Cape Town - The student group that protested at the inauguration of Stellenbosch University’s new vice-chancellor this week remains unapologetic about raising uncomfortable issues that threaten to burst the institution’s “bubble of white privilege”.
“We want to make you uncomfortable,” said Open Stellenbosch spokesman Sikhulekile Duma, a day after 100 of the group’s members picketed the inauguration of Professor Wim de Villiers.
“Ours is an uncomfortable country to live in. This is a very uncomfortable town for a black person to live in.”
Duma said the group wanted to highlight how the university still catered mainly to a “white Afrikaans-speaking minority”.
One of their demands was for the university’s staff and student composition to be less white.
“Stellenbosch University is a bubble,” Duma said.
“A lot of students even happily tell you that they come here so that they can run away from the issues of the country. We want to change that.”
At his inauguration on Wednesday, De Villiers hit back at similar accusations, describing inclusivity as a “cornerstone” of the university’s policy.
In 1990, he said, the institution had just 762 black, coloured and Indian students.
Today, this had increased to 11 200, or nearly 38 percent of the student body.
Duma, 20, a second-year student in social dynamics, said the core of Open Stellenbosch was comprised of between 50 and 100 “fully engaged” members. Larger numbers of supporters attended its protests and talks.
Wednesday’s protest, which drew media attention nationally, immediately suggested parallels to Rhodes Must Fall (RMF), the student group at UCT that successfully campaigned for the removal of an 81-year-old statue of Cecil John Rhodes.
Duma, who resigned from the DA’s Stellenbosch student movement earlier this year, said the two groups, together with Transform Wits in Johannesburg, were working towards the same goal.
“(The goal) is not just the transformation of universities to cater to the majority of South Africans.
“We are also further fighting for the decolonisation of the universities.”
And while the two groups supported each other – RMF leader Ramabina Mahapa, for example, was at Thursday’s protest – they worked in different environments.
“We are not Rhodes Must Fall. We are Open Stellenbosch, and we are working in a different context,” Duma said.
In words similar to those used by Rhodes Must Fall in criticising the management of UCT, Duma said the mentality, syllabus and culture of Stellenbosch University was still “eurocentric”.
The university had denied this charge.
Earlier this month, the university said it was fully committed to diversity.
“The university firmly believes that a diversity of staff, students, knowledge, ideas and perspectives can enhance the quality of core academic activities even further,” it said in a statement.
While the Rhodes Must Fall group used the statue of Cecil John Rhodes as a rallying point for wider discussion about transformation, Duma said that Open Stellenbosch was focusing on the use of Afrikaans.
“The language policy is our first talking point, to talk about the wider problems that we have.
“Every student understands discrimination through language, because it is something they face in their classroom.”
In its information for new students, however, Stellenbosch University says “students are welcome to engage with lecturers in Afrikaans or English”, and may write tests in either language.
At his inauguration, De Villiers praised different languages on campus: “Stellenbosch is a multilingual South African university – one of the few in this category, which is sorely needed in a country with 11 official languages.”
But Duma claimed multilingualism wasn’t working.
He said the “T-option classes” – where both English Afrikaans are spoken, and classes with simultaneous translations – should be scrapped.
Instead, every subject should be offered in separate English and Afrikaans classes.
Asked to comment, Professor Arnold Schoon-winkel, Maties vice-rector of learning and teaching, said Stellenbosch had made “much progress over the last few years to open up the university to non-Afrikaans speakers”, and English now enjoyed the same status as Afrikaans.
In the Faculty of Engineering, all class modules were already offered in English and Afrikaans.
The Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences was set to reach this target next year.
Schoonwinkel added that the quality of translators in classes using simultaneous translation was high.
“Interpreters undergo intensive theoretical and practical training, and they have to work alongside an experienced interpreter for a year before they may work alone,” he said.