Is Stellenbosch lost in transformation?

2015-08-31 10:04
Wim de Villiers

Wim de Villiers

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University has come under the microscope after a documentary ­exposes the racism experienced by black students on campus

On Tuesday, Professor Wim de Villiers, rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University, will be in Parliament answering some difficult questions.

He has been summoned by the portfolio committee on higher education and training to explain why black students are racially abused at his institution.

Tuesday also marks exactly six months since his inauguration, which was disrupted by Open Stellenbosch, the student activists who have characterised his tenure.

City Press met De Villiers in his tastefully decorated office with its elegant glass conference table, cluttered wooden desk and comfortable couches where he sits cross-legged and chats.

The seemingly endless list of qualifications of the man born and bred in the town – Stellenbosch University, University of Cape Town (UCT), Oxford, Harvard, University of Kentucky – and his professional achievements – associate professor, UCT dean of health sciences and many other accolades – are commendable.

But is he the right man to lead the institution?

De Villiers was appointed after the sudden death of Professor Russel Botman, the university’s first black rector, in June last year. The move sparked a fierce debate.

Support structures

“It was a concern to me,” he says of his appointment.

“However, I feel that my experience as a seasoned academic and administrator, and my heartfelt convictions about South Africa and its institutions, mean that this is something I want to take on and something I could be successful at.”

The rector looks unruffled despite the storm raging over his institution after the release of the documentary Luister, which was produced by young Cape Town film makers and released on YouTube last week. It chronicles the plight of black students at the university.

De Villiers says although he never knew Botman personally, he is proudly carrying out his legacy.

“We need to broaden access and maintain this standard of excellence. But it is not enough to broaden access, we need to ensure success,” he says.

“I think you do somebody a great disfavour if you bring them into a space where they are unlikely to succeed. That is why we have so many support structures for students regardless of where they come from and we have well-established undergraduate support systems.”

But students who belong to Open Stellenbosch will disagree.

Protests and mass meetings in the past few months resulted in police arriving at the campus on one occasion.

The students’ primary demand is that the university’s language policy be reviewed. Although English was given equal status to Afrikaans in November last year, many feel this is not entrenched. They also want the university’s very Afrikaner-centric culture addressed.

Factual errors

Open Stellenbosch called a meeting with De Villiers and sent him a memorandum of demands.

He does not like the activists’ style of engagement.

“I don’t consider Open Stellenbosch a challenge. I consider it an opportunity because I have been documented as saying I welcome student activism and protest. I’m not going to defend racism, discrimination, sexism and classism – that is just not on and we need to do something about it.

“What I take issue with are the ultimatums, the demands on their terms. I don’t think that is the way to conduct business.”

De Villiers speaks about his student days at the university during the 80s.

“At that time it was very much a university that catered for a particular section of the community – white, Afrikaans-speaking people,” he says.

“In my first year as a medical student, there were so-called coloured students admitted to my medical class. I was so horrified to learn they were not allowed to participate in social activities. They were confined to certain activities and were such wonderful people – this was a bad shock.”

He was a member of Stellenbosch’s SRC, one of four “lefties” on a 13-member team.

After Luister’s release, De Villiers released a statement saying he was saddened by the students’ experiences, but added that the video contained factual errors, bad journalism and misrepresentations.

“The experiences on the Luister video are very emotional and I acknowledge that, but now we need to distill that and say, ‘What are we dealing with? Are we generalising? Are we blaming? Are we stereotyping?’ Let’s work at how we can work on that and take it forward.”

Lived experience

It’s the how to take it forward that has led to tense relations between him and Open Stellenbosch.

“They want to act as a collective. It is impossible to have conversations with a bunch of people. Additionally, we cannot be summoned to a meeting, that is just not done. Let us do it in a collegial fashion.”

Although De Villiers acknowledges and empathises with the call for radical transformation on campus, he admits there are perhaps limitations to what he can relate to.

“I don’t think I can fully understand, as a white Afrikaans male, I agree. I can understand some aspects and I can empathise, but it is not my lived experience.

“My lived experience is that when I moved from Stellenbosch to Cape Town to attend UCT, it was very uncomfortable. I was predominantly Afrikaans-speaking and exposed to an English environment where I felt people were looking down on me.

“I have gained a heck of a lot from dealing with all sorts of adversity and how to benefit from adversity. But I am not saying they must suck it up, grin and bear it,” he says.

Stellenbosch University, he says, is tackling the problem by assigning Professor Nico Koopman, deputy vice-chancellor and dean of theology, to “social impact, transformation and personnel”.

Issues of translation

“He’s a coloured man and that gives him credibility. He has been at Stellenbosch for 13 or 14 years, so he knows the culture and has been very successful at unifying the faculties of theology at UWC and Stellenbosch in the past.”

What will it take for the stalemate between him and Open Stellenbosch to end? Assurances that he understands the students’ experiences? A grand gesture of sorts?

He sits in silence before saying he is open to suggestions.

“I’ll take you back to Rhodes Must Fall. The statue fell. So? There are significant issues with institutional culture at UCT. That sense of English superiority and colonialism, they have problems with that. The Rhodes Must Fall movement, there is nothing left. There is no energy there.

“Will a grand gesture be to go English only? It took a long time to get to what they decided in November. So it is what it is, it is equal status. We are also promoting isiXhosa as an academic language. We are dealing with issues of translation and increasing parallel mediums.

“The danger of the grand gesture is that it is just that. It doesn’t address the underlying issues. If we say this is an English university tomorrow, it doesn’t address the institutional culture.”

Should the next rector of Stellenbosch University be black?

“What I don’t like about that is, you can say in the South African demographics of the 25 higher learning institutions two [rectors] should be white. Why do we do that? What did Madiba say? We should be nonracial, we should be beyond this, that is what I like seeing. The diversity I see on campus now is fantastic because I have this memory of what it used to be. People are mixing, in my observation, totally naturally.

“But to come back to your question, it should be the best candidate,” says De Villiers.

Read more on:    university of stellenbosch  |  transformation

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