Maties: there is something about Louise ...


Maties: there is something about Louise ...

Yes, Stellenbosch does indeed stand for an idea — that everyone is welcome and that Dear Jesus did not give it to Afrikaners to do as they please. That's according to Louise van Rhyn, the woman who was the face of a group that wants to drive inclusivity at the university and helped to remove the convocation executive. ANNELIESE BURGESS talks to her about the very personal reasons she got involved in the process, about the role Afrikaners can play in bringing about change, and about how her past shaped her to want to do exactly that.


LOUISE VAN RHYN, a woman honoured as one of the world's leading management thinkers, got involved in SUNewConvoRise, a campaign for inclusivity at Stellenbosch, for a surprisingly personal reason.

“A few years ago, I found myself in a situation where a group of people targeted me unfairly," she tells me on Zoom from the backseat of an Uber on her way home from a business engagement in Cape Town.

“It was a bloody experience, and many people saw what happened to me but remained silent. After that experience, I decided that if I ever had the opportunity to stand up for someone unfairly targeted, I would do it. And it happened with the rector of Stellenbosch University, Wim de Villiers."

She tells me she watched for more than a year as “one weapon after another" was used to attack De Villiers in public and the media because he was executing a transformation strategy formulated by the university council had formulated.

Not in my name

“I have been doing leadership development for the past 25 years. And I appreciate the challenging leadership role that De Villiers finds himself in — at the helm of a very complex organisation with various stakeholders and interest groups," says Van Rhyn.

“And there is a big difference between someone who is in the heat of the kitchen trying to get things right and someone who constantly criticises from the outside because things are not happening the way they want them to — in this case, to maintain Stellenbosch as a special place for a specific group of people."

Van Rhyn refers to DA MP Leon Schreiber, who is the convocation management representative on the university council and regularly posts tweets attacking De Villiers.

“If it wasn't about Afrikaans, it was about the Human Rights Commission or the Khampepe report — and remember, this was long before the issue of the alleged nepotism of the rector emerged and was referred to be handled by an independent investigation.

“The problem was not with the criticism itself, but the fact that he was in this position as a representative of the convocation, a body that includes people like me and others who advocate for bridge-building and reconciliation. So, when he launches his attacks, he presumes to speak on behalf of us. At some point in March this year, I could no longer live with it and began exchanging thoughts with others on how we could address the situation.

“If I had known what awaited me, I don't know if I would have raised my hand," she says. “Bravery is part of who I am, but the personal attacks, the venom, the videos that caricatured me … it wasn't always easy."

Deeply moved

But the process initiated by Van Rhyn and others, including Thuli Madonsela, led to an extraordinary convocation meeting where a motion of no confidence was tabled against the majority of the executive committee.

Van Rhyn recounts how she worked with young people of all colours, languages and ages during the six weeks of mobilisation for the vote.

“And when they stood up one after another that evening, talking about their dream of a university where there is room for everyone to belong and have a voice, I was deeply moved."

She shares some of the many stories she has heard about the deep feelings of exclusion and alienation among many Maties. “A black woman told me she received a scholarship to study at Stellenbosch, but she never felt like she belonged and always felt like a second-class citizen.

“The quality of our young alumni takes your breath away. There are so many of them who worked in the background and who people don't know about. Bradley Frolick, for example, was involved in drafting our motion. In a discussion with him one evening, my mouth dropped in amazement when we had to argue a point. And Thembalethu Seyisi. It's wonderful to know that our country's future lies in these young people's hands."

Van Rhyn says she experienced many emotions that evening, but gratitude was overwhelming. “I think it was a turning point for the university and how we approach inclusivity. Or at least I hope so. Maintaining the momentum and ensuring it was a turning point is in our hands.

“In our time, Stellenbosch was overwhelmingly white. And that's where that old arrogance was bred. Jesus did not give us Stellenbosch to do with it as we please. This is a new dispensation. And those of us who grew up in the old one missed out on so much. I am so envious of these young people who have such a diverse experience."

The privilege of South Africa 

Van Rhyn says that in the lead-up to the extraordinary meeting, she sometimes felt as if her whole life had prepared her for this campaign.

She studied at Stellenbosch in the early 1980s then went to England, where she obtained her doctorate in “large-scale complex social change". She worked for major organisations such as the BBC, Nokia, Marks & Spencer, and the London Underground.

“It was a comfortable lifestyle and I made good money, but I was also disconnected from the real world." 

In 2005, she and her family returned to South Africa, and she realised she could make a difference here in a way she couldn't anywhere else in the world.

“When I started working in the business sector, I saw how leadership development took place in management schools, disconnected from what was happening in the real world, and I began to search for a different way."

And so Van Rhyn founded Partners for Possibility, a groundbreaking leadership development programme where business leaders collaborate with school principals to build capacity in disadvantaged schools and where leaders learn in the real world instead of in the classroom of a management school.

There have been more than 1,800 of these partnerships, two books have been written about them, and the programme has won numerous awards worldwide for innovation, leadership development and contribution to social impact.

Last year, Van Rhyn received a Thinkers50 award as one of the world's most influential management thinkers. “I realised that my contribution to the world is not necessarily only about my work, but that I like creating opportunities for other people to become involved and to be able to contribute. That was also the case with this convocation campaign.

“I realised again what a tremendous privilege it is to facilitate meaningful change because I only happened to be the first person to raise my hand — the campaign was a team effort by many people who worked together for the same goal."

Role of Afrikaners

Van Rhyn says someone who had a significant influence on her thinking is Nilofer Merchant, the author of The Power of Onlyness. She says the most significant change in the world is brought about by people who bring their unique lived experiences to the table.

“And this brings me to the role of people like me — a white, Afrikaans-speaking, well-educated person with four degrees and a lot of experience. We are uniquely positioned to help to make a difference. And yes, we are the sum of our experience, including our privilege and the process of political growth we have gone through."

Van Rhyn is open about the political awakening she went through to reach this point where she passionately believes in the power of inclusivity. “I fought fiercely for Afrikaans and volk en vaderland in my youth. I'm ashamed to admit that when Nelson Mandela was released, I feared my family would be slaughtered, because I had grown up fearing the swart gevaar my whole life."

After the vote

Van Rhyn tells me about the many people who contacted her after the convocation meeting to say they had previously been apathetic towards the convocation but now want to be more involved.

“The same thing happened with Partners for Possibility. People who were apathetic towards the education crisis found ways to make a difference, which is a life-changing experience for anyone. It is also happening through this experience where people feel they have regained their voice at Stellenbosch.

“But we must remember that this is just a small beginning. There are still many, many people who are apathetic. It was a small group of people with whom we made contact and who joined us in this process. But we need to widen the circle. We must invite people who were shaped and influenced by the university to contribute. And this is also something I learned from Partners for Possibility — when people are invited to contribute, and you tell them that their voice matters and that their contribution will make a difference, they get involved.

“Think about it," she says excitedly. “There is a resource of 230,000 people who have benefited from Stellenbosch. If we can make them part of the future … to work together to make Stellenbosch a place where every Matie feels welcome and each one knows and feels they are important to this university."

The potential to build

When the vote results were announced last Friday evening, Van Rhyn said she felt 21 years old again. “We were surrounded by young people, and everyone was dancing with joy.

“This university works in a country where many things don't work. It is very well managed and has outstanding academics. I hope that we can finally stop complaining about the language issue. There are Afrikaans and English classes, but most Afrikaans students can speak English well. They won't stop speaking Afrikaans. Most of them are keen to participate in English classes.

“This university has the potential to become the top university in Africa. Let's focus on developing and growing our university to be that. I am so grateful that both my daughters could study here. Most of my nieces and nephews are also studying here. It's a great, great privilege. It's a university we can be very proud of, and it is a great asset for South Africa. If I were 18 now, I would have been so happy for the opportunity to study at this Stellenbosch."

♦ VWB ♦

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