What’s the matter with … Stellenbosch University

Legacies of colonialism and apartheid are etched into social dynamics of the town in the way its inhabitants occupy public space. The same goes for the university.

Image: Greer Valley.

One afternoon, during my final year of high school, I first found myself at Stellenbosch University (also known as University of Stellenbosch) on a tour of potential universities in the Western Cape, South Africa’s south-western province. Walking around the various buildings on campus and after a quick stopover in the Neelsie, the university’s mall, I hesitated at the thought of studying there–besides, they didn’t offer what I thought I wanted to do for the rest of my life at the time. So I spent my undergraduate years at the University of Cape Town instead. However, a decade-and-a-bit and some career adjustments later, I am back at Stellenbosch University as a Masters student in the Visual Art department.

In line with the typical Apartheid urban planning practices of many South African towns and cities, Stellenbosch consists of a town center reserved for “white” people during Apartheid by the Group Areas Act (1950) surrounded by spatially disconnected and racially segregated suburbs and townships. In Stellenbosch, the Group Areas Act was implemented through forced removals in thriving neighborhoods like Die Vlakte (English: The Flats) in the center of town, where “black” and “coloured” people lived. The land in Die Vlakte was subsequently acquired by Stellenbosch University after the communities who lived there were evicted and displaced to three townships Kayamandi (for black Africans only), Cloetesville (for coloureds only) and Idas Valley (also for coloureds only) on the town’s margins.

Legacies of colonialism and apartheid are etched into social dynamics of the town in the way its inhabitants occupy public space – real and imagined boundaries are still constructed according to race and class. Spending a significant amount of time there has reminded me that the architecture of a place, both in the physical and social sense, is always deeply embedded in relationships of power.

The ‘dop’ (tot) system, where farm laborers were paid in alcohol in return for their labor led to generational alcoholism and left visible marks on the town’s psyche. Stellenbosch could be viewed as a microcosm of contemporary power relationships among race groups in South Africa – a wealthy “white” minority with access to cultural capital, a “black” elite and growing yet small middle class and disenfranchised poor “black” majority. In a discussion on poverty and inequality in Stellenbosch, the sociologist, Joachim Ewert suggests that between 1996 and 2009 (roughly coinciding with the first decade and a half of of democratic rule) poverty in Stellenbosch increased within all race groups, except the “white” population, and that poverty in Stellenbosch may be greater when compared to other towns of similar size.

In the ten years since my first visit, the university seems to have made some transformative strides in terms of race representation on the surface. That said, 2013 enrollment statistics show that “white” students make up just over 65% of the student population in a town where the overall “white” population is 18,5%. University projects like the HOPE project, an initiative by the late University Vice-Chancellor, Russel Botman, attempts to address issues of transformation at SU and has identified several core focus areas intended to facilitate institutional redress.

However, recent events in Stellenbosch show that there is room for robust dialogue around race and transformation at the university. These include, most notably: the university’s failure to act against two white students photographed in blackface at a party in September. Then there’s the eugenics kit belonging to a SU scientist close to Adolf Hitler and discovered by researchers in the university’s Anthropology department in 2013 (the university spun it as the basis for a new “innovative” project about the find). Finally, there’s the death of Russell Botman, the university’s first black president, in 2014.


Professor Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State and one of a new generation of black university presidents, among others have hinted at the difficulties and pressures surrounding Botman’s tenure (which may have led to his death) and has publicly called on those who contributed to these pressures for “introspection and acknowledgement of their contribution to the immense difficulties the rector had to absorb as he tried to transform this rock-solid cultural monolith.”

It’s with that background that recently, from 29 September to 3 October, the university held its annual “Diversity week” celebrations, a week-long event organized by SU’s Centre for Inclusivity with the intention to “reflect the University’s view that a variety of people and ideas is an asset for a 21st-century higher-education institution”. The program included a lineup of local comedians and celebrities and a series of discussions called “Critical Hour” on various topics affecting the university, like “Women in Leadership – Must Have or Nice to have?”

The event was opened with a flag bearing ceremony supposedly representing multicultural, Pan-African unity and inclusivity. This was followed by Vicky Sampson’s opening performances of “African Dream” (a song favored by sports codes like rugby and cricket, historically associated with whiteness) and a cover of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston’s “When you believe”– a confusing choice for the mostly millennial audience. The event logo and slogan “Glocal is Lekker” (Glocal is Cool) seems to suggest that by embracing a global outlook, the university is aspiring to position itself as a “world-class” tertiary institution and cultivate perceptions of itself as multi-cultural and progressive. (This seems to be a strategy of most South African universities; unfortunately, becoming “world class” often excludes coming to terms with racial and class inequalities inherited from Apartheid)

Browsing through Diversity Week’s twitter feed, and confronted with video-tweets reminiscent of post-1994 Mandela-era rainbowism, I wondered aloud whether university-sanctioned efforts at celebrating “diversity” are premature in place where non-Afrikaans speaking students are still excluded through language (While it is the official language policy of the university to have a dual-lingual approach to tuition i.e. Afrikaans and English, Afrikaans is often the preferred language of lecturers in class) or subjected to forms of institutional and physical violence. For example, stories of incidents involving violent racist insults are commonplace against black students. The university administration proves slow to react. Then there’s the commemorative bronze plaque to H.F Verwoerd, one of the founders of Apartheid and prime minister of South Africa from 1958 to 1966 which adorns the foyer of the Accounting and Statistics building on SU’s main campus.

Although advertised as somewhat subversive of the prevailing ethos on campus, there was nothing transgressive about “Diversity Week” and many of the events I went to were poorly attended. It seemed like little more than a week-long marketing opportunity for the university and a diversion from the real challenges facing the institution. A friend remarked that there were proportionately more photographers to students at the opening ceremony looking for opportunities to capture the “diversity” of the institution. To cultivate a sense of gees or institutional spirit among students seems very important to the culture of this University. Historically, this institutional spirit played an important part in cultivating Afrikaner nationalist identity in building institutions like the Broederbond (the secretive organization which controlled the National Party) and affirmed Stellenbosch’s position as the cultural seat of Afrikaner Nationalism for much of the 20th century.

Given the context of the socially engineered polarization of the town, how can we begin to facilitate a spirit of inclusivity? The Stellenbosch literary Project (SLiP) supported by SU’s English department is a student-led initiative trying to negotiate these challenges in addressing topical issues of inclusivity, inequality and race in Stellenbosch through poetry.

A regular at their InZync poetry event at AmaZink, a bar/restaurant in Kayamandi and one of the few social settings I feel comfortable in in town, I was surprised that they weren’t included on the “Diversity Week” bill. (AmaZink, ironically, was also the setting for a party where two white male students dressed up in blackface as the Williams sisters recently.)

Pieter Odendaal, one of the founders and project manager of SLiP says the idea behind the project was to create an inclusive space where poets performing different styles of poetry, from paper poets to spaza rap could get together to meet and perform their work. SLiP has 3 main projects: InZync Poetry sessions, The INKcredibles—a weekly youth poetry workshop—and an online literary blog, slipnet.co.za.


InZync sessions happen monthly and probably attract the most diverse audience in Stellenbosch. Each session is an exhilarating mix of regular student acts with visiting poets like Cape Town poet/musician Jitsvinger and young poets from the INKcredibles poetry workshops. It has become a space where participants can become entangled in one another’s narratives and perspectives, through addressing the big questions relevant to our time and place like identity, transformation, economic freedom and also the shared human experiences that connect us regardless of race or socio-economic background.

It was important for SLiP to situate the project in Kayamandi, as opposed to a space like the university auditorium to connect students at SU to the wider Stellenbosch community. Crossing boundaries remains a core value of the project. Events are free, which allow anyone to enter the poetry session at AmaZink and shuttles transport students from SU to Kayamandi and vice versa when sessions are held at the university or at Cafe Art in town. Adrian VanWyk, student, poet and Events manager for SLiP adds that while they have been successful in bringing students to Kayamandi, they have been less successful in attracting people from neighbouring Cloetesville. “Black” and “coloured” communities of Stellenbosch remain socially polarized and physically divided by a road – another Apartheid hangover, certainly not unique to Stellenbosch, but hyper visible in a town of this size.

SLiP fulfills an important role in building a spirit of inclusion in a context where “black” students often talk about feeling unwelcome and where they are often excluded outright from entering the town’s bars and clubs. I question whether “Diversity Week” in its current neatly-branded form is really addressing and challenging issues of race, homophobia and sexism at this institution. Transformation is a messy process which may need to involve confrontation and contestation that can’t be limited to a single event for 5 days of the year.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.