Black Maties speak out


Black Maties speak out

ANNELIESE BURGESS talks to four black alumni of Stellenbosch University about their experience of studying there, how they became involved in SUNewConvoRise — the grouping that led a successful motion of no confidence in the executive of the convocation — and their feelings about the changing of the guard.


Bantubonke Louw.
Bantubonke Louw.

Bantubonke Louw

Studied social work 

I am a Vrystater, born and bred in Koffiefontein and Bloemfontein. And a proud father, husband, son and older brother to five siblings.

My maternal grandmother was a great influence on my life. She was a people person and would give her last cent to help someone in need. This inspired my outlook on life.   

Absolutely nothing could ever have prepared me for my introduction to Stellenbosch University (SU). I was placed in one of the male residences, where I was exposed to a welcoming programme that was deeply dehumanising and traumatising, all in the name of upholding traditions and welcoming you to “Die Plek”.

I complained to the leadership but it fell on deaf ears. I eventually moved out of the residence but the damage was done. I experienced racial prejudice and bias in the classroom, on campus and especially in the town.

Although I am fluent in Afrikaans, I could see how non-Afrikaans-speaking students were excluded in various ways, even with lecturers giving much more comprehensive explanations of concepts in Afrikaans and doing a flimsy version in English. Coming to Stellenbosch was the first time I felt black and that it was synonymous with inferiority and a sense that you don’t belong and that your humanity doesn’t matter.

I experienced a deep sense of being unseen and disregarded — I never felt part of the Matie identity. Most of the time I felt like an impostor, as if I'd been granted a favour to be let into a space where I didn’t belong and that I should just be grateful and quiet. 

I remember getting into a fight with a group of boys (who happened to be house committee members of a residence) one evening after a night out because I was with a white female friend and they felt she needed rescuing from me bothering/harassing her. I remember going out to a bar in town with a group of friends. All our white friends were allowed to go into the club with no form of identification, but the black and coloured friends were asked to provide student cards and identity documents to gain access.

There are many such experiences I underwent or heard about from fellow students.

I decided that I would not be silent, and stood for student leadership. After graduating, I returned as an employee and now work in student affairs. I try to contribute daily towards building an institution we can all identify with and where we can all feel a sense of belonging.

I was genuinely shocked when news broke that the convocation executive committee had issued a statement calling for the resignation of the vice-chancellor and the registrar on behalf of the convocation. I felt spoken for and incredibly disempowered. This was exacerbated by the convocation president publicly stating how he would fight the Khampepe Report [into allegations of racism at the university]. 

I have multiple issues with the Khampepe Report myself and have shared these in various engagements, but it was still a report of people’s lived experiences detailing how they felt excluded and discriminated against; it was a call for us to have serious conversations about all of our community members, to hear them, to see them, and to be reminded of the things we all need to work together on to make SU a space where people feel welcome and connected.

My wife and I met as first-year students at SU, so something special connects us to this place. However, she was also among the many people who felt disconnected from the university. Despite my working at the institution, she remained distant and uninvolved in anything related to SU. On the evening of the convocation meeting, I got goosebumps listening to them (SUNewConvoRise) brilliantly presenting our views and engaging in the debate respectfully yet clearly and concisely. I was so impressed by the younger convocation members’ contributions, and I felt great appreciation and respect for their vulnerability and courage. 

After listening to the other side, I remember a deep sense of sorrow creeping into my heart and mind. I felt so sorry for how “blinded” they were, how obsessed they were with pointing out they’re not racist or protecting Afrikaans, and how this prevented them from embracing the beauty of diversity our nation provides.

If Afrikaans could speak, it would probably say, “I don’t need protection; I live on in the many textbooks, magazines, films, radio and television shows, theatre productions, songs, arts and culture festivals, food, and everything else. Instead of protecting me, continue giving me life, but don’t miss the beauty in other languages. We can all co-exist in a rich and hearty potjiekos.”

I felt a deep sense of hope at the end of that convocation meeting. While I don’t quite feel like I identify with being a Matie yet, that meeting made me believe that I can contribute to ensuring that no one ever feels excluded or unwelcome at this institution again.

I am forever grateful for the new friends and comrades I’ve gotten to know through this process, and I have renewed energy to continue working together to help create the SU we all can be proud to call our institution. We’re not there yet, but I am more hopeful now that that is not an unobtainable dream. 

Thembalethu Seyisi.
Thembalethu Seyisi.

Thembalethu Seyisi

Studied law and obtained an LLB.

I was born in Uitenhage. I was the last-born, and when my mom passed away in 2012, I went to stay with my sister in Cape Town and studied at Oaklands High School in Lansdowne. I was part of a programme called Leaders' Quest by Salesian Life Choices. And my mentor suggested we would apply to Stellenbosch for my tertiary education.

I did not want to go to Stellenbosch. It felt like a place where black people were not welcome, but she said something to me that changed my outlook on things. She said if you have a problem with a system, you must ask yourself how you can change it. She said you are taking other people's perceptions and making them yours, and that's not how leaders should go about their lives.

And so we applied and I got a full scholarship to study law. The University of Cape Town just offered to pay a portion of my fees. And in my second year, Thuli Madonsela became a law professor at Stellenbosch, which made my father very proud.

Coming to university is like learning a new language and way of being and thinking. Studying law and becoming part of student leadership was very exciting for me.

I experienced Stellenbosch as a place that wanted change. And I've found that although the university wants to change, some people don't want this university to change. Some people in the university benefit from a university that excludes black people, that debases black people, or makes black people feel like their humanity is substandard to that of white people. And some of those people are still within the system.

So when something like the convocation debacle comes up, some people think the swart gevaar wants to take over. And that is not the case. There are a lot of white people that want Stellenbosch to be inclusive, to be welcoming, and to be a leading university. And recognise that you can't be a top university if you don't have your house in order. If you are not the employer of choice for black people, who are the majority of the population, it makes you an irrelevant university, not a leading one.

So this process has been very exciting. When I left the university in 2020, I felt like I had unfinished business. Hearing and seeing people standing for change that night [of the convocation meeting] felt unbelievable to me. It felt like a shift was occurring across race and gender and class, and sexual orientations. It was just amazing.

People will mention Christo Wiese over and over again. But when he stood up, I felt wow, finally. Now we are having the debate and conversation we should be having. You can't explain to the people who were not there. I wish I could relive that moment.

Lwazi Pakade.
Lwazi Pakade.

Lwazi Pakade

Studied for a BA in social dynamics

I came to Stellenbosch University in 2014 after finishing school in Langa. One of the main reasons I chose Stellenbosch was that it offered the course I wanted in the way I wanted it. I was intrigued that there still was a public university that was adamant about using Afrikaans as the only medium of instruction.

I became involved in student politics and organisations such as Open Stellenbosch in 2015. It was always my dream to have a Stellenbosch University that is inclusive, where all students can learn in a language that they understand, both English and Afrikaans and isiXhosa. 

Stellenbosch University gave me hope for a new South Africa, and we told ourselves as students then that we would not give up on our institution until it reached its full potential. 

I had great and bad experiences at Stellenbosch. Looking back, I realise I still have a love-and-hate relationship with the university. A love relationship because it shaped me to be the leader that I am today, to be a well-rounded and brilliant young professional; and a hate relationship because we experienced quite a lot of racism in the institution, from being excluded in the academic space because we did not understand Afrikaans to being excluded in the social spaces because we were black and only spoke English and isiXhosa. 

Being in Stellenbosch taught me a lot of things. I built long-lasting relationships and learnt a lot about myself and the world around me, the dynamics of being with people who are different to you and how to manage conflicts.

I became involved with SUNewConvoRise because I was always interested in the influence of the convocation on policy at the university. Many SU black and white alums were unaware of what was happening, and I saw the convocation as an opportunity to unleash a new wave of leadership that would assist the university in achieving its fullest potential.

I felt proud that evening of the extraordinary meeting. It felt like a Damascus moment for the university. The convocation has always been in the hands of one man, and that evening showed that the power belongs to all of us. I felt so proud of being a Stellenbosch University graduate that night.

Thulani Hlatswayo.
Thulani Hlatswayo.

Thulani Hlatswayo

Studied for a BA in social dynamics

I lost my parents while I was at school. The passing of my mother made things very difficult at home. In Vosloorus, where I grew up, young people are exposed to many social problems like poverty, unemployment, domestic violence and substance abuse. People have lost hope. Government programmes and opportunities are for those connected to the elite. Greed and corruption are the order of the day.

When I was offered the chance to study at Stellenbosch by an alumnus committed to making SU more inclusive, I could not turn down the opportunity, but it was a difficult experience. isiZulu is my home language, and coming from a quintile 1-3 school, English was my first additional language. I had no Afrikaans background. At SU, Afrikaans as a language was dominant in the classroom, residence and outside spaces. It was overwhelming.

Based on my experiences in my first year at Stellenbosch in 2014, I became involved in activism around issues like access for disadvantaged students who have limited internet and information to apply and study at Stellenbosch, the exclusionary nature of the language policy, exorbitant student fees and food security. Still, it was difficult to exercise this freely because I feared victimisation and prejudice. But I was committed to fighting for what is right and became involved in various student leadership structures.

I studied hard and smart because I was committed to becoming a better version of myself, but I did not find Stellenbosch a conducive space for black people to flourish.

I strongly believe in principles of justice, respect for processes, fairness and consultative governance. SUNewConvoRise was a safe space to be involved with others who think we can no longer delay the change we have been waiting for. There were stances and efforts by the former exco to delay transformation at SU around issues like the language policy and the Khampepe Commission report.

The night of the extraordinary convocation meeting felt like the beginning of a new era. It was as if voices that had been shut down found expression. The principles of consultative governance are essential, especially where people’s lives are concerned; the rights of others are acknowledged and respected, and the dignity of keeping SU reputable for generations to come is very critical. 

♦ VWB ♦

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