“We are becoming more inclusive and maintaining a high standard of student success, we're doing our best to help the 'missing middle' and we're becoming a leader in innovation and research. This despite the COVID-19 pandemic and challenges in the learning and teaching environment."
So said Stellenbosch University (SU) Rector and Vice-Chancellor Prof Wim de Villiers in a video message at the annual meeting of the Convocation on Thursday, 21 April 2022.
The meeting, which was held at the Coetzenburg Centre, was attended by members of the Convocation consisting of SU graduates and diplomats, including current postgraduate students who completed their undergraduate studies at SU, as well as all full-time and retired academic staff of the University. The Mayors of Stellenbosch Gesie van Deventer and Cape Town Geordin Hill-Lewis were the guests of honour at the event.
De Villiers was highlighting the University's recent successes which he narrowed down to 10. These included:
- A total of 5 636 qualifications were awarded in December 2021 and in the first week of April this year a further 3 132, bringing the total for 2021 to 8 768.
- Master's graduates grew by 17% and PhD's by 3% from 2020, contributing significantly to the achievement of SU's vision to be Africa's leading research-intensive university.
- The number of coloured, black, Indian and Asian graduates has increased in all faculties, with Law and Arts & Social Sciences having produced the majority of undergraduate students from this group.
- A focus on bursaries for “missing middle" and postgraduate students has helped those who have been left behind by limited state funding.
- SU delivered the largest number of accountants nationwide – 257 – who passed SAICA's Initial Test of Competence.
- Stellenbosch University is rated the best in Africa for Computer Science and the best in the country for Agriculture and Forestry, as well as Theology.
- A new Biomedical Research Institute at Tygerberg campus is providing cutting-edge genomic sequencing for crucial vaccine therapies.
“We thus have good reason to be optimistic about the future of this university," concluded De Villiers, quoting the renowned economics historian David Landes. “'In this world, the optimists have it, not because they are always right, but because they are positive. Even when wrong, they are positive, and that is the way of achievement, correction, improvement, and success. Educated, eyes-open optimism pays; pessimism can only offer the empty consolation of being right.'"
Guest speaker Ms Helen Zille, former Mayor of Cape Town and former Premier of the Western Cape Province, said her talk is about trying to make sense of where South African politics are right now and what the implications are for universities.
She said the most important shift that has occured in our politics over the past ten years involves diverging approaches to our constitution.
“A decade ago the constitution was still seen as the foundation of our social compact across all parties and sectors of society. This has now changed. The key difference between the two contending ANC factions – the radical economic transformation (RET) faction and the new dawn renewal ticket on the other – lies in their approach to the constitution and constitutionalism. The RET position was clearly set out in a recent article by senior cabinet minister Lindiwe Sisulu in which she attacked the constitution and the role played by the constitutional court in unambiguous terms. Her attack on the constitution accurately represents the view of the RET faction that wants to see SA return to a parliamentary democracy in which a simple majority can pass any laws it likes, unfettered by constraints such as the Bill of Rights interpreted by the constitutional court. In essence, the battle for the soul of SA is now a battle between constitutionalism and majoritarianism.
“So what does it mean for universities? It means recognising what is going on in our society as a whole, understanding what is at stake and how the battles in their own institutions align with the political forces outside that are against constitutionalism."
This year, the Convocation's annual community service award went to Wentzel Barnard, sport manager of SU's Maties ParaSport Club and an SU alumnus. For the past 30 years, Barnard has served on several committees to develop a range of sporting codes. He competed as an athlete at provincial, national and international level in sports such as wheelchair rugby and swimming. As a player he also spearheaded the development of WP wheelchair Rugby.
Advocate Jan Heunis, President of the Convocation, congratulated the Rector and his management team for what they have achieved during the past year. He also thanked the staff of the university for making all these achievements possible.
Photo: Members of the Executive Committee of the Convocation are seen here with Helen Zille, Chairperson of the Federal Council of the Democratic Alliance, Gesie van Deventer, the mayor of Stellenbosch, Geordin Hill-Lewis, mayor of Cape Town and Wentzel Barnard, sports manager of the Maties ParaSport Club. (Photo: Henk Oets)