Stellenbosch University (SU) has rolled out the structures that will focus on the recommendations of the Khampepe Commission. Our series of interviews with key SU staff steering the Committee for the Institutional Response to the Commission's Recommendations (CIRCoRe) process sheds light on the work of the workstreams shaping the future of the University. In this interview, Prof Kopano Ratele shares insights into a vision for a transformed SU.
Prof Ratele is an internationally acclaimed psychologist and scholar in the Department of Psychology at SU. He leads the CIRCoRe workstream responsible for aligning the University's institutional culture with a democratic human rights ethos. Ratele's work focuses on two areas, namely decolonial and African psychology, and boys, men and masculinities at the intersection with violence, race, sexuality and culture. He is a regular contributor to media on matters related to boys, men and masculinity, violence and fatherhood. He served as a member of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation in South African Universities and currently serves on the Department of Higher Education and Training's (DHET) Future Professors Programme.
You joined Stellenbosch University in 2021. What attracted you to the University?
A few years before I arrived, there was an infamous article about coloured women's intellectual ability. I was part of a group external to SU that campaigned for that article to be retracted. We put together a petition and in a short space of time, 10 000 signatures were gathered around the world. This was unheard of. The article was retracted within a month. It was amazing. That was part of the history that brought me into this process.
The second reason is that I wanted to go back to teaching. I had a comfortable job as a director of a research unit and working as a research professor. But, after a while, I thought I wanted to go back and be with undergraduate students, not only postgraduates. I elected to come here because Stellenbosch still had issues around, among the many, racism and sexism, and of course, the language question.
What motivated you to become involved in the CIRCoRe process?
I think I was approached because of my expertise – in my academic and media work I write quite a bit about race and racism. I also write about men and boys. Masculinity is a big interest. Certain incidents on campus involved problematic behaviour by men, specifically, such as the young Afrikaans man in a men's residence who was the spark for the Khampepe investigation.
One of the important institutional challenges at SU also revolves around the idea of a certain kind of whiteness. Even before children go to school, they learn prejudice from how their parents talk to other people, they learn it from neighbours, from media and from books. If you change how people think about what they learn about whiteness, about white identity, you'll change the identity of the institution so that it's no longer seen as an exclusionary white university, but as a place for all people who want to come and learn here.
For the CIRCoRe process, I lead the workstream on institutional culture that focuses on the interaction between the complex 'hard' infrastructure, including the legal, policy and regulatory dimensions, and the equally complex, 'softer' aspects of the institution's functioning.
What is meant by institutional culture in the context of the University?
Institutional culture refers to how things are done, how things look and how things feel within an institution. This might be written down in policies and rules and codes. But often it is something that emerges out of practice over a long period. Some institutions write things down but other institutions, such as families, don't write things down. Within the University you have formal policies and rules that we have to change to make it more inclusive. But you also have unwritten rules. These are, perhaps, even harder to change, but we must change if we want to learn, work, and live together.
For example, if you are a new staff member who suggests you would like to do this thing in a new way, perhaps suggesting a more efficient way of doing something, an old hand might say: 'No, we don't do it that way, we've always done it this way.' We want to ensure that there will also be receptivity to change in how we do things, those things that are inefficient, exclusionary, damaging, inhuman, and mimetic, so that we can be more efficient, more inclusive, more creative, but also more generative of ideas for everybody.
How people feel about the University appears to be linked to how the University looks and how it functions. You want students to know wherever they walk on campus that they belong. Creating welcoming spaces takes a lot of creative thinking, not just scientific or analytical thinking.
Can you share your impressions of the CIRCoRE process so far?
Doing work on institutional culture feels like I am being set up for failure – although there is a positive part to this. I came into this process knowing that changing the culture of an institution is really, really difficult work. Changing policy is, by comparison, less difficult. If you're talking about an institution that has a history of more than 100 years, changing how things are done, how they feel and how they look is challenging.
In the few months that I have been facilitating the institutional workstream things have been promising, intense and exciting. We've had dialogues, we've staged events, we bring people to talk about institutional culture and how to change it. Something I often think about is how to inculcate a culture of listening to each other when we strongly disagree. Listening well is an advanced capacity, and art. Even though I have expertise as an academic and lots of theoretical knowledge, each encounter is a learning opportunity to embody this capacity. I hope in that moment when we deepen the art of listening to each other with the institution, of saying we can disagree about certain things, strongly so, but we can still agree on the collective vision of the University and that we'll become a better University for going through this experience.
Two years is a very short time to complete the CIRCoRe process. I couldn't have been asked to make a more difficult yet exciting contribution to the university of the future.
How would you describe your experience at SU?
Stellenbosch is the most curious place. I came in expecting to be fighting in every corner. But the generosity of some people, not just in terms of leadership but students as well as colleagues, made a big impression. While I am aware that there is still resistance to change and an inclination to not welcome people who look a certain way or speak a certain language, what has struck me is that the University leadership is aware that for SU to remain a leading institution – not just in South Africa but globally – we must be open to change.
Indeed, for me, decolonisation means deep change. There are groups of people in all departments saying, 'we can do better, we can change and lead South Africa, perhaps even the world, in how universities should be'. I may have drunk the Mandela Kool-Aid, but I believe Stellenbosch is where the most change about how universities can look is going to happen.
PHOTO: Stefan Els