Stellenbosch convocation: strife or hijacking?


Stellenbosch convocation: strife or hijacking?

The rifts in Stellenbosch University's convocation (made up of graduates, current full-time and retired academic staff) will come to a head at an extraordinary meeting set down for June 1, when members of the convocation will vote on motions of no confidence that two different factions in the executive committee have instituted against each other. NINA BREYTENBACH supports the grouping calling itself #SUNewConvoRise and says the so-called controversy is about a hijacked executive that is driving a neo-apartheid agenda to thwart transformation.


IF you do not read the Afrikaans Sunday newspaper Rapport, you may not be aware of the “controversy" in the Stellenbosch University (SU) convocation. And if you read Rapport, you are certainly aware of the “controversy" but may not be entirely clear on what is happening. It seems neither Rapport nor the convocation president, Jan Heunis, and his supporters know a hawk from a handsaw.

There is no strife within the convocation — there is a convocation, and there is a hijacked executive driving a neo-apartheid agenda. This type of confusion is one I often notice among first-year law students when answering their first tutorial. The question had been what colour the sky is, and while their argument is beautiful, they explained why the grass is green. For clarity on the issue, the following:

The Heunis faction uses an ancient argumentative technique in the legal profession. The tactic works as follows: create your own narrative, cause as much confusion as possible by listing irrelevant articles in legislation to substantiate this narrative, then argue the narrative with the confidence of a second-hand car dealer. When anyone goes against your narrative, ridicule them by attacking their appearance, gender, age, language, race or culture.

In this case, the chosen narrative is the eradication of Afrikaans by an “auntie who just wants to speak English" and her politician friend who wants the convocation president's portfolio. This narrative is packaged in short videos sent via Facebook and WhatsApp to upset the class of 1963. However, this tactic speaks to a lack of intelligence and ethics and a childishness that is difficult to relate to a senior lawyer and his highly educated supporters.

The convocation members and the movement that rebelled against the current executive management are not unhappy because action is being taken against nepotistic behaviour. On the contrary, SUNewConvoRise agrees that if the rector, Wim de Villiers, is guilty of unethical behaviour, it is in the interest of Stellenbosch University that he should go.

Our unhappiness is that management, under the leadership of Heunis and with the exception of Rudi Buys, thought it fit to act as prosecutor and judge on the matter without following the processes set out in university policy. Furthermore, they did not consider it necessary to wait for the findings of a formal investigation. Instead, they found the rector guilty on the basis of media articles and hearsay. I would think that a fellow jurist would know that someone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, but perhaps that assumption was not part of the apartheid curriculum.

Their justification is that because the convocation president was democratically elected, he has power of attorney to act on behalf of the convocation without any oversight, even when these actions are not in the university's interests. It is an ironic argument, given that it is the same one the apartheid government used. One would think the son of a former apartheid minister would not want to repeat the mistakes of his father's party. What is that saying about a donkey bumping its head twice?

#SUNewConvoRise's further grievance against the current executive is that its agenda for the removal of De Villiers has little to do with the alleged nepotism and much more to do with its own political agenda. Some members of management, including Heunis and convocation secretary Frederik Van Dyk, make no secret of the fact that they actively oppose transformation. They agree that they do not want to make SU an inclusive space for all South Africans but feel that the exclusivity of the past (based on race, language and culture) should also be part of the institution's future.

It is, therefore, not shocking that the supposed nepotism scandal erupted a mere week after the university announced its plans to adjust residence accommodation according to the ratio of female to male students. It is even less shocking when we think back to Heunis's resignation letter of 2019 and to Van Dyk's tribute to him thereafter. Their message seems to be clear: We see no problem with the past and would like the future to resemble this past. It is meaningful that their supporters refer to themselves as the “last line of defence".

Defence against what? Defence against inclusivity? Defence against relevance? Defence against improvement? Defence against fairness? At this stage, they are the last line of defence. The last remnants of South Africa's unequal past and the last obstacles that my generation struggles to remove. Yet I have news for them: it has long ceased to be their institution and their country. Stellenbosch University and the greater South Africa are now ours, and we are tired of the exclusivity and intolerance of people who hardly know their way around a cellphone.

Transformation does not mean anti-Afrikaans. I and many other Afrikaans-speaking people are pro-transformation. Transformation means everyone is welcome as they are — they do not have to be Afrikaans to be welcome. This means Stellenbosch University is a neutral space where there is no one dominant culture to the exclusion of all others. Transformation means I can be Afrikaans without the whole institution having to be Afrikaans because my language and my culture are not so important that we have to be the only ones.

Before the meeting on June 1, I advise Heunis and his followers to reformulate their argument according to the facts and not their chosen narrative. It currently explains why the grass is green, but the question was about the colour of the sky. It is also contradictory and irrelevant. I wonder if a modern tertiary institution is the best place for their opinions. Don't you think the Suidlanders are maybe looking for new members?

*This article was originally published on Nina Breytenbach's blog, Sosiaalonaanvaarbaar. The blog, she says, is her attempt to address her learned bias and hopefully inspire other people to do the same.

♦ VWB ♦

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