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#Luister: Black skin a burden in Stellenbosch

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.

Screengrab of the Luister video.
Screengrab of the Luister video.

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.



  1. lesgp lesgp 31 August 2015

    I watched the entire documentary. I wish I could say that I was disgusted, and feel offended etcetera, but the truth is that we are always in this situation as Black people in ZA. We are told from a very young age to not make too much noise, just in case it may offend the master. In School as it is in Varsity, as it is in the work place, and even our own businesses, the situation is the same. We are expected to be polite and submissive, and in return we MAY be accommodated, on the whims of the master.

    I wish those young adults well in their endeavour.

  2. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 31 August 2015

    I think we should change our entire constitution to make English the ONLY official language. I was hoping that new technology would allow the education to be Mother Tongue from start to end, but it seems that is not what people want. Rumours of how some Xhosa intellectuals were designing methods to be able to give university level instruction in isiXhosa, filled my heart with joy – now I realise how naive I really was.

    Unfortunately, that means that we need to do away with ANY language, other than English, in schools. This system where you can write your Matric in Afrikaans, but have to do tertiary in English, won’t work. If we ever get into the 21st century and have the ability to write exams in Sotho or Zulu, we will have nothing but a riot at every tertiary institution in the entire country.

    Ironically, I know of more non-white students who will lose out by not being allowed to learn in Afrikaans than white students. There are many black and colourd schools who will be best advised to change over to English if they ever want their students to be able to do tertiary.

  3. Heraklit Heraklit 31 August 2015

    I have got 2 comments:
    1. We should interact on mutual terms, not on yours or mine in isolation.
    2. After watching part of the documentary, I thought it would perhaps be a worthwhile exercise to demand from every lecturer in Stellenbosch to teach in English. You cannot demand from a diverse background audience that they’d be fluent in one particular language (in particular if it is actually a niche language, as important as it may seem for those who speak it) – or even ridicule them for not being fluent in it – and not be able to convey the same quality of lecture in another language, i.e. in English.

  4. Bludlust Bludlust 31 August 2015

    From my perspective – and within this context, anything that existed ‘pre ’94’ should be subject to a homogenisation and integration process where certain decisions are enforced. Especially where it involves the enforced or enshrined use of the ‘Oppressor’s’ language and by default, culture. I must admit that I endured discrimination and enforced Afrikaans (lingo and culture) myself, so my affection for it is somewhat tarnished – and I am a white boy!

    All instruction at these pre existing Institutions should henceforth be in English. If you can’t speak the (more) ‘common language’ of the Freed South Africa, then you have to simply learn it if you want to attend a FREED institution. One can still uphold the long traditions and ethos of such an institution, without clinging to a flawed history (or have it cling to you!).

    Anything that is founded thereafter, starts with a clean slate, and can (constitutionally-speaking) make the outright claim of being an “Afrikaans’ or ‘Zulu’ or ‘Swahili’ University without any fear of a racist connotation. If you want to be instructed in any particular ‘exclusive’ language, you are most welcome to pay the (huge) fees of a purely private and absolutely independent organisation. Without recrimination by the ‘have nots’. It will obviously be funded by those that wish to maintain the ‘purity’ of their culture, SO…
    Don’t expect a cent of my tax contributions!

  5. Jabulani Johnson Jabulani Johnson 31 August 2015

    “black students who do not speak and understand Afrikaans ”

    What about the white ones? The English ones? Most seem to manage fine without whining. Your prejudice is showing.

    What about compulsory Zulu at UKZN?

    And all this “white privilege” this and “white privilege” that? Can I have a free Nkandla-type place please.

  6. Dick Beaumont Dick Beaumont 31 August 2015

    You are, and should feel, priviledged to go to a university. Strictly, in any society there is only a small percentage of the population that do indeed get a tertiary education. No society could possibly accomodate the graduates, if 30% or even 20% of the population went to university. Most societies have places for the top 10% of the population – so to get into a university you are priviledged. Do NOT abuse it, or else may I suggest that you get out and let some other worthy person enjoy the priviledge.
    Basically education, especially tertiary education, is a priviledge and not a right.

    Do look up what Thomas Sowell from the USA has to say about these matters.

  7. African Knight African Knight 1 September 2015

    Why do Black people want to go an Afrikaans University? I am English speaker and I would have no interest in going to University that doesn’t provide for my needs. Do Black people have no faith in black Universities?

  8. 1Zoo1 1Zoo1 1 September 2015

    So you apply for a University that makes a point of being an Afrikaans medium University?

    Once you’ve applied, you find you cannot understand Afrikaans well enough.

    Now its the University’s problem?

    No it is not. You are the one who applied to study in a language you battle to understand. Your options are – learn the language or leave.

    If you’re not willing to learn the language then leave. Would you apply to study in Paris, France and then protest that the lessons are in French not English?

    What about all those thousands of South Africans of all races whose mother-tongue is Afrikaans? Didn’t think about them did you?

  9. Anton Pillay Anton Pillay 1 September 2015

    I think thats just normal decent behaviour in any progressive society…do not make alot of noise and be polite wherever you go.

  10. LifeisBeutiful LifeisBeutiful 1 September 2015

    At the writer:

    As somebody who actually lives in Stellenbosch. I walked to buy lunch at Eikestad Mall today and all I saw was a multitude of people running their errands – black, white, coloured, Indian, etc. Nobody being hostile, nobody not being served at a counter, everybody queuing at the ATM, everybody just wanting to get on with life and their business in the allocated lunch hour. Were they hugging each other in the streets? No – does not mean they were rude or racist either. They were just people. I would therefore dearly like to know more detail about your subservient encounters with the town, given as you make such sweeping statements aimed at portraying a whole town as a racist community.

    Further re your township comment. Stellenbosch is a small town with limited available property. For some reason it has become very popular with super wealthy individuals (local & foreign) who will pay exorbitant prices for real estate. As a result the rest of us mere mortals can’t afford to buy it. Black & white alike. It is why we live on the fringes. Is this racist – nope – just economics and a fact of life. At least their property taxes help pay for the municipal services the rest of us enjoy.

    You are privileged to be at Varsity and I am not advocating a “be seen and not heard” attitude. However I do advocate some introspection and consideration of all relevant factors when you address a public forum.

  11. Willem De Jager Willem De Jager 1 September 2015

    Why don’t they also make a documentary about how accommodating the likes of UCT or Wits or Limpopo are towards those preferring to study there in Afrikaans?

    In fact, why can’t we also see documentaries ridiculing the existence of mostly Danish or mostly Russian or mostly Arabic universities, SINCE ENGLISH IS THE GLOBAL LANGUAGE after all, get it?

    How absurd it is, of those for whom Afrikaans is their native language, to feel passionate about the preservation of Afrikaans at the oldest Afrikaans university in the world!

    This can be nothing but racism, as you have irrefutably proven in your research piece. Out with Afrikaans! Out with Afrikaaaaner! Amandla!

    (Don’t worry if you are a native English speaker; no one will question your language-privilege…you are quite right to expect to be be served in English)

  12. Willem De Jager Willem De Jager 2 September 2015

    Let us be reasonable yes: Tell me where in the South African context a student or academic with a passion for the preservation of Afrikaans at academic level will NOT be tarred with the same brush that this author treats the Stellenbosch University and indeed the entire community with? Which doesn’t leave me with much of a choice but to resist the kind of change that will inevitably remove my language from the very institutions that made it into an academic language. I have no choice but to resist this kind of emotive transformation climate that is not interested in compromise but only in dominance -demographics leaves no other alternative.

    The propaganda only allows for two extremes: Either you’re a pro-transformation, pro-South African demographics, pro-English medium activist or you’re an Afrikaner racist. I am neither. This piece doesn’t allow for a nuanced debate. It doesn’t want to create spaces where people can enjoy being who they are -for everybody. It only wants Stellenbosch to stop being Afrikaans because it equates its Afrikaans ethos with apartheid. It is not interested in the fact that it had been a liberal Afrikaans medium institution long before apartheid was even conceived. It does not allow for a liberal Afrikaans environment to exist.

    It misses the fact that the majority of the people in the world do NOT speak English either as a first or second language and it fails to acknowledge the role English has played in the colonisation and segregation of peoples all over the world. But that is their choice. It spectacularly misses the fact that insisting on English medium tuition IS “interacting with white people on their terms” on a global level. Ironically she herself states “language is not neutral”.

    Tell me, what is it that prevents a prestigious, globally accredited Xhosa- or Zulu medium institution of higher learning from arising? How will colonising the last Afrikaans university in your second language, English, make you great?

  13. solitoliquido solitoliquido 3 September 2015

    There are no black or white universities in South Africa. Any South African can study at any state funded tertiary institution of their choice. All state funded institutions have an obligation to be accessible to all South Africans; apartheid is gone…well, more or less!

  14. Butterflyinlingo Butterflyinlingo 3 September 2015

    A policy that supports exclusion is the primary problem. Have you ever heard of the right to be treated as equals no? This is a direct form of segregation, everyone can acknowledge that we are different and speak different languages, those differences can only be understood through a universal language- English.

  15. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 3 September 2015

    so you think that different is unequal?

  16. Voldemort Rupert Voldemort Rupert 4 September 2015

    There are so many english medium universities. There are also universities that specifically cater for other languages. Are afrikaners not also entitled to practice their culture? Considering how the majority of them are not even white i do not see how this is a race issue. I grew up white english and privileged. The fact that i took a stand against apartheid does not change that fact but what i have witnessed is that afrikaans people are far more empathetic to the rural african population than the english. Here in qwaqwa the sotho people’s culture is so similar to those of the afrikaans people. Unlike english, afrikaans is unique to south africa – you do not find it anywhere else, and although i hated the racist apartheid regime it was NOT an afrikaans invention and was not supported unanimously by afrikaners. I feel that afrikaans culture is a part of our heritage just as is zulu, sotho, xhosa etc and i cherish it as such.
    In spite of our freedom, english is still the language of oppression all over the world. Why hanker after it when england herself still considers our land to be her personal property.

  17. Butterflyinlingo Butterflyinlingo 4 September 2015

    When I speak about being treated equally I’m referring to the right every south african has to be educated without implicit barriers i.e language

  18. lesgp lesgp 7 September 2015

    I hope you meant that tongue in cheek. I’m sure were adult enough to know what I was referring to when I wrote the above.

    Otherwise it shows the very arrogant, paternalistic, superiority assumed to be vested in one’s pale skin pigmentation, that I was thinking about when I wrote the above. You don’t set the agenda! Oh, and that would be both you, and the horse you came on!!!

  19. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 7 September 2015

    In this day and age, why would language be a barrier to education? If anything, I would say that advocating for Mother Tongue for ALL education would be removing any barrier to education or knowledge. Not everyone is able to speak every language.

  20. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 7 September 2015

    No, it is standard. You are privileged enough to be accepted into a university or get a job so you keep your head down, work hard and you don’t make waves. That is how we are all taught

  21. Butterflyinlingo Butterflyinlingo 8 September 2015

    Well I assume you have read the article and understand what ‘Luister’ has contextualized? whether you want to refer to it as barriers or exclusion, it is not a matter of ‘questioning’ whether it is an issue of today..this documentary has shed light on these experiences so I am not sure why you’re under the impression that exclusion is not being enforced through inflexible language courses and options. It is widely understood and known that we speak different languages, that is nothing new. English is a medium that allows anybody,
    anywhere to communicate and be understood with one voice, it is really that simple. Yes it is not everyone’s mother tongue but it is a useful tool to have in ‘this day and age’.

  22. Voldemort Rupert Voldemort Rupert 11 September 2015

    So exactly – these professors have knowledge that we want our children to have. If the prof now has to translate it into 10 other languages a lot of the knowledge will be lost. If we want our kids to learn from someone who knows the subject well then our kids must learn that prof’s language. Our kids can then teach the next generation in our own language.

  23. Willem De Jager Willem De Jager 11 September 2015

    “areas” (plural) has no apostrophe.

    FYI I am quite fond of the English language and I know no Afrikaner who is unfamiliar with the vernacular. I just find it ironic that the ‘language of the oppressor’ (Afrikaans, of course) should be replaced with the language of a global coloniser, -in the name of freedom! Having said that, Afrikaans remains my mother tongue and my first priority. I am not forcing it on anyone. Also the US has taken great steps to accommodate those who rely on English as a medium of instruction.

    But more than ironic, I find it deliberately harmful that Afrikaans is being equated with ‘apartheid culture’ because the willful confusion of the two issues will clearly pave the way for getting rid of the language altogether.

    The US has progressively adapted its language policy in favour of English and also introduced Xhosa. I also understand the issues with the current translation setup. But when an institution that has been adapting and changing, is attacked with emotive slogans such as ‘apartheid culture’ (when they are purportedly addressing language issues, as you say) and one-sided anecdotal “evidence” such as ‘Luister’, then there is an agenda. The fact that the vulnerability of Afrikaans within the current national academic setup is never even considered, further confirms that this is a covert attack on Afrikaans itself – a bit like your dismissive summary on Afrikaners in general. Or am I wrong -are there really no ill feelings towards Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at US?

    Regarding your derogatory lesson about the origin of the Afrikaner, seeing as the vast majority of all people on earth marry within their own ethnic groups when they are free to marry anyone from any ethnicity, I guess the entire world is made up of racists, whether de facto or officially. And yes, I still love camping.

    Regarding my ‘rally against’ English, if you don’t mind expanding on the origin of those squatter camps around the mining areas, who benefited the most from those enterprises? There must be something of a hint in a name like Anglo American, no?

    In English for your perusal:

  24. lesgp lesgp 14 September 2015

    Tjo, that was a mouth full.

    Not sure whether marrying within ones specific culture makes one a racist. I suppose its a preference. Less hurdles to brook.
    You keep saying US. What do you mean by this? United States?
    The lesson on Afrikaner was not meant to be derogatory. Its factual, unless you can show a different understanding. Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t illigitimise the argument.
    Your priorities shouldn’t override the constitution of this country, or even the rights of those with which you share this country. Especially if economically we assume that there are already scarce resources.

    Actually, the argument I’ve seen placed on record is that the original “Dutch farmers” lost the plot for many reasons, amongst others being the manner in which estates were distributed. This meant that over time the farms became smaller and smaller, and at some point became unsustainable. This then forced many to move to the cities. Add to that argument, British colonial expansion, and you have a recipe for a people without culture and or a point of reference, especially as this was not a homogenous grouping of people. This was what lead the thinkers of that period in the direction of creating a culture for these people. As we are aware, culture is taught through language, thus making ones language a basis for their understanding of their culture. I stand corrected but, that is more or less how I understood it.

  25. lesgp lesgp 14 September 2015

    Thats why we say teacher in English.

  26. Willem De Jager Willem De Jager 14 September 2015

    US – University of Stellenbosch, the point of discussion -remember?

    Not sure where you are heading with the story on how Afrikaans and the Afrikaner came about, none of that matters to me. It’s unclear to me what you are trying to prove with your “argument”, as you put it. Is it that because Afrikaans is a new language that those for whom it is a native language, central to their identity, should give it up? Was there a deadline after which no new languages would be accepted by some universal authority on languages? My angle on the origin of Afrikaans/ the Afrikaner is slightly different to yours but I am sure your version of how your own culture came about will differ from mine. I will share mine with you if you really want. I will not gain anything from telling you how fake, fabricated or backwards your culture is, so I have no desire to do so. I am sure in our own understandings of our respective cultures we both focus on the good therein. Essentially it doesn’t make a difference to me whether I am a direct descendant of William of Orange or of Sara Baartman because here I am – South African, Afrikaans and part of this pluralistic society. I won’t deny you your identity within this diverse quilt work of cultures, please don’t deny me mine. We don’t have to force a new homogeneity in order to get along, We should celebrate who we are and respect one another. I don’t see lectures in your language of choice as a threat, unless of course the aim is to eventually force my language out completely. Is it?

  27. Rusty Bedsprings Rusty Bedsprings 15 September 2015

    If the university had to offer all courses in all languages, they would multiply their costs by 11 at least, but most likely more because of extended facilities, additional staff, etc.

    Could you afford this?

  28. lesgp lesgp 15 September 2015

    Who’s children should be excluded on the basis of language from this knowledge? Thats Apartheid aka Separate Development. Remember the concept?

  29. Voldemort Rupert Voldemort Rupert 16 September 2015

    Nobody’s children should be excluded. Our children should all learn 11 languages at school. Seriously! I had the benefit of a privileged education in a public school but after matriculating (with a university exemption) I still couldn’t speak any of the most commonly spoken south african languages. I considered myself robbed of a proper education.
    These days our kids mostly don’t even learn english or mathematics – they are seriously being robbed.

    All I’m saying is that while the people who have the knowledge are afrikaans/english speaking their students need to be well versed in the relevant professors language and then they can transmit that info to the next generation in our own languages.

  30. lesgp lesgp 14 January 2016

    I believe that my angle was that language is important for the passing on of what many believe to be their culture. Everything we see and learn, we contextualise through the use of our understanding of the world, which would be language based.

    So asking someone to participate on your terms, sets that person up for failure. Because we are a country with so many races, cultures and languages, perhaps it would be better to meet half way. That is meet at English.

    This discussion is probably moot at this point. Feesarefalling….

  31. lesgp lesgp 14 January 2016

    Thank you for the Engrish lesson.

    That is indeed ironic, but then again nowhere else but here is Afrikaans even used as a language. Consequently, it’ll probably die a natural death all of its own, like most other languages on earth spoken by minority groupings. After all the Chinese and Indians are the populations with the highest amount of people on the planet.

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