Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Faculty's centenary celebration highlights art and social sciences contribution to shaping our world
Author: Lynne Rippenaar-Moses
Published: 02/11/2018

​“The faculty has had an interesting trajectory since its inception, even before the formal establishment of SU in 1918. It was  the first faculty to appoint a woman at the professorial level, but has not escaped controversy. During the apartheid years, some academics supported government policies, but notably there were also strong critical voices of opposition."

These were the words of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Prof Anthony Leysens, at the 100th anniversary of the faculty which 300 students, alumni, staff and the general public attended.  

“These forms of opposition is perhaps most vividly demonstrated by the public debates between the “verligtes" and “verkramptes". In February 2013, a request from a young anthropologist and doctoral candidate to the SU Museum to gain access to a case bearing Eugen Fischer's name led to the discovery of a human skull and instruments used to measure human hair and eye types.  Fischer was a Nazi eugenicist of the 1930s and this discovery unearthed another aspect of our troubled history which pointed to eugenics," said Leysens.

“Today our faculty is at the forefront of wide-ranging transformation, as illustrated by the “Indexing the Human" and the “Indexing Transformation" projects. Both grapple in a real sense with the issues which were raised during the student protests of 2015-2016. There is also the African Open Institute, an innovative groundbreaking initiative to research and embrace our music in all its richness and variety, while our Graduate School has delivered 114 doctoral graduate since its inception, all of whom have gone on to become academic leaders of note on the continent."

As part of the celebrations, guests were treated to music by the jazz band Ecclesia, which comprises students from the Music Department's Certificate Programme and a performance by Ms Ncebakazi Mnukwana from the Music Department, who played the uHadi and uMrhubhe bows. Ecclesia's band members consist of Mark Lynch (saxophone), Thabang Sithole (trombone), Joshua America (guitar), Brent January (guitar), Dillon Cornelius (electric bass), Melisizwe Plaatjie (keyboard), and David Jones (drumkit).

The musical performances were followed by three panel discussions focused on Spectres of Racial Science: From Rehoboth in Colonial Namibia to Berlin, Stellenbosch and beyond, Art as Protest and Social Change, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the future of jobs, ethics and machines taking over.

Participants in the Spectres of Racial Science panel included  guest lecturer and teaching assistant in the Sociology and Social Anthropology Department at SU, Ms Vanessa Mpatlanyane; Ms Nomzamo Ntombela, a final-year student studying towards a BA in Humanities degree with majors in Anthropology and Sociology; Prof Steven Robins from the Sociology and Social Anthropology Department at SU; Maties alumnus Dr Handri Walters; and Dr Rudi Buys, the Dean of Humanities at Cornerstone Institute who is also a Matie alumnus.

Dr Leslie van Rooi, the Senior Director: Social Impact and Transformation, and Ms Stephané Conradie, a lecturer in the Visual Arts Department at SU who was also a member of Open Stellenbosch and an organiser of artist interventions that took place during 2015; focused on Art as Protest and Social Change. Van Rooi is responsible for, amongst others, coordinating visual redress at SU. He is also responsible for the SU Woordfees and the SU Museum.

The Artificial Intelligence (AI) panel included Prof Bruce Watson, the Chair of the Information Science Department in the faculty; Mr Marc Tison, a Matie alumnus and Chief Operating Officer at Zing Holdings; and Dr Martin Berglund, a postdoctoral fellow at SU from Umeå University in Sweden.

Conradie started off the Art as Protest panel discussion by providing guests with background to the #FeesMustFall student protests, explaining how from  May 2015 until early 2016, the student activist Open Stellenbosch protested the lack of post-1994 institutional transformation at SU highlighting, amongst other things, the discriminatory ways in which the then official university language policy (2014) was implemented at the university. 

“In Open Stellenbosch and during the #FeesMustFall student protests, art was used as a way to signify or allude to the misgivings students had with the university institution."

Added Van Rooi: “This panel has allowed us to shed light on life at SU post #FeesMustFall. As such it allowed us the opportunity to reflect on what has changed and what still need to change. In all of this the critical role that Arts can and should play in discourse must be highlighted and appreciated."

Robins started off the discussions for the Spectres of Racial Science panel highlighting his own research of his family history which traced the final years of his grandparents', aunts' and uncle's lives during the Holocaust. His research was sparked by a photograph of his grandmother, Cecilie, and his aunts, Edith and Hildegard, displayed in his family home and led to the publication of the book Letters of Stone, which provides a deeply personal and painful reflection of the true horror and extent of the Nazis' racial policies against Jews.

The rest of the panel discussion focused on the role of eugenics as a “travelling science" and broader questions concerning the legacies of the forms of knowledge and institutional culture produced at Stellenbosch University and other universities in South Africa.

“Such reflection on institutional histories poses important questions that might move us forward in our commitment to present-day transformation," said the panellists.

Tison, Berglund and Watson provided guests with some interesting insight into the developments within the artificial intelligence field and also responded to issues raised by guests. One of those issues included the discovery that an AI recruitment tool developed by Inc to review job applications to find the best candidates for employment was biased towards women. According to Reuters, “computer models were trained to vet applicants by observing patterns in resumes submitted to the company over a 10-year period" however, most of these resumes had come from men, reflecting “male dominance across the tech industry. The tool was eventually terminated.

“That was rather concerning," said Watson. “Most people have a reductionist idea of what knowledge is when speaking about artificial intelligence. Knowledge is experiences that are shot into a computer system. However, before all the learning takes place, it is still possible that even if someone with good morals was doing the teaching, you could have an unforeseen outcome. For example, we can teach our kids good morals, but some things are picked up inadvertently. So you may find a kid swearing because they heard it from a peer or making ill-informed decisions. It is much the same with machine learning, however, unlike with kids, you are able to get into the system and still wipe the slate clean."

Tison shared some of the work he has been doing in Africa to bring affordable banking and micro insurance to individuals on the continent who were unbanked and uninsured.

“Our product, which is a digital coin that can be used to purchase any goods and rewards customers with free insurance life cover, was launched on the 10 September this year, and by the end of September, we already had 120 000 customers who had signed up. So we are using AI all the time to manage claims, to do predictive analysis of fraudulent claims and to embed efficiencies by automating processes. It is not something that was  invented in the last few years."

Speaking to the guests, Leysens also shared the vision of the faculty going forward.

“Ultimately, we want to maintain and continue to be excellent. In this sense the essence of the faculty is the richness and diversity of its academic project and the quality of its academic and support staff and I want to express my appreciation for their dedication under what have been challenging times within the higher education sector," said Leysens.

“I also believe that our identity must be shaped by where we are –  locally, nationally, and continentally – and supported by the idea that “I think where I am" in order to address the  challenges of where we are without divorcing ourselves from the global storehouse of knowledge and its associated networks."

Leysens further explained that the faculty was currently concentrating on the renewal of its academic offering, “ not to primarily address the demands for cost-effectiveness, but with our eyes on the rapidly changing world of work and the relevancy of a humanities degree."

“I believe that our aim must be to provide and return to a broad-based and inter-disciplinary humanities education which allows our graduates to, in the words of a recent book by George Anders, “go anywhere"."

“The graduate attributes of such a humanities graduate should be: Independence, adaptability, challenging conventional answers, innovative thinking, insight and understanding of complexity, and being able to apply their minds to problem-solving within a group and inter-cultural context.

He added that “academic renewal in the humanities must confront the realities of the fourth industrial revolution" and that we needed to “accept that students require a basic literacy in data science and an introduction to its applications in the digital humanities".

​“Ethical considerations in data science projects cannot be considered outside of the technical work, nor can they be considered late in, or after a project has been completed. They are integral. The role of the humanities is just as integral and has wide-ranging applications."

Photo: Guests that attended the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences' Centenary Celebrations could choose to attend one of three panel discussions on art as protest, racial science, or artificial intelligence. They also enjoyed traditional music during the event. (Lynne Rippenaar-Moses)