Prof Wim de Villiers: Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Stellenbosch University:
The Management of Stellenbosch University has thoroughly taken note of the "Luister" video that was distributed via social media.
The video touches on several important issues that affect students at SU. In fact, it is indeed sad that some of our students are still exposed to dehumanising experiences of racism and other forms of discrimination – in spite of the progress that we as a University has made. My management and I are not indifferent towards these issues as they are exactly the kind of challenges that are currently receiving pertinent attention on various levels and in high-level discussions with groups and individuals on campus.
However, to insinuate that the University is not serious about transformation, that it turns a blind eye to flagrant racism or that it in some sense advocates or maintain a culture of apartheid at the University, is simply not true and cannot go unchallenged.
In my mind there is no doubt that the University prioritises transformation in every sense of the word and we are very intentional in how we go about it. I am on record in stressing that the University is acutely aware of the need to accelerate and deepen the process of transformation. To this end we are working purposefully and in a structured and focused way.
I also need to be very upfront about the fact that the violation of human rights, victimisation in any sense, racism, classism, sexism and all other forms of discrimination, will not be tolerated – regardless of who is involved. Proof to this is termination of the service contract of a lecturer who sent a racist SMS to a student earlier this year.
In the Luister-video, the impression is created that I and by implication my management, do not listen to students or that we do not care about their lived experiences on campus. This borders on being disingenuous. On various platforms – for example in my inauguration speech and in communiques to staff and students – I have repeatedly invited the campus community to enter into discussions with myself and my management and to relate to me their experiences and concerns, thoughts and dreams. Fact is that I have received very positive responses and numerous of these very fruitful conversations have already occurred.
I have also invited the campus community to make written contributions with regard to transformation and other issues affecting our students. I have received several of these contributions this year, inter alia, from the Student Representative Council, individual members of the University community (staff, students and alumni), from our Listen, Live and Learn student housing communities, the Open Stellenbosch movement and other formal and informal campus organisations. All these inputs are seriously considered by the SU administration. On certain of these issues I have responded in full, while on others a large number of staff members are working around the clock to create workable solutions and to address the concerns and needs of our students and staff.
Furthermore, we don't only listen, we act concretely.
Just over the last few months, management has, to name a few, participated in a dignity march (on invitation by students); removed the Verwoerd plaque (an initiative that was started by students); created a bursary fund for descendants of forcibly removed inhabitants of Die Vlakte (a direct response to students calling for such a bursary); announced the establishment of a Transformation Office and Transformation Committee (not only as a part of a structured process of transformation but also after being requested so by student groups); made an investment of R70 million in the diversification of the University's staff corps (as a natural outflow of our commitment to greater inclusivity but also as a response to this being a national challenge highlighted by some of our students); and we created task teams that give priority attention to the practical implementation of the University's language policy.
I made strategic appointments to top management to directly and purposefully advance transformation. Management is also working towards the establishment of a Research Chair in Reconciliation and Transformation.
And only this past Saturday I participated in launching the Kayamandi Oral History Research Project in Kayamandi in Stellenbosch as part of our engagement with our community, where I have again confirmed our willingness in creating a better and fairer society.
These are only some of the initiatives this year that attest to the seriousness with which my management and I approach transformation. We are also working hard on various other institutional matters such as broadening access to the University and increasing the number of Black, Coloured and Indian students (currently making up one third of the institution's undergraduate student population with an objective to reach 50% by 2018/2019 – on postgraduate level it is already 50%) and improving student success. SU makes the biggest contribution to individual student funding, possibly the largest per capita of all South African higher education institutions.
(Click here for more information on these initiatives such as the recruitment bursaries.)
I have also continuously updated the campus community on the progress we are making via communiques to staff and students during the course of this year.
My management and I are also keenly aware of the fact that the institutional culture on campus is experienced by some of our students as unwelcoming. This is an issue that is receiving top priority at the University with very focused interventions aimed at creating a welcoming and inclusive campus culture. The University has, for example, instituted with great success the Listen, Live and Learn student communities on campus that already play a crucial role in ensuring that the University is becoming home to all. The LLL programme is not an isolated initiative either, with its principles applying throughout student housing. Physical and organisational structures such as new residential units, clusters and hubs have been created to facilitate change in the campus culture – advanced by a progressive residence placement policy.
The effect this ethos had on the university and its students is profound. As I have pointed out in a recent letter to staff and students: There is a clear delineation of unacceptable welcoming practices at the University and respect for human rights, intolerance of displays of power and voluntary participation have become the guiding motif. The University is acting sternly against students and student leaders who do not adhere to the University's values. In addition physical and organisational structures such as new residential units, clusters and hubs have been created to facilitate change in the campus culture – advanced by a very progressive residence placement policy.
And importantly: The progressive commitment and actions of the University, its staff and its students are sometimes negatively influenced by a few individuals who act in an insensitive and highly unacceptable manner towards others , even when off campus and in their private capacities. These incidents in no way represent the majority of SU students or staff members who understand and appreciate our diversity and contribute constructively to the South African society. Neither can the actions or words of these individuals be construed as the official stance or culture of the institution. SU sees its role as an important change agent by creating an environment in which students and staff from all backgrounds can flourish. It is therefore regrettable that reprehensible incidents can obscure years' of positive work towards redress and development.
I also need to add that as far as the video is concerned, there are certain misrepresentations that must be pointed out.
- One such issue is that the University takes disciplinary action against students who participate in protests. This is not the case. The University acknowledged in various communication pieces this year the right of students to take part in protest action, provided that it takes place within the rules and guidelines applicable to the entire campus community; that academic and administrative activities are not disrupted; that the rights of fellow students to study are not infringed upon; and that no risks are created. Actions such as the disruption of a lecture and the disruption of a careers fair in July are completely unacceptable and the University has an obligation to act against the guilty parties in these cases.
- The video also creates the impression that Elsenburg is part of Stellenbosch University. This is not true since Elsenburg resorts under the Department of Agriculture in the Western Cape.
- The video refers to certain incidents in town. The University is keenly aware of the fact that some of our students don't feel welcome in certain parts of the town and that they have experiences of social discrimination and exclusion. This is sadly still reflective of broader South African society. Although the University cannot be hold accountable for what happens in pubs and elsewhere in town, the University has nevertheless on many occasions engaged with the South African Police Force, the Municipality and even pub owners on this very particular issue. Students who feel that they are the victims of racial prejudice or that their human rights have been infringed, should report this to the authorities and to the university.
The Management of Stellenbosch University remains committed to open discussions with all stakeholders and to transformation.
We are on an exciting journey of profound transformation and innovation and we are thankful for what we have achieved, and excited about what the University can be. In our Strategic Framework of 2000 we had acknowledged the contribution of Stellenbosch University to the wrongs of the apartheid past (and this apology has since been reiterated publicly by all three the consecutive Vice-Chancellors including myself), and we have committed ourselves to a process of restitution and transformation. This commitment has been confirmed in the Institutional Intent and Strategy of 2013. We are deeply committed to this process. We express appreciation to all stakeholders and role players, amongst others students and staff, alumni and various partners of the university who work hard to make renewal and transformation a reality.(This is an updated version of a media statement that was released on Friday 21 August. Read the original statement here.)