How does it feel to be a problem? — WEB Du Bois
Stellenbosch University’s exclusionary language policy has once again made it into the news. It’s an open secret that the university has been hostile towards students who question the policy and more importantly, the town is hostile to black people who live in the town. In my few encounters with the town I have never felt welcome and I’ve always been aware of the position of black bodies as the subservient — “help” — and well-hidden in the township. The apartheid hierarchy persists and flourishes in Stellenbosch.
Watching the documentary Luister I was struck by the clear articulation of the students and I was left wondering, why is it that black people are still in the position of explaining their pain? In spaces such as Stellenbosch and the university, black people are supposed to be grateful they have been granted the privilege of stepping into the hallowed halls of the university. So rather than make a noise about a language policy that threatens white supremacy, they are expected to quietly accept the status quo.
If there was any doubt about the harmful nature of white privilege, the documentary is clear evidence of such. There always seems to be a distrust of black people’s voices when we question white supremacy, that’s the nature of racism. In the documentary, one of the students points out the paranoia the university has displayed when black students gather. It seems swart gevaar did not die with apartheid. The documentary is also an example that black people must explain their pain over and over again and still be seen as the problem by those in power. The power wielded by those in leadership at the university shows us the danger of assuming that policies can truly change an institution. Policies often change little of the lived experience of those being oppressed because those in power undermine the very policies that have the potential to change the institutional culture.
In spite of the university’s attempts to offer translation for black students who do not speak and understand Afrikaans (as well as other transformation initiatives listed in a press release in response to the documentary), it seems these efforts are not enough. One of the students highlights that such attempts make him feel accommodated in the university “as though I were in France” and not in his own country that boasts 11 official languages. Another student similarly points out “I feel unwelcome in my own country”. This should not be the experience of young people in a democratic country with the dark history of apartheid. The university’s lack of worthy acknowledgment of the insufficient support it provides for black students demonstrates white arrogance at its best. There’s been very little shame from former white institutions like Stellenbosch University that played a role in supporting apartheid.
Everyone should watch the documentary and other young people could show their solidarity. Perhaps people should boycott the university. But I know this will not happen and perhaps it shouldn’t happen as this would hamper the opportunity for change. Unfortunately there are many white South Africans who support the university under the guise that Afrikaner culture needs to be protected and other false ideas about the role of a university such as Stellenbosch University in a post-apartheid South Africa.
There should be no place in South Africa for universities that make students feel unwelcome, that make students doubt their sense of self and where white privilege is protected. The defence from the university and other supporters that the language issue is not a race issue is misleading. As one of the students points out (and any sociolinguist will confirm) “language is not neutral”. The deliberate use of Afrikaans when there are students demanding otherwise is an issue of white supremacy policing the inclusion of black students.
Black people in a country with a history of apartheid should no longer be interacting with white people on their terms. But the experiences at Rhodes University, Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town show that black people are questioning this kind of interaction because assimilation has yielded no rewards. The unwritten rule that black people should keep the peace and forgive the transgressions of white privilege has not yielded the kind of transformation we hoped for. An example of this is the response from the management of Stellenbosch University, which seeks to undermine the experiences students share in the documentary. It’s a case of he said, she said rather than taking seriously the experiences of black students.
The students have a basic demand: “The university must look like us: South Africans.” This seems reasonable to me. They are asking that black skins should not be a social burden in Stellenbosch. In a country where the Constitution is about inclusion, equality, multi-culturalism and non-racialism, this is not an unreasonable ask and it should not be seen as such.