Dear members of the SU community
With the COVID-19 lockdown nearing 100 days in South Africa, we increasingly realise that we find ourselves not only in a health crisis but at a turning point in history. The pandemic has brought inequities and other societal problems that we have been living with into sharp focus again.
As the world marks six months since first becoming aware of a new coronavirus, let us reflect on our journey thus far and look ahead at the future – guided by our vision of advancing knowledge in service of society.
At Stellenbosch University (SU) our classes and exams have been taking place online since contact tuition was suspended in March, we have by now nearly completed the first semester, and some of our students, postdoctoral fellows and staff are gradually returning to our campuses. As we innovate and adapt, we are also aware that our alumni and other stakeholders – both locally and abroad – have similarly been affected by the crisis.
We have become so accustomed to what is euphemistically called the “new normal" that we easily forget how big the shock was. We had to adapt very quickly, no matter how difficult, because the threat was so big – and that remains the case.
Worldwide, more than 521 000 people have died of COVID-19, including nearly 3 000 people in South Africa – and the numbers keep rising. By now, most of us know a family member, friend, colleague or someone in our community who has been directly affected. My deepest condolences to all who must live with the stress of this or have already lost a loved one.
We have to remain vigilant because there is no vaccine to protect us from the virus yet. COVID-19 is a highly contagious respiratory infection – hence the advice to maintain a safe distance from other people, to wear a mask, to wash your hands often, and to avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
I find it helpful to think of the situation as running a marathon, not a sprint. This not only goes for our fight against the pandemic, but also for other aspects of our lives affected by it – and that's almost all of it, not so?
We see human suffering all around us – unemployment, poverty, food shortages, meagre housing, schools without water, hospitals without the necessary equipment. We see how the divisions and injustices of our past continue to cast a shadow over the present, and threaten our future. And we again see that gender-based violence is a pandemic in its own right that also requires drastic intervention.
I pay tribute to all who have been reaching out to their fellow human beings during this time. This includes our students and staff who are working as volunteers. And our Division for Social Impact working with organisations and structures to provide assistance to vulnerable households and individuals.
Well done, also, to everyone for all the hard work in making the transition to emergency remote teaching, learning and assessment. We realise that there are challenges, ranging from poor internet access to system problems. But these issues are constantly receiving attention, and behind the scenes our dedicated staff are diligently working on solutions in an effort to leave no student behind. Everything possible is being done to continue with the academic project.
Our future depends on it – not just ours as a university, but the future of society as a whole. Because it is our task to equip students with the necessary knowledge and skills to make a positive contribution to humanity – in South Africa, but also on the rest of our continent and globally.
Another important part of our work as a university is to find solutions to persistent and multifaceted problems – such as the coronavirus crisis. So it is gratifying that our researchers are making innovative contributions in the fight against the pandemic and associated challenges.
The last six months have been an experience that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. We were yanked from our comfort zones and confronted with huge challenges – some new and frightening, others well known but equally urgent.
We had to learn new skills and start thinking and doing things differently. A lot is being said about working from home, but sometimes it feels as if one is living at work! Thinking back, I remember lows but also highs, tears and joys, difficult days but also good times. This was all preparation for the challenges that await us.
We now have the chance to reflect on what went wrong in the past and what needs to be corrected, to rediscover what is really important – to us as individuals and for society as a whole – and to redesign the future so that life becomes better for everyone.
Our race has only just begun. Take a sip of water, eat something, stretch a little, and let's get on with it. We can do it.
Keep well, and let's take good care of each other.
Prof Wim de Villiers
Rector and Vice-Chancellor