On the 15th of May 2022, I encountered a statement from one of the Sasco Student Representatives detailing a violent experience within the “koshuis” Huis Marias. A black student was asleep in his dorm room when a white male broke into his room and urinated on the desk where he studies, his laptop and possessions.
When the student asked why this was happening to him he was told “that’s what happens to black boys”.
Since then, for good reason, this “incident” has gone viral, caused outrage and drawn widespread condemnation.
I was a student and part of the 2015 Open Stellenbosch movement. I am coloured — our place in white society surrounding Stellenbosch University is by no means as precarious as for black students who engage the campus. But we are not white and we share the racist hallways with one another, avoiding the places in which white supremacy might rear its ugly head to displace us.
In Stellenbosch, when you refuse to assimilate, the difference between black and coloured is but a contestation in blackness. The violence white supremacy yields is still a collective experience from which to read your encounters with higher education.
These kinds of racist experiences were formative in my experience of Stellenbosch University in 2015 and yet it re-emerges more than five years later. This is despite a student movement which interrogated the exact same experiences and should have resulted in fundamental shifts within the institution.
This incident happened in a global context that has seen Black Lives Matter emerge in the popular consciousness, with the tragic death of George Floyd exemplifying the “systemic” in systemic racism. It happened on the same weekend in which black shoppers in Buffalo, New York, were murdered by a white supremacist mass shooter. South Africans also emerge from and have faced the racially separatist applications of lockdown regulations resulting in the untimely death of Collins Khosa.
We understand that white supremacy is lethal. On social media, we recognised and lamented this. Although I don’t doubt the specificity of racism at Stellenbosch University, around the world, in 2022 we continue to live in a white supremacist society.
Since the student movement, I have watched progressive liberal language around transformation be subsumed into the overall practices of the institution. Open Stellenbosch helped move the dial on an impractical language policy — operating on learning in both Afrikaans and English to an equal degree in all classes through translation devices — which made the university’s students unemployable on a global market without additional language qualifications. Since then transformation offices have closed, their staff have been displaced or absorbed into other departments and the experience of black students at Stellenbosch University has not improved.
The futility of fighting white supremacy on white supremacist terms has become apparent to me. In 2015, we spent hours of our youth sitting in seminar rooms discussing the possibilities for transformation. We were promised that change would happen. Years later, I began to ask how I could leave the responsibility to change racist norms in the hands of Stellenbosch University. I questioned why I was part of the collective lodging demands at the institution when it had no intention of shifting the “institution” of institutional racism.
Year after year, after a pandemic, after #GeorgeFloyd, after the so-called end of apartheid, racist norms at the University of Stellenbosch refuse to shift. This is indicative of a problem which requires a national discourse around the resilience of racist cultures and why they persist.
During my time at the university, I was called “hotnot” in dance clubs, threatened with violence a few times and told by white peers that “it’s so funny” to spend time with me in a social setting — I would normally just be “another labourer” on their parents’ farm.
How do I engage with white society after these experiences?
How does someone who experienced the violence and humiliation of being ostensibly urinated on engage with white society when all this is “resolved”? And what is the difference between these violent interactions and the more subtle and micro-aggressive interactions we might experience outside of the institution where blatant racism is considered “barbaric”.
One day someone will work alongside that drunken student, in a corporate sector somewhere, he will laugh off this experience as though it happened to him and not as though he was a perpetrator of any kind. While the victims of this kind of racist violence will spend thousands of rands in therapy wondering what is “systemic” in systemic racism as if the fear and the problem lies with black people in South African society today and not the violence that continues to happen to them. In this context, we are not forgiving enough. We don’t leave the past in the past.
There was a time when I believed the fight against white supremacy in Stellenbosch was spiritual. I am a descendant of the Vlakte community that was pushed out of their lodgings by students of the university in the early 1950s. This forced removal happened in the context of an emerging apartheid regime. Family homesteads were replaced with parking lots, student accommodations and a Humanities faculty.
My grandparents were removed as children, from Ryneveld Street at the time, and flung to the outskirts of Stellenbosch. Due to this experience, I felt that my encounters with the institution were ancestral. It felt like our spirits were at war. The forces needed to defeat the intrinsically racist oak-lined streets felt simply bigger than me and my friends.
I needed to compartmentalise the failures of the 2015 student movement. Yet as the students who were involved in Open Stellenbosch grow further from the context, we begin to realise that the small waves we made were profound in a context where racism flourishes on an institutional level and the entire country continues to simply just look on.
But as ex-president Thabo Mbeki’s favourite poem asks: What happens to the dream deferred?
In 2022, I can only hope that students will continue to organise, with the support of alumni like myself, to remind the institution that white supremacy does not belong in modern society, that the people of South Africa hold justice in their hands.
We have the right to demand justice even in the context of Stellenbosch which remains a small battleground but is a small battleground that was the birthplace of apartheid.
Stellenbosch University needs to become more engaged in the business of reparation and change. Black students cannot remain a minority at the institution, in a black majority country. If it is to take the work of transformation seriously it is to take the work of justice seriously.
This incident happened on the same week as an inauguration of a new chancellor, the honourable and dignified Justice Edwin Cameron. He replaces Chancellor Johann Rupert, who at my graduation made a quirky remark asking why he needed to learn the click in isiXhosa. In his inauguration speech, he talks about the ceremonial nature of his appointment but that even within this position he would seek to make the institution “free of degradation”. At the very top, there are efforts for change and we can only hope that the involvement of these figures should mean something. Justice Cameron joins Advocate Thuli Madonsela and Jonathan Jansen at the institution.
Stellenbosch boasts one of the most prestigious law faculties in the country. Yet it is a faculty that produced the racist student who committed the act of urinating on another student’s belongings. In 2022, it cannot spell justice with its actions.
The institution is once again given an opportunity to do the right thing — but experiences in the past lead me to believe it won’t. I am left to believe that the traditionalist ideas many at the institution hold overpower any attempts to appeal to these sensibilities. As far as they are concerned we need to go back to a time when the hierarchy existed, a hierarchy in which they remain on top. To them, any advocates for the end of white supremacy are terrorists and, in the global context, this standard persists; we were terrorists in the 1980s, we are terrorists in the United States and we are terrorists at the University of Stellenbosch. DM/MC