Francis Petersen | Trigger events like SU urination incident, do not define or reflect who we are

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Students protests against racism at Stellenbosch University last month after an alleged racist incident that saw a white student urinating on the personal property of a black student. (Photo by Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)
Students protests against racism at Stellenbosch University last month after an alleged racist incident that saw a white student urinating on the personal property of a black student. (Photo by Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

Following the recent event at Stellenbosch University where a white student urinated on the belongings of a black student, UFS vide-chancellor Francis Petersen writes that painful trigger events such as this one should be used as moments to pause and reflect on our transformation journey.

It is our harsh South African reality that racially charged incidents, such as the recent incident at Stellenbosch University, can happen at any institution at any time. Disheartening as they may be, they should not detract us from the genuine journey towards true transformation and social cohesion that is taking place on South African campuses of higher education.

Along with all the various forms of change and transformation that different sectors in our country have undergone over the past few decades, there has also been a definite shift in the role of public universities. It has evolved from an almost exclusive focus on academics to a more society-focused role.

An undeniable and very important part of universities' mandate in modern-day South Africa is to make a positive difference in the communities we serve. This inevitably includes embracing transformation, inclusivity, and diversity. In short: universities must be microcosms of the kind of community that we want to see in the broader South African context.

Transformation in higher learning 

Since 1994, all university campuses have, in one way or another, implemented well-designed transformation processes and social cohesion programmes – reflected in their institutional culture, physical environment, and the Academic Project. What we should always bear in mind, though, is that transformation in its very essence can never be a complete process. It can never simply mean changing from one thing into something else, but it is rather an ever-continuing process that requires incessant focus and a resolute acceptance that you will never really arrive at a final destination. What this implies for universities is that – true to our nature – we should always challenge the status quo, question conventional wisdom, always wrestle with complex issues, and never settle. Only by doing this will we achieve perpetual renewal, which is what true transformation boils down to.

READ | Amanda Gouws: Transformation is happening at SU. We cannot take the blame for toxic masculinity

Over the years, there has been an important shift at traditionally white universities that runs much deeper than just a superficial change in numbers and racial composition. Black South Africans at these institutions have reached a critical mass, which means they can now more freely express their convictions about their individual lived experiences, and in the process, assist in shaping the institutional culture in ways that recognise diversity. And often, certain events can act as triggers for them to express these lived experiences as a collective.

Trigger events that cause us to pause and reflect

In the past, transformation efforts at universities were centred around attempts to absorb, assimilate, and homogenise individuals into the dominant culture instead of institutions shaping their institutional culture to adapt to their changing student population. The latter approach is far more effective and organic, requiring institutions to recognise and embrace diversification and respond and adapt to it. Undesirable incidents or phenomena, whether in the form of acts of racism, gender-based violence, bullying, or any form of othering or intolerance then become triggers that should make us pause and reflect on where we are in our journey towards transformation, and whether we need to adapt in any area or in any way. 

I want to differ from observers who feel that the Stellenbosch urinating incident is not worth spending any time or discussion on. I believe it is vital that we understand these 'triggers' because it is in the process of grappling with it as a university society – in those sometimes-uncomfortable conversations that challenge us on so many levels – that true transformation occurs. 

Former trigger events at the UFS

A distressing trigger event in our own university's history was in 2016, when white rugby spectators attacked a group of black protestors at the UFS. What made this particularly painful was that it happened almost a decade after the notorious Reitz video incident, when a racially offensive, humiliating student video made in response to the university's residence integration policies at the time, surfaced.

The Shimla Park incident was an immense disillusionment for the university leadership, as it flew in the face of the great strides made towards social cohesion in the preceding eight years. It was a stark reminder that transformation will always be a 'moving towards', as opposed to an 'arrival at'. True transformation is a process that requires a constant listening to diverse student and staff voices from all angles, an unrelenting focus on visible leadership, constant interaction with the diverse groups that make up a campus community, which is then consistently translated into action and institutional reform. 

READ | Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela: Explosive acts of white supremacy and barbarism are not just a SU phenomenon

It also requires a continuous creation of spaces where students and staff can express themselves without fear. It is vital platforms are created in different parts of an institution where diverse voices can be heard. And it is equally vital that we listen to these voices, and that intensive discourse be followed up with real action, ultimately shaping the institutional culture.

It requires that we use these painful trigger events as moments to pause and reflect on our transformation journey. What is imperative is that the entire institution should be involved in this reflection process – not only the policy drafters or those who specifically deal with social cohesion. 

Youth Month – an opportunity to assess involvement

Youth Month allows us to consider just how well we are listening to the voices of young South Africans – specifically in our higher education sector. We need the youth to speak out, and to take up the positions that institutions of learning have created for student representation in their leadership structures as an important part of the transformation process. We also need them to respond in a very circumspect and mature way to the trigger events that challenge our transformational journey.

READ | FRIDAY BRIEFING: The politics of urine - Stellenbosch under siege 28 years after apartheid

They should expose and denounce them in no uncertain terms, but guard against triggering similar actions in the process, which will only lead to further polarisation and discord. Instead, they should treat trigger events as opportunities to pause and reflect on how they can become part of the journey towards solutions.

Trigger events don't define individuals or institutions

Universities face numerous challenges: racism, gender-based violence, xenophobia, mental health challenges, intolerance, and many more. Try as we might, we cannot always prevent these challenges from 'breaching our defences'. And when they do, we need to draw on all sectors of our university community to come to terms with it as an institution and devise a strategy going forward. It is in this process that we make progress on our journey towards true social cohesion.

I recently came across this very apt description relating to mental health – which is one of those issues we need to continuously and openly address on our campuses: 

Mental health problems don't define who you are. They are something you experience. You walk in the rain, and you feel the rain, but you are not the rain.

In the same way, trigger events that happen in our university spaces are issues that we have to deal with, talk about, address, and learn from. They are part of our students' lived experience and should therefore shape our institutional journeys. But they do not define, limit, or reflect who and what we are. Or what we may become. 

- Prof Francis Petersen is the Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State.

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