A general view of the University of Stellenbosch on June 15, 2021. (Photo by Gallo Images/ER Lombard)
For the current culture of students urinating on other people’s belongings to be dismantled at Stellenbosch University, there would have to be a complete deconstruction of the institution itself, he writes. Ijeoma Opara.
The title of this article alone makes me regret writing it in the first place. Stellenbosch hates nothing more than bad press, and this just adds to it. But vital pieces need to be included when looking at why Stellenbosch and the university have stayed the same. We need to go beyond the arguments for the origins of apartheid and delve into what it means to consider certain acts as racist.
As of 2022, there have been three (known) incidents of urination at Stellenbosch University. We are seeing a simplification of the same story but with different results, where the institution has had a healthy history of similar stories: drunken students, miscommunication, whistleblowing, etc.
To dismantle the current culture at Stellenbosch University, there would need to be a complete deconstruction of the institution itself. But since this cannot happen, what has happened instead are incremental acts of neoliberal reparation; attempts to change the demographics of staff and/or students, renaming of buildings, including isiXhosa as an addition on official documents, suspensions and expulsions, referendums, commissions of inquiry, and reports.
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More recently, the Khampepe Independent Commission Report has stated what many already knew to be true. Part of why these attempts at redress can only go so far is because the sovereignty of the university’s residents can be considered the last bastion of Afrikanerdom. This was recognized.
The legacy of the Stellenbosch residence halls cannot be forgotten along with the universities. We know that the creators of apartheid not only studied in Stellenbosch, but also lived in these residences. Informal spaces of bonding, brotherhood, and deep fraternal cultural practices were as integral as the official policies and laws that segregated South Africa. Finding holiness and connection within these silos of brotherhood was (and still is) important in preserving the integrity and culture of Afrikaner identity as children transition from awkward early years into youth. So what does this tell us about the type of men (and women, because there have also been racist incidents in women’s residences) who are being trained at the institution? At the most recent convocation of Stellenbosch University alumni, the president, Adv JC Heunis, called for an “Afrikaans Spring”, hinting at some kind of pseudo-radical re-revolution. Why do Afrikaans feel like they are under attack? This unoriginal victimization tactic is a false reality regarding the state of not only Afrikaner identity but also their place in South African society.
South African public discourse on racism is often limited to ‘he said/she said’ rhetoric. This person did this, which is not good because he is racist. I will not insult the victims of these incidents by saying that what they experienced were not racist acts of degradation. Because they certainly are. However, the responsibility lies not only with the perpetrator, but also with institutional practices designed to continue to treat systemic dysfunctions as outlier and unique “events”. I don’t know how many more Rooiplein protests it will take for the university to acknowledge its dark past. We can’t talk about the problems, labeling things right so that year-end goals and results can be met.
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Creating tangible transformation requires taking the steps that others fear to take: leading with authenticity and integrity. But unfortunately, until there is a tangible incentive to invest in radical transformative practices, we will continue to find this foolish little town in the news for racist incidents for years to come. That is not a threat by any means but a promise. The university must decide which side of history it wants to be on without trying to appease all sides. Centralist politicking is often concerned with survival, so there can never be outright condemnation of the institution’s culture. Therefore, for the change to take place, the university must face an unknown, where it has no choice but to head in the direction of good.
People often cross-question, so what is the ‘real’ solution? How do we resolve the issue of racism? At this point I would like to remind us of Toni Morrison’s infamous quote about racism:
The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It prevents you from doing your job. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being… None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.
The idea that an article like this still needs to be written for people to understand the basics is mundane. As someone who was heavily involved in Open Stellenbosch during my undergraduate years, it would be a gross understatement to say that this topic is exhausting. There are more important things I want to write about besides the urination activities of entitled white youth and the broader implications for our understanding of racism in South Africa.
But the starting point is knowing where we are having these conversations. How we understand racism, its function, and why it is more prevalent than we think are some questions to consider. Why do we see an act of dehumanization as a separate and quantifiable event rather than a recurring symptom of the white imagination in South Africa? And if we understand it as a symptom of the white imagination, how does the University of Stellenbosch deal with being the historical epicenter of the construction of such imaginations?
These questions often make most South Africans viscerally uncomfortable or outright angry with counter-arguments that amount to hate speech rhetoric, creating binaries of reverse accusations of racism. But if they are not answered, we will continue to have the same conversations over and over again, with more experts weighing in on a complex topic that just needs a simple solution. Calling out racism beyond paragraphs requires actionable dedication to dismantling the things that define Stellenbosch for what it is. And that’s the scariest part that nobody wants to address.
– Ijeoma Opara is currently a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Stellenbosch through the SARChi Chair in Gender Politics. Her project investigates the construction of blackPost-feminist femme identity in South Africa through the lens of Slay Queen culture.
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