Don’t miss another opportunity Stellenbosch

2015-09-28 13:09

Stellenbosch University missed an opportunity in the 1990s to transform aggressively and become the Afrikaans university for people of all cultures in SA. It now finds itself in a situation where the predominance of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction is being directly linked to racist behaviour inside and outside of class (by groupings such as Open Stellenbosch). For Stellenbosch to maintain its Afrikaans identity, it needs to adopt a zero tolerance attitude to racism and aggressively promote itself to non-white Afrikaans speakers. Hopefully the University will not miss this opportunity.

I arrived at Stellenbosch University in 1990, ready to face a brave new world. Despite being fully bilingual, I chose Stellenbosch because I would be instructed in my first language and I would have the opportunity to immerse myself fully in student life (if I went to UCT, I would have likely studied out of my parents’ home).

By the time I arrived, I was ready for change in SA, having spent my high school years becoming increasingly aware of and disgusted by the oppression in our country. I was not disappointed as on 21 February 1990, while I was in the midst of being initiated at my residence, FW de Klerk made that historic speech. I naively thought that most others would share my view and that there would be a clamour to embrace the future of a free SA. I was very wrong.

During my stay at Stellenbosch, I saw many instances of racism and a general environment that did not make non-white students feel welcome. There was in fact a backlash from white Afrikaners who disagreed with the changes in SA and saw Stellenbosch University as a bastion for Afrikanerdom. There is no doubt in my mind that these forces influenced the pace of transformation within the University.

In the early 1990s, non-white students at Stellenbosch were few and far between. Most residences were white-only and effectively remained so well into the 1990s. In fact, as late as in 2013, there were still ongoing discussions about admission policies to university residences. This was certainly not a conducive environment for attracting non-white students and making them feel a part of the University.

Although numbers of non-white students slowly ticked up over the 1990s, it took the University of Stellenbosch 12 years after the abolishment of Apartheid laws to actively start addressing diversity. The 2002 Annual Report of the University was the first one to mention diversity in any meaningful way and it was only in 2003 that a Diversity Plan was adopted. By this stage, the number of non-white students at the university was just under 30% (with on-campus non-white students being under 25%). Only modest progress has been made in the subsequent 12 years with 38% of students in 2015 being non-white.

On the flipside, as the proportion of non-white students increased, the proportion of students with Afrikaans as home language declined. In 2003, 63% of students had Afrikaans as home language and by 2014, this had declined to 45%. The irony is that this decline is much more pronounced than the decline in the proportion of white students, which implies 1) that an increasing proportion of white students at Stellenbosch are not Afrikaans home language speakers and 2) only a small proportion of non-white students are Afrikaans home language speakers.

This demographic trend presents a problem for Stellenbosch if it wants to maintain its Afrikaans characteristics and this is where an opportunity was missed in my opinion. It was during especially the 1990s that Stellenbosch University should have actively recruited and accommodated non-white Afrikaans speakers. They should have made these students feel welcome at the University and made transformation and non-racialism a priority. They should have thrown their support behind disadvantaged Afrikaans schools to promote a healthy pipeline of strong students from disadvantaged backgrounds. If this were done, the proportion of non-white students at Stellenbosch would have been much higher today, whilst the proportion of Afrikaans speakers would not have declined by as much. Such a strategy may also have helped to counter the trend for previously disadvantaged Afrikaans speakers to educate their children in English.

The irony of the slow nature of transformation (at least initially) at Stellenbosch University is that it may have jeopardised one of the key characteristics that the University wanted to protect, namely safeguarding and developing Afrikaans as an academic language. A lesson should be learnt by companies and institutions that have been slow to adapt to the changes in our country. The longer you wait to transform, the less control you may have over the process.

Transformation has become a much more important part of Stellenbosch University over recent years, but more needs to be done in my opinion. First and foremost, there has to be a zero tolerance attitude towards racism. This attitude must start at the top and must filter down to classes, residences and the community within the town. Appropriate punishment should be meted out to students and faculty that are guilty of behaviour contrary to this policy.

More should be done to integrate residences and to make students from all backgrounds feel welcome in their temporary new homes. This process must again be led from the top, but residences themselves should embrace this to ensure long-term sustainability. Certain initiation practices, especially those that are open to abuse should be discouraged.

A longer-term goal should be to aggressively develop a pipeline of Afrikaans students, especially from disadvantaged communities. The University should actively support disadvantaged Afrikaans schools and communities and become the University of Choice for students from those communities. Such a strategy could also play its small part in improving school education in SA, the quality of which is a concern.

I personally would like to see Afrikaans continue as an academic language and Stellenbosch University as its guardian. In addition, I would like more to be done on the advancement of isiXhosa as an academic language (a process that has started at Stellenbosch University). I believe that in a diverse country such as SA, there is room for a predominantly Afrikaans university amongst a multitude of English universities. However, I cannot agree with an environment where Afrikaans prevails, but at the expense of diversity and non-racialism. I truly believe that these two goals do not have to be mutually exclusive. I would love for Stellenbosch University to prove me right.

Do you feel there is room for predominantly Afrikaans universities in SA? Do you think such universities can be truly diverse and non-racial? Do you think that Stellenbosch has done enough and those that disagree are over-reacting? What more do you think Stellenbosch should be doing? I would love to hear your feedback. Comments are welcome on my website.

In the mean time, keep your talking straight!

#IamStellenbosch #IamnotStellenbosch #OpenStellenbosch

Marius Strydom is the CEO of MLAX Consulting

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