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Some observations from an historic day at Stellenbosch

  • Yesterday was really strange. We got this awful email early in the morning from the acting rector. I was hoping ‘acting’ meant he was just pretending to be rector. But sadly it was Leopoldt van Huyssteen in his capacity as Acting Rector while Wim was in London watching the rugby. And not only did he sweep away student demands as well as the resolutions we had put forward in our staff meeting the previous day, but also made it very clear that senior management would never again participate in mass meetings with students. I’m sure you’ve seen it, but I quote: After Wednesday’s meeting between members of management and students at the Wilcocks building, management decided not to take part in mass meetings any further. Such meetings do not promote constructive engagement.
  • Later that morning I experienced three weird but very positive things, I think.
  • First, I participated in a demonstration led by Open Stellenbosch and the Fees must Fall movement which comprised large numbers of white students. When I joined the demonstration most of the students around me were white, and for a minute I actually wondered if I was in the wrong demo, like the so called ‘love in’ demo a few weeks ago which criticised Open Stellenbosch for fermenting racial polarisation and intolerance (and which made me hate love). But chatting to some of the demonstrators, they spoke passionately about their opposition to fee hikes. And I saw some people from Open Stellenbosch who told me they had been round the residences the previous evening trying to get people involved in the demo and had been really successful and had already organised a large, multi- racial demo from 2300 – midnight on the Thursday night.
  • Second, when I was hanging about in Lillian Ngoyi House (the renamed Wilcocks Building) where the students who had been kicked out of Winnie Mandela (or Admin B) and others were staying, a man who I recognised as a senior management figure had a great beam on his face and came up to me. I turned around to see if he was looking at someone else but it was me. I think he recognised me from a meeting held with Open Stellenbosch and senior management a few weeks ago following the Luister video and the parliamentary proceedings. He said he was very optimistic that things were going to be resolved, and was very happy about the large numbers of students demonstrating.
  • The third weird thing was when one of the helpers at Lillian Ngoyi was flicking through her smart phone (it was really smart, it was red) and said ‘Wim has been sighted’. There weren’t many people there at the time as most of the students were out demonstrating. But everyone swarmed round. And other people said ‘yes that’s him’, and he was surrounded, in the photo, with men who looked like bouncers garbed in black and wearing sun glasses, so everyone knew that must definitely be him, and we were all longing to know where this was. We thought it might be in the rugby stadium (not Twickenham, sadly for Wim, but the Maties stadium where we thought he was going to be addressing students or staff, we were not quite sure). Then the woman with the smart phone demonstrated just how smart the phone was by saying it’s right here, they’re standing under the trees just outside the Arts and social science building. And then I went outside and heard students chanting and starting to congregate around the Arts and Social science building, along Merriman place and Ryneveld St.
  • It was so different from a couple of days before, when the demonstration was smaller and much less racially diverse, and Wim was still in London getting ready to watch the rugby semi- final. In this previous demonstration, the senior management figures who did eventually appear had kept the demonstrators waiting for ages in the blazing sun before saying they couldn’t do anything about the court interdict, and angering and deflating the students by making them feel that their waiting had been a waste of time. But in Friday’s demo Wim was there waiting in the wings ready to be called upon by the student leaders.
  • This was a meeting in which leaders of the movement not only set the terms of engagement for senior management but very explicitly demonstrated this. Wim, accompanied by some of his senior management team, as well as the men in black, walked to the ‘centre’ and sat in a circle with the student leaders. The chairperson, Faith, a black woman, made it very clear at the outset that the removal of the Court interdict was absolutely essential as an outcome of the meeting, otherwise it would be a waste of time. Very fittingly, I thought, the first speaker was a black woman with expertise in human rights legislation. She clarified how flawed the Court interdict was which Stellenbosch management had taken out against Open Stellenbosch and the 9 individuals, both morally and also in terms of legal technicalities. Unfortunately there were problems with the speaker systems at that time and she couldn’t be heard very clearly by most people.
  • Fortunately the speakers were working when Faith started talking about the appalling ways the protesting students had been treated by senior management. There were hundreds of people but you could hear a pin drop when she was speaking so mesmerised people were not only by her articulacy and power of expression in ways which conveyed strong emotions and really sharp analysis, but also by how she personalised and concretised the issues, focusing on Wim, and calling him to account. She even demanded that he look at her while she addressed him.
  • I and all the people around me, across lines of race, were spellbound. In a university in which so much deference is accorded to people in senior leadership positions, this was turning everything on its head. It was transformation in action. It wasn’t the young mainly black students in Open Stellenbosch who were being berated for their irresponsibility but senior management.
  • Looking at Wim eye to eye, Faith spoke very movingly and powerfully, addressing Wim about the awful conditions they’ve had to put up with in the last few days, the lack of sleep, lack of food, emotional and physical trauma they’ve experienced, the ways they’ve been criminalised because of their principled stand they’ve taken. She spoke about how the proposed increase in fees would make it impossible for many students demonstrating to be able to continue their studies, and the shock, surprise and sense of betrayal they felt from the university when the police and the men in black were sent in and abused them.
  • She asked Wim to respond in a way which focused on and dealt with their demands…an immediate end to the court interdicts, no fees hike and extra time for exam preparation. When Wim deviated Faith intervened, took the microphone and said ‘we’re tired’ and asked him to get straight to the point and deal with the three points they had raised, an immediate revocation of the court interdict, no extra fees and postponement of exams.
  • When Wim did respond positively, it was really heartening, and just as heartening, in my view, was how Open Stellenbosch had managed to lead what turned out to be a mass demo which cut across race on the issue of fees, and the role it played in promoting and transforming transformation in the university.
  • The concerns which have been generated around the proposed increase in fees have, of course, been fuelled by the promise of a better life, in the post- apartheid era, so invested in access to higher education. Since inequalities are so marked and racialized in contemporary South Africa these concerns may particularly affect and be felt by black and coloured students, but as we saw in the struggle against increases in student fees   at Stellenbosch on Friday (and in protest movements at other formerly white universities) may also provide common points of interest and concern which traverse race.
  • The student protests at Stellenbosch have certainly raised concerns about the importance of making Stellenbosch a ‘public’ institution, accessible to all students across lines of race and class, as Faith so eloquently put it in the demo yesterday. But it has also, I would add, broadened the scope of transformation from measuring numbers of students defined in terms of the apartheid categories, to raisings questions about how students from different social and cultural backgrounds marked by race, class, gender, disability, sexuality, experience the university, and the extent to which they are able to cross these ‘borders’, as Jonathan Jansen refers to them, in their everyday lives. There’s a lot of rhetoric about ‘embracing diversity’ in the university and the importance of multilingualism etc. which seem to recreate apartheid in the university. A really important challenge, in my view, which faces and involves students and academics, is how to ‘embrace diversity’ in creative ways through protest action, teaching, and ‘mixed’ social and cultural activities which promote ‘border crossing’.
  • The student protests led by Open Stellenbosch have got us as academics to think about what we should be doing in a context where fee hikes were proposed, and, I would like to add, where many black and coloured students experience everyday forms of marginalisation at university whether this is tied to economic or cultural issues, as highlighted so graphically in the video Luister (Listen) which was produced and went viral several weeks ago.
  • Significantly at the first and only Open Stellenbosch ..senior management meeting held just after the production of Luister, Wim spoke about how shocked and concerned he was after watching it, as he would feel as a parent if a child of his was experiencing such abuse. What I think is important about this response is how revealing it is of how ignorant (and I use this in a factual not a pejorative sense) he is regarding the multiple examples of exclusion which black and coloured students experience daily at Stellenbosch. This, I suggest, emphasises the importance of not making ‘transformation’ a senior management responsibility alone, and encouraging instead participatory forms of teaching and research which engage with different and diverse students and staff and their accounts and experiences of Stellenbosch.
  • Speaking from the position of parent, as Wim did, may have been well intentioned, but parenting, as it is invoked in this context, can mean infantilising, a point which one of the members of Open Stellenbosch, in the meeting with Wim and his senior management team, was quick to raise. He wanted to be considered not as a child but a stakeholder in Stellenbosch. Talking about contestations around constructions and invocations of age/parenthood and childhood may seem a bit insignificant in the contemporary context marked by high profile and very specific forms of struggle in connection with fees and language policy etc. I want to argue, on the contrary, however, that they are highly significant when taken in conjunction with race, gender and class. Several weeks ago, members of Open Stellenbosch received threats of expulsion from senior management for undermining the ‘Stellenbosch brand’ by daring to protest about lack of access and support for black and coloured students during an employers’ recruitment fayre held at the university. Senior management’s anger towards the Open Stellenbosch protesters in this and in the campaign against fees (prior to Wim’s apology on Friday which Faith asked him to make to those demonstrating) were fuelled, I suggest, by a concerns that their authority, not just as senior managers but also as adults and perhaps too as senior white males, was being undermined. This made Faith’s public engagement with Wim yesterday a particularly powerful and moving spectacle.
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