problems.
Stellenbosch University had barely published the results of an investigation into recent racist incidents on campus this week when the DA thunderously denounced it.
The report, authored by retired judge Sisi Khampepe, was described by DA MP Leon Schreiber as “outrageous”, escalating “the attack on Afrikaans to unprecedented levels”, and as constituting a “disgusting insult” to the entire Afrikaans-language community in South Africa.
The DA had immediately instructed its lawyers to take the Khampepe report on legal review, wrote Schreiber. The party would “spare no cost and leave no stone unturned”.
That was the DA’s first statement on the matter, on Tuesday.
Wednesday brought yet another fulminating statement on the Khampepe report from the DA.
This time, Schreiber wrote that he would lean on Stellenbosch University’s biggest donor — the Het Jan Marais Nationale Fonds — to “consider defunding Stellenbosch University unless the university management explicitly rejects the recommendations of the Khampepe report” on language issues.
The most charitable interpretation one can draw from these statements is that Schreiber has not read the 180-page report, but merely skipped to the recommendations.
It is difficult otherwise to understand the DA’s stance. Throughout the investigation, Khampepe and her colleagues were told by witnesses that one of the greatest challenges to transforming Stellenbosch has been the fact that the university’s every move is scrutinised and legally challenged by powerful and wealthy alumni, donors and special interest groups.
These parties, the investigation heard, “obsessively push a political agenda at the university and use their power and wealth to make it difficult for the university to transform and change… They do this through litigation and other threatening legal processes, including PAIA [Promotion of Access to Information Act] requests relating to any decision, no matter how small, involving the use of Afrikaans at the university.”
This forces Stellenbosch University, the investigation heard, “to expend time and resources on dealing with these interest groups, rather than directing them towards the improvement of the university”.
In essence, meaningful racial transformation at the university is being blocked through legal action of precisely the sort that the DA is now embarking on.
How donors, alumni and interest groups tie leadership’s hands
The Khampepe investigation arose out of two incidents at Stellenbosch which occurred within days of each other in May 2022.
The first event involved racial tensions bubbling over at a Law Faculty dance, where a dispute over music between an Indian student and a white student allegedly saw the use of racist remarks by the white student, who subsequently chalked this up to a “misunderstanding”.
The second — and much more widely publicised — incident saw a white student at the Huis Marais residence — Theuns du Toit — enter the room of black student Babalo Ndwayana without permission after a Saturday night of drinking, and urinating on Ndwayana’s possessions. Ndwayana filmed Du Toit in the act. When asked why he was behaving in this manner, Du Toit allegedly responded: “It’s a white boy thing.”
Since then, there have reportedly been two further “urination scandals” on campus.
What the Khampepe report reveals is that a previous attempt by university management to deal with the well-known problematic internal culture of the Huis Marais residence was scuppered by the threat of legal action from alumni.
For many years, the all-male Huis Marais has been known as “an exclusionary space that fostered a toxic culture, discriminatory practices and deplorable conduct by its residents”, the investigation heard.
In 2020, the university tried to take decisive action to address that culture — by converting Huis Marais into a mixed-gender residence.
What appears to have happened next is that wealthy Huis Marais alumni funded litigation on behalf of the residence’s male students to keep women out. Stellenbosch University backed down, but the leadership also seems to have failed to communicate to the wider university community exactly what happened — leading to a pervasive sense in some quarters that the university is simply not committed to following through on transformation, when in some cases its hands are being legally tied by alumni nostalgic for their good old days at the institution.
As the report puts it: “Many of the residences have very involved alumni who discourage and lobby against any changes that might, in their eyes, erode the identity and essence of their former residence.”
Such is their investment in this campaign that there have been instances of “wealthy alumni providing funds to male residences for any repairs that may be required because of misconduct, for instance, the kicking down and breaking of doors,” the report states.
“This can have the effect of shielding the current students from the university’s increased intolerance of this type of behaviour in residences.”
Serious and difficult issues identified
Afrikaans language issues have become a dog-whistle topic for the DA, in the wake of the party’s perceived bungling of the 2019 Schweizer-Reneke “school segregation” scandal — which, an internal review found, caused white Afrikaans voters to desert the party in droves for the Freedom Front Plus.
In this instance, it appears the DA’s hunger to be seen by such voters as taking a firm pro-Afrikaans stance wherever possible is blinding the party to the very real and complex issues identified by the Khampepe report.
The problems chronicled by the report are by no means unique to Stellenbosch University — in fact, they will resonate with members of countless South African institutions, academic or otherwise.
The report notes, for instance, that most white students and staff do not want to get involved in transformation discussions — leaving black students and staff with frustration over the sense that it is they who must constantly push for change on campus.
The default culture at the university — which is a public institution — remains white and Afrikaans, but the demographics of the students have shifted fairly dramatically.
Issues around socialising on campus may seem trivial, but are anything but. Students who receive NSFAS funding, who are overwhelmingly black, tend to arrive on campus later than wealthier students because of the delays in finalising their positions. By this stage, they have missed large chunks of the residences’ welcoming programmes, so are already placed socially on the back foot.
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The social culture of the residences revolves heavily around alcohol — which alienates not just students who don’t drink, but also students who simply cannot afford to drink the quantities of alcohol consumed by their wealthier peers, or go out partying in the same manner.
When single-sex residences mingle, black women are left feeling “hurt and humiliated”, the investigation heard, because they are ignored by the white men. Music at these social occasions is clearly a major issue, because it defaults to the tastes of white Afrikaans students.
Here’s an illuminating passage from the report about the different expectations that many black and white students bring to bear on the Stellenbosch residence experience:
“[Witnesses] observed that many white, Afrikaans students are there because they want to experience a ‘residence life’. They are excited by the traditions and events on offer in the residences. However, for some other students, particularly black students from less privileged backgrounds, residence is something more practical. It is a convenient place for them to eat, sleep and study while they are at university. The witnesses noted that these vastly different attitudes and expectations tend to result in racial segregation because they translate into socialisation and participation patterns in the residences.”
These are really complex problems which speak to significant issues of belonging and exclusion in any number of South African spaces.
Exacerbating them is the sense shared by some black and white students that they are bearing the burden of much wider political disputes. To quote the report again:
“A white, Afrikaans student leader spoke about how it feels as though there is constantly an agenda to eradicate Afrikaans from the University and that Afrikaans students feel besieged by the campus politics. In similar vein, a black student spoke about the fact that there is an expectation on everyone at the University to accept the Afrikaans culture and assimilate. This student said that anyone who challenges this status quo will be shunned or face some form of negative consequences. Both of these students said that they feel as though they ‘have a target on their back’.”
To address these issues, and the feelings of pain and anger on both sides, is a massively difficult task — and it is appropriate that the recommendations of the Khampepe report be given serious consideration and debate.
Recommendations deserve thought, not blind reaction
Inevitably, Khampepe’s recommendations with regard to Afrikaans are likely to receive disproportionate attention, despite the report concluding with a slew of other thoughtful suggestions about ways to amend the institutional culture.
Contrary to the DA’s caricature of the report, Khampepe is at pains to state that Stellenbosch should take great care to “not deprive Afrikaans-speaking students of their enjoyment of the right to study in their preferred language without appropriate justification”.
Another point ignored by the DA is that the investigation also heard from white Afrikaans academics and staff members that “the language policy adds substantially to their workload without compensatory benefit”.
Khampepe ultimately advises that the university “consider reviewing and revising its language policy to remove the possibility of language exclusion through the preference of Afrikaans”.
It is to be hoped that this is not the only aspect of the report which receives attention.
What seems singularly unhelpful is the DA’s knee-jerk response — which, as the report makes clear, epitomises a reactiveness in responses to Stellenbosch University from powerful groups that has significantly hindered transformation attempts to date. DM