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Stellenbosch University convocation vote is a ‘win for transformation’ and ‘tolerance’

Stellenbosch University convocation vote is a ‘win for transformation’ and ‘tolerance’
Participants at an extraordinary convocation meeting for Stellenbosch University at Bloemhof Girls High School on 1 June 2023 in Stellenbosch. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais)

Earlier this month, members of Stellenbosch University’s convocation voted to remove members of its executive committee, including its president, Jan Heunis. Numerous convocation members see this vote as a step towards positive change.

‘Before we started this, the feedback I was getting was, ‘Don’t even start, you’ll never win. Advocate Heunis is very well supported… you have no chance’,” said Louise van Rhyn, an academic and a Stellenbosch University (SU) alumnus.

On 1 June, members of Stellenbosch University’s convocation passed a motion of no confidence in its executive committee, except for the vice-president. This led to the committee’s president, Jan Heunis, resigning from the university’s council. Many convocation members were behind creating the no-confidence motion, but Van Rhyn agreed to have it signed in her name.

The convocation consists of all SU graduates, academic staff and diplomats. The convocation executive committee consists of five members.

The motion against the executive committee came after they requested the SU rector and vice-chancellor, Wim de Villiers, to resign in light of nepotism reports. Convocation members’ main objection was that they were not consulted about this decision. The nepotism allegations against De Villiers are still being investigated.

Stellenbosch University

Thuli Madonsela at an extraordinary convocation meeting for Stellenbosch University at Bloemhof Girls High School on 1 June 2023 in Stellenbosch, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais)

Concerns about the state of governance at universities across South Africa have been raised by the Department of Higher Education and Training. The University of Cape Town has been dealing with leadership issues. Unisa is struggling with administrative challenges. The University of Fort Hare has been plagued by reports of corruption and safety concerns, including assassination attempts.

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has emphasised the need for good governance, which includes the values of equity, redress, democratisation, accountability and transparency, as set out in government acts. University councils are responsible for upholding quality governance, which affects an institution’s reputation, quality, finances and performance.

Not in their name

The actions of Heunis and DA MP and SU council member Leon Schreiber prompted Van Rhyn and others to act against the committee, according to Van Rhyn.

“When I saw that Leon Schreiber was attacking Wim de Villiers … I felt that he was speaking in my name, and I wasn’t happy with what he was doing. It wasn’t in the best interest of the university,” Van Rhyn said. Schreiber did not serve on the executive committee, but was elected to the council by the convocation.

Schreiber tabled a motion, seconded by Heunis, to remove De Villiers, but instead a committee was elected to investigate the nepotism allegations. 

This led to convocation members, many under the banner of the SUNewConvoRise movement, tabling a motion that removed the executive committee members at an extraordinary meeting on 1 June. But the motivation to remove committee members, particularly Heunis, ran deeper than just a lack of consultation.

“It was very well known that advocate Heunis and his network were arguing for a particular point of view,” said Van Rhyn, referring to Heunis’s support for preferential treatment of Afrikaans at the university. “Advocate Heunis felt very strongly about the privileged position of Afrikaans and was always in a fight with the university about that.”

Participants at an extraordinary convocation meeting for Stellenbosch University at Bloemhof Girls High School on 1 June 2023 in Stellenbosch. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais)

This treatment was creating an exclusionary effect, she said. “People felt they were not welcome, because they didn’t speak Afrikaans.” Thus, convocation members thought it was time for a more diverse executive committee that would listen to them, Van Rhyn said.

Though they were asked to withdraw the motion, they decided not to. “What we realised is if we had done that, we would have taken away a vote from many young people or people from minority groups that have felt that Stellenbosch is not a place for them,” she said.

After the vote was adopted, convocation members came to Van Rhyn and said they could, for the first time, call themselves “Maties”. They were thankful to be given a voice, she said. “Stellenbosch is a national asset and the more we can all contribute and work together to protect this asset, the better it can be for everybody.”

Executive committee

Rudi Buys, the remaining vice-president of the executive committee, said the vote “foregrounded how members want the convocation and its representatives to do their work, namely with continuous and wide consultation”.

For Buys, it is important to engage with members to find common ground and establish a meaningful dialogue between diverse voices. Urgently arranging elections to fill the committee’s vacancies is also of high importance.

The convocation is tasked with contributing to policies by advising the university through other bodies, Buys said. However, he feels the convocation has not properly fulfilled this mandate. “It will therefore be useful work to consolidate the ways whereby diverse voices are formally enabled to make inputs and included in decision-making,” he said.

Participants at an extraordinary convocation meeting for Stellenbosch University at Bloemhof Girls High School on 1 June 2023 in Stellenbosch. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais)

Frederik van Dyk, the former secretary of the convocation executive committee, said that he was at peace before and after the vote. Van Dyk maintains that the former executive committee upheld the SU statute when passing the advisory motion, which requested that De Villiers resign or be investigated, following the “compelling nepotism allegations”.

“If we former [executive] members are disliked and unpopular because we spoke integrity and truth to power — to power’s discomfort — then so be it,” he said.

“I believe Dr Rudi Buys will nevertheless build important bridges between alumni and management, but I hope that he retains the courage to speak up when it becomes necessary,” Van Dyk said. He further hopes that a “level-headedness” arises to define electoral and public discourse at SU.

Convocation members speak

Thembalethu Seyisi, who studied for an LLB at SU and finished in 2021, sees the vote as significant not just for the university, but for the country too. “I see the vote as people saying no to dictatorship, yes to democratic values, such as consulting your constituents, and yes to the will of the people.”

Seyisi, who was recently selected as one of the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans, called the extraordinary meeting of 1 June “amazing”. “We took a stand and said, ‘We are going to side with justice, and we are going to side with inclusivity’.”

Seyisi sees the vote as a positive step for transformation at SU. Though the convocation is not part of the management of SU, it can still have some influence on transformation and inclusivity at the university.

Bradley Frolick, a former SRC member and SU law student, says the vote was “important for democratic accountability and reaffirming the principle that no one is allowed to exercise more power than that which is granted to them.

“The conduct of the meeting was more important [for] the convocation as it was the first time that a diversity of views and opinions were expressed,” he said. He sees this as a testament that SU’s steps toward inclusivity are indeed bearing fruit.

Gaynor Janeke, an educational psychologist with a master’s degree from SU, appreciated that various members could voice their feelings about the university and what they envision for it.

“I have always been a proud mother-tongue Afrikaans speaker and a proud Matie. But the nagging feelings of imposter syndrome could never be shaken.” After the meeting, she felt very emotional because memories of trying to adjust to SU’s environment came flooding back to her.

For her, the extraordinary meeting signified it was time for everyone to confidently take their seat at the table, she said. She hopes that SU can become internationally known for its “inclusive organisational culture”.

Nina Breytenbach, who studied for an LLB and graduated in 2022, said the vote reminded her that the people had the power to hold their elected leaders accountable.

Breytenbach also believes the vote was a win for transformation. “I would love for every single first-year who sets foot on campus to feel that this is their campus,” she said.

“I would love for the university to get to a point where Afrikaans is only a language, and no longer a political toy or a symbol of a particular intolerant and exclusive ideology.

“I am an Afrikaans speaker and I absolutely despise that Afrikaans has been made synonymous with exclusion and intolerance to gain votes and entrench an unfair status quo.”

Bantubonke Louw, who graduated from SU in 2013, and now works in student affairs and internationalisation, said that the vote showed that they would not allow anyone to make decisions for them without consultation.

“It paves the way for intentional and participatory consultation to form the foundation of any transformative work at SU as we contribute to building an inclusive institution where all peoples can feel welcome,” he said, adding it was “remarkable” that young alumni had participated in the matter.

For him, SU still has a long way to go “to rid itself of its contributions to the pain of our apartheid history”.

Transformation is not an event, but a process, he said, and the work is not easy. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Allan Taylor says:

    Louise van Rhyn is a SU alumnA, not an alumnUS

  • André Pelser says:

    Van Rhyn is no hero and the marginalisation of Afrikaans, a fully developed academic language and mother tongue of 70% the the population in the Cape in the interests of transformation and inclusion is banal. English was the language of imperialism and colonialism.
    I agree with the argument regarding proper consultative process, but this matter could have been dealt with more maturely.

    • John Cartwright says:

      Agreed. There is plenty of room for certain South African universities to pursue the mother-tongue policy right through. This would be real ‘transformation’. Unfortunately 1. Afrikaans is still branded unfairly (how about the oppressive colonial use of English?) instead of being used as an inspiring example, and 2. Its standing had already been fatally undermined by the time Wim took over. So by this time, the recent Convocation debate was a total muddle, and the possibility of a truly transformative language policy has been lost in the fog.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    The will of ordinary members came through,keep your members happy and things will be fine

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