The lecture room at the Centre for the Study of the Afterlife of Violence and the Reparative Quest (AVReQ) at Stellenbosch University was full to capacity. It was Wednesday, 12 April and Dr Anell Stacey Daries, one of the postdoctoral fellows funded by the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS), was delivering her maiden public lecture as a doctoral graduate.
Dressed elegantly professional in a black outfit, she delivered one of the most intellectually engaging presentations at AVReQ this year. She presented her lecture, “Physical Education from Volksuniversiteit to Forward Together: The Making of a Nationalist Science at Stellenbosch University, 1935-2019”, with sophistication, passion and vigour.
Responding to Daries’s lecture, Dr Handri Walters, whose doctoral research was on racial science at Stellenbosch University and its link to apartheid state policy, remarked on the captivating power of the presentation. Indeed, Daries had captured the attention of the audience, offering a clear, persuasive chronological framework of how physical education at Stellenbosch University from its establishment as a department in 1935 was inextricably linked to Afrikaner nationalism.
Daries’s lecture was drawn from her doctoral thesis in history, and I like to think of her research as a study of the making of the culture of white supremacy at Stellenbosch University and beyond.
Some may not like the term “white supremacy”; they associate it with extreme right-wing groups and hooded men wielding flame torches. The belief that white people are a standard of perfection superior to other groups was foundational to apartheid, and Daries’s PhD thesis sheds light on this issue.
But Stellenbosch University is white no longer, and this white supremacy culture has been challenged. The university has been going through a profound effort to address the problem of the legacy of the past to chart a path to transformation, and to forge a new institutional identity.
The release of the Khampepe Report was an important turning point. The university management team came to grips with how deeply embedded in the institutional fabric racist structures and practices are at the university.
The launch last month by the Rectorate of a committee tasked to lead a university-wide response to the recommendations of the Khampepe Report is a testament to the university’s deep commitment to change.
Attacks on progressive courses and programmes that seek to dismantle the edifices of racism at their deepest core are often cloaked in the language of rights and ethics
Presented at a university assembly, it was an extraordinary moment to listen to the presentation of a carefully thought-out programme designed to engage with the report in a way that will advance substantive change at Stellenbosch University.
Such a tangible intervention has inspired hope and confidence in the future – that the university is committed to taking meaningful steps for change and taking a path towards enduring institutional transformation.
It is also the case that major strides taken to address the problem of racist structures of power and privilege are often under attack in subtle and not-so subtle ways by those who will seize every opportunity to do all in their power to maintain the status quo.
This is the destructive side of progress and gains made in transformation processes. Referred to by scholars of critical diversity as the “backlash” phenomenon, the problem has been examined extensively in the literature since the 1990s and observed globally whenever interventions to address deeply troubling and troubled histories of privilege, oppression and marginalisation are implemented.
Echoes of these “backlash” trends have emerged in campaigns against initiatives to eradicate racism in the US, as can be seen in images of young white protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.
My friends and colleagues in the US who have been teaching programmes on racism and slavery, and running experiential projects on race dialogue, have been under attack: some states have taken the drastic step of banning the teaching of critical race theory altogether.
These attacks on progressive courses and programmes that seek to dismantle the edifices of racism at their deepest core are often cloaked in the language of rights and ethics: concerns about human rights, “cultural values”, good governance, etc. The goal, hidden in plain sight, is to preserve white supremacy culture, as if it is a rightful inheritance.
The values of Stellenbosch University clearly show that people who try to make the institution white again by behaving in ways that violate these values have no place at the university. Their time is up; Stellenbosch University is no longer a whites-only institution.
The pursuit of a shared future in our institutions of higher learning is a moral obligation, according to the Northern Ireland peacebuilding scholar and sociology professor John Brewer, who also holds an honorary position of professor extraordinary at Stellenbosch University.
It is a vision, he says, that requires “moral sensibility”, which is a regard for the human dignity of others. These are the values that guide the commitment to make the university a place where everyone feels a sense of belonging, where everyone can contribute to making it the great institution of excellence that it has always been, but white no longer.
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The promise of winds of change coming to Stellenbosch University reflect a cultural change, a transformation that may be incomplete, but one that is already a source of hope, hope for a future that opens to horizons of shared solidarity.
The horizon will remain elusive, for there will always be events or people that show a failure to appreciate the humanity of others. And when people are confronted with these attitudes, and they must carry the burden of making others recognise them, it is an exhausting daily labour.
The visibility of the excellence and elegance of voices of emerging researchers like Anell Stacey Daries reveals the best of what the future may look like at Stellenbosch University – the future of the kind of research that is done, focusing not on the study of historically marginalised people, but casting the researcher’s gaze on the historically privileged.
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Daries’s historical study, discussed in her lecture, provides profound insight into the depth, breadth and the structural forces that may lie at the root of the failure to appreciate the humanity of others.
But fear of a loss of privilege may also be the underlying emotion that drives this enduring attitude, and creating space to confront these fears and a range of other unacknowledged emotions through processes of facilitated dialogue is critical.
This is the deeper reckoning that is necessary in projects of institutional transformation to bridge the various racial lines of tension in institutional cultures. DM