Stellenbosch University (SU) ended its Welcoming programme for newcomers with a music festival focused on promoting social cohesion through diversity with the staging of its first ever Maties Connect Festival, or MC Fest for short, on Saturday, 11 February. The festival, which was funded by the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture (DSAC), the university's Division Student Affairs (DSAf) and Maties Connect, brought together local and international musicians and DJs from different musical genres on one stage.
“In a country where some music genres are still considered to appeal to only certain races, the Division Student Affairs at Stellenbosch University wanted to create an event where we could expose all our students to a diverse group of artists and music genres and show them that there is unity even in diversity. Music is a great way to do this," explained Mr Charl Davids, the Director of the Centre for Student Counselling and Development (CSCD) within DSAf.
Davids, together with other DSAf staff members within the Centre for Student Communities (CSC), the Maties Connect team under the leadership of Connect Coordinator Ms Leoné Wilkinson, and the DSAC were the driving forces behind bringing the festival to SU. Maties Connect is a student-driven non-profit organisation that raises funds for a predetermined foundation each year. The organisation is also responsible for managing Vensters (directly translated as Windows), a popular Maties event during which newcomers in residences and commuter student communities (previously referred to as Private Student Organisations or PSOs) put on short acts for students, staff, and the public to see. Funds raised from Vensters this year will go DSAf and the #BridgetheGap initiative.
Vensters preceded the MC Fest with both events held on the Welgevallen Hockey Fields in Stellenbosch. The MC Fest featured artists like Early B, Neon Dreams, ObvslySnowy, Simeon, Barnaschone, Mr Thea, Chef KD, and Sun-El Musician.
“Having 16 stages across the Stellenbosch campus is costly and was just not financially feasible anymore. Instead, we were able to build one master stage where we could have Vensters during the day and the MC Fest in the evening. We also want to ensure the safety of our students when we stage Vensters, and therefore having it in one venue where you have police and security officers, and paramedics on standby to assist in case of an emergency makes sense," said Wilkinson.
“We could also monitor access to the venue as students and staff had to book tickets using their student and staff numbers. Controlled access points meant bag checks could be done as another measure of ensuring safety, and attendees were prevented from bringing hard liquor into the space and over consuming alcohol."
Newlands Spring Brewery Co. and SABSharp, South African Breweries' outcome-based responsible drinking platform launched in 2021, came onboard as partners to ensure responsible drinking at the festival, with only beers with a low alcohol concentration on sale. In addition, water hydration stations were also made available by SAB and students were provided access to their online responsible drinking platform. SAB also sponsored a range of other items required for the festival.
Others who contributed towards the MC Fest included Mia Mélange, Eikestad Mall and The Village Lounge & Café.
“Building social cohesion amongst our students is important for Maties Connect and we know that students interact more with each other when they bond over something that is also fun," explained Wilkinson who along with her team took responsibility for the planning and organisation of the MC Fest as well.
“We connected with students to find out which artists they would like to see on stage. This meant that we could cater to many students' tastes. Students therefore became involved in building social cohesion before and during the event without even realising it and that's what you want to do, you want to create a space where that can happen naturally and on a subconscious level. Otherwise, these things can become performative."
The festival was also used as a “welcome back for seniors and a 'welcome to Maties' for newcomers" under the banner of starting a “Rainbow Revolution".
Mr Vusithemba Ndima, the Director-General of the DSAC, attended the MC Fest on Saturday evening and welcomed all the newcomers, senior students, and staff to the event.
“As part of galvanising the whole of society, including institutions of higher learning, to play a meaningful role to promote social cohesion and rid our country of the scourge of racism and other social ills, the Department is currently engaged in the process of developing a social compact for social cohesion and nation building. The rationale for the social compact comes from the realisation that no single sector, including the government, can single-handedly succeed in driving the vision towards a socially integrated and inclusive society," explained Ndima.
“That is, for South Africa to become a socially integrated and inclusive society, the different sectors in society need to make commitments and hold each other accountable to promote social cohesion and nation-building in our country, and thus, it will be a grave mistake if this concert is a once-off and not followed up by a fully-fledged programme that will facilitate social cohesion and nation-building in this institution. Therefore, I implore you to make the required investments in the spirit of a social compact so that this institution can become a shining example of integration and inclusion in our nation where everyone is treated equally and is welcomed.
“In the end, we all desire a country that is characterised by more social interaction, collaboration, and solidarity. We must work together to realise this vision and advance South Africa."
According to Edwin Cleophas, Secretary General for the Social Cohesion Advocates Programme within Arts and Culture at DSAC, “it was an easy decision for the department to partner with Stellenbosch University" because of DSAC's focus on driving diversity and social cohesion in South Africa and the university's commitment to transforming.
“Universities are places where you put a diverse group of people together in a space where they are being 'forced' to live with one another. Prior to coming to university, if you wanted to, you could attend any school and choose a school that is more exclusive. However, when you enter university you have to learn to live with people from different backgrounds, who speak different languages, have different cultures, and who you may not have been exposed to.
“The Department is focused on nation-building and social cohesion and believe that you can't build a better South Africa for all if you do it independently. Universities provide a space for us to focus on nation-building and social cohesion amongst diverse groups, and especially newcomers," said Cleophas.
Even with SU being under public scrutiny due to concerns raised around the progress of transformation in the Khampepe Commission Report last year, Cleophas believes that it is the perfect institution for DSAC to partner with to build social cohesion amongst young South Africans.
“We know SU's history, and we know that it was the birthplace of apartheid. It is a heavy label to carry, and it is time that we deal with that label and discuss it to move past it. The minister does not see this as a once-off engagement, but the start of continuous engagements with staff and students at the university and other stakeholders in and outside SU. All the partners involved are excited about the possibilities of this partnership.
“The university has said that it is serious about transformation, so now we must put in the work and be intentional about bringing about transformation. The university is onboard, and government is here to support the university so that every individual, regardless of background, religion, income level, or language feel that they belong here."
The festival is also considered an opportunity for “staff to model to students what it means to be diverse". This is important, said Davids, as one of the “complaints that is often heard from students is that when events like huisdans (house dance) for example takes place that only one genre of music is played".
“That causes unnecessary racial division and conflict," he said.
“By hosting an event like this, we want to model to our students what diversity and inclusivity look like and that we can, even as we are different, be at the same event and enjoy the music we love, but still cater to as wide an audience as possible. If we don't as staff model to our students what it means to be diverse and inclusive, how can we expect them to know how to do it practically," added Davids.
He is particularly excited about the prospect of some of the profit from the festival going to an emergency fund within DSAf so that adhoc expenses – “such as a student needing glasses to write an exam after being mugged and having their glasses damaged" – can be covered through the fund. Maties Connect also ensured that the Division Alumni Relations was able to fundraise for its #BridgetheGap fund which assists students by helping them overcome obstacles that may stand in their way of continuing or completing their studies. Individuals who purchased tickets were given the option of donating to the fund at the time of purchase.
Cleophas said that while a music festival provides the opportunity for people from different backgrounds to interact with each other, the responsibility of continuous transformation rested firmly on the shoulders of SU staff and students as a collective.
“In order to change the culture at an institution, we need individuals to commit to the process of transformation, diversity, inclusivity and belonging as a collective."
Having witnessed and heard about the support that the university offers students during his visits to the institution, Cleophas said that he wanted students to know, especially first years, that the university offered multiple opportunities for them to access support and resources to make a success of their studies.
“Isolation is one of the key reasons that people drop out university, however, what I have seen at SU is that when you are struggling, it is important to ask around for help which is there."