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Race relations report reveals how donors, alumni and interest groups hold Stellenbosch University hostage

Race relations report reveals how donors, alumni and interest groups hold Stellenbosch University hostage
Illustrative image | Student Theuns du Toit arrives for his disciplinary hearing at Stellenbosch University. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais) | Students protest after a video goes viral of Theuns du Toit urinating on the personal property of a black student. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais) | Gallo Images / ER Lombard | Gallo Images / Ashley Vlotman

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


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Gentleman Chabeli says:

    It’s curious what the DA’s overall electoral strategy is in this Dance of Death that it is enmeshed in with the Far-Right loons of SA. My curiosity is precisely b/c whoever conceived of it has to have failed Math at school – or is trolling them – given the abysmal electoral performance of FF+ & to be contending w/ them for 3% of the national vote? How loudly must 1 party announce that it is a White Nationalist party before we take note.

    This is a well-written piece: I thought thoughtful, empathetic & takes a clear side in this conflict.

    It made me despondent to read b/c it means little’s changed since I graduated nigh 10 years ago, albeit not from Stellenbosch. I lived all this – the fights about Boeremusiek only during multiracial social gatherings etc. If we didn’t endure the toxic racist atmosphere at our male residence – incl. the degradation of the Black cleaning staff there by Afrikaner boys – it was in the lecture halls with 1 Asian lecturer once being told by a senior Afrikaner lecturer that “this is not Chinese Engineering” in front of University staff. One frail-looking Afrikaans boy, who was homosexual & effeminate, didn’t even last a month in that Hell hole of a residence – permanently in his room, only used the showers when no-one was there etc. He looked lost. Black students banded together to not be affected by the toxic Afrikaner Nationalist fever that plagued that Huis – he had no one. My heart always bleeds when I think about how lost he was in that Hell.

    • cjg grobler says:

      How come you can say “enmeshed in with the Far-Right loons of SA.’ but if I say use black in a sentence I am racist.

      • Gentleman Chabeli says:

        I don’t care anymore to explain to people what racism is. Given our national history, it’s incumbent on you to be well-versed in its definition and understand under what context the term is legitimately used. Anyone asking for a definition of racism in this day is just playing silly games.

        Furthermore, you have a lot of work ahead of you in improving your reading and comprehension skills.

        Kindly explain to me, in everything that wrote, how on earth you drew the link between “Far Right loons” and “white people”? Are all White people part of the Far-Right in SA? Do you know what “Far-Right” means?

  • Nic SA says:

    This behaviour by the DA is so incredibly disappointing and cynical.

    The DA of all parties is well aware that racial reconciliation is an ongoing effort in SA that will still take decades if not centuries. Yet they cynically exploit difficult and important discussions about how the history and cultural background of Afrikaans universities like Stellenbosch is exclusionary to black students.

    What does the DA get out of it? Clearly it is terrified of losing conservative Afrikaans voters to the FF Plus, but this is maybe 1 or 2% of the electorate? They will win easily in Stellenbosch either way.

    Also notably missing is any acknowledgement of the challenges felt by black students at Stellenbosch, or of the extreme financial and legal pressure exerted on the university by its wealthy and conservative alumni.

    The DA has lost its way and become poisoned by US right wing culture war politics via its national leadership in Helen Zille, Leon Schreiber, blank-slate John Steenhuisen and always lurking in the background the toxic IRR, that once thoughtful think tank that has been denounced by the majority of its own former executives and researchers.

  • Dave Jacobs says:

    I conclude that the author is making the same mistake she is accusing the DA of, that of a seemingly knee-jerk reaction to a contrasting viewpoint. From what I have understood regarding the DA’s statement, is that they take an exception that a language, Afrikaans, is made the scapegoat for “any and all problems” at the university. Disclosure, my home language is Afrikaans, this does not make me a far-right individual (as many commentators would state), and neither does my language make me a default proponent of anything. Mannix-McNamara et al. (2021) did a study titled “The Dark Side of School Culture”, and this was in Ireland. Any environment that develops dysfunctional values and beliefs, negative traditions, and caustic ways of interacting, becomes a “toxic culture”. The authors of this study also write: “The truly embedded nature of school culture is well documented in the literature and the failure of many policy reforms in recent decades has been attributed to the stubborn nature of school culture, characterised by resistance to threats to its norms, values, beliefs, traditions, and rituals.”
    My conclusion is that the incidents at the University of Stellenbosch, in many other schools and the South African society as a whole, are the prevalence of a toxic culture, irrespective of the language. I agree with the DM author that this “is a massively difficult task”, and scapegoating a part of society, based on language will not get us any closer to a semblance of a solution.

  • André Pelser says:

    Yet another demonisation of the Afrikaner, described as a “toxic culture”. Was the English culture
    “non-toxic””, or the Bantu culture, of Muslim culture etc.
    Stop this mis-characterisation and casting of stones. Read about the clash of cultures, all sides are guilty.
    One wonders which university Davis attended.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    It seems that merely the act of criticizing or questioning a transformation report is already deemed as being far right and racist. While this doesn’t mean that there are no racial problems in Stellies, maybe the report goes a little to far. For instance the sentence “not deprive Afrikaans-speaking students of their enjoyment of the right to study in their preferred language without appropriate justification” seems to suggest that at least with the appropriate justification it would be ok to eradicate Afrikaans from Stellenbosch. What would these justifications be? That such transformation drives can go sideways and have political and personal agendas has been very well demonstrated by what happened at UCT. Till then we should support debate and not stiffle it, as seems to be the way things are being dealt with these days when it comes to the topic of transformation.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Afrikaans and English and other languages are exactly that : languages, means of communication; no more. The crowd that attaches deep cultural / political significance to Afrikaans would be in deep shock if they spent a weekend with thoroughly Afrikaans speaking people in the Cape Flats, the Northern Cape, North West Province, Namibia and even Botswana, etc that share no cultural or political ounce with the Afrikaners of Stellenbosch or Pretoria.

    • Christiaan B van Zyl says:

      It’s ironic that people feel Afrikaans must be protected by institutions. That behaviour speaks more about them, and what they believe the language should represent. It betrays, a possibly wilful, ignorance of the roots of language. Ideally Afrikaans will evolve into something that makes many different people feel proud, sadly some people seem intent on preventing that. Instead they try to make it exclusive to their identity.

      I’m Afrikaans first language, and still enjoy speaking it. Twenty years ago, while studying at Stellenbosch, I preferred to do projects and write exams in English. It made more sense since that is the industry standard in my field. It was sometimes awkward to have lectures in Afrikaans, with all the reference material in English. One skill I practise every single day is writing, with lots of technical terms. Communicating with people all over the world, all in English.

      The great thing about SA, and I’ve travelled a fair amount, is the diversity of people that live here. As one tourist remarked to me the other day, “everyone here dresses differently”, indeed. This diversity was missing from residences back in my day. I too was exited about “residence life”, but the traditions were non-consensual. As with most traditions, they were designed to encourage group think, not embrace diversity of culture and opinion. Same old mistakes.

      Looking forward to watching the university and its institutions change over the next twenty years, as they inevitably will.

  • Willem Boshoff says:

    The DA aside, and examination of the ideals of transformation, inclusivity, culture and safety across the spectrum of higher learning institutions in South Africa should provide proper context in which students’ experiences at Stellenbosch are assessed. Google “campus crime South Africa” and you will find campuses across the board are rife with theft, assault and sexual assault, drunkenness etc. The university of Zululand’s 2020 report shows 99.59% of students are black; of the near 17 000 students 12 were white. Wonder how they felt about music at social situations. I’m in no means denying the need for Stellenbosch to transform – to be more welcoming to diverse cultures and races – but I do feel that traditionally Afrikaans institutions are under more severe scrutiny than others. Maybe just a perception; any thoughtful comments to the contrary is welcome.

  • Derek Taylor says:

    Rebecca Davis your pseudo- objectivity is quite evident.

  • Steve Stevens says:

    This is exactly why the DA will never win a general election. Over and over again:

    the inability to think before opening their mouths,

    not having the political savvy to know that perception trumps facts (Trump being a case in point),

    a seeming disregard of people’s lived experience (Zille’s Colonialism rants, Steenhuizen’s silent smirking on that infamous talk-show),

    and the lack of any compelling story other than ‘we in the Western Cape do things better than you’.

    The Black students at Stellenbosch are the political low-hanging fruit the DA could easily grab, but instead they’ve left themselves wide open to accusations of being the party of the White minority. Saying that, hats off to their ability to shoot themselves in the foot. Whoever advises them should be fired.

  • Matsobane Monama says:

    I met an Australian guy here in Jozi, he spoke about how Afrikaaners are finding it difficult to assimilate into the
    Australian culture. They keep to themselves, isolated, struggling with English and some are building walls around their houses. My wife’s Boss is an Afrikaaner lady she can’t communicate with customers, present in meetings, interview new employees and can’t write simple English sentences. She always hv to cover for her it’s just so sad. All in the name of cultural purity. The language of international commerce is ENGLISH whether you like it or not. Chinese, Koreans, Spanish, Japanese and many other people all over the world are learning English.

  • Malcolm Mitchell says:

    Unfortunately, in this country poor behavior by an allegedly intoxicated student has become a politically charged issue. I was in a residence in Natal University in the mid 1950s and what happened there was about the same as the Stellenbosch incident, if not worse. What is wrong with our society that we cannot understand student pranks but need to drag them into politics.

  • Albert van Zyl says:

    There is no single identity and culture that defines an Afrikaans speaker, and that is what is lost in discussions like this. The language itself is perhaps the only cultural aspect shared by speakers of Afrikaans. And this is where things go wrong. There is a vast heterogeneity of culture between speakers of Afrikaans, which is perhaps not the same for other language groups in South Africa. A Northern Cape Afrikaans speaker of colour have a vastly different culture than a white Afrikaans speaker from suburban Pretoria. And that is perfectly OK.

    Therefore, assumptions of the culture of “Afrikaans”, which is so vastly different between Afrikaans-speakers, should be carefully managed and understood.

    It really can’t be that hard to create a uniform identity governed by a set of core values for all Stellenbosch students to enjoy their studies and traditions under, if perceptions and interpretations about “how things are” are managed by all parties. For example, Huis Marais’ values are family, respect, responsibility, individuality and participation – which is a pretty self-explanatory universal code for all traditions and student life to be enjoyed under by all. Enforce it, correctly.

  • Gerrie Pretorius says:

    Why can ‘freedom of association’ not be practiced in SA universities? If people want or do not want to associate with other people for whatever reason, just leave them. Should they want to seperate themselves in whatever way, just let them be. In the longer run the academic results should be the judgement of their decision.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    The DA in its effort to keep Afrikaner voters in its stable, has now descended to a party of opportunism. Afrikaans is not under threat in Stellenbosch but racists are. One has not read the full Khampempe Report but from what one has read in the DM and other media, the report gets to the nub of the matter that those with a laager mentality, who would want to keep Stellenbosch as an Afrikaans institution only get into various tricks that are to the disadvantage of Afrikaans because when the government and courts intervene, the DA will be shocked and regret its infantile actions. The University must be allowed to find its space within a democratic society without racists demonising the language of Afrikaans and the DA acting as defenders of racism. Those elements of Afriforum, the DA and FF Plus who think that Afrikaans may face extimction are patently wrong because Afrikaans as a language is so developed in science, technology and commerce that it cannot be eradicared. Yes, we have misplaced views of anarchists who think the language must be dispensed with or the country must commit ethnocide. This is against the spirit of nation building and international conventions.

  • Peter Mansfield says:

    DA reaction very disappointing.

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