Accommodating Blacks at a (White) South African University

Here is a short documentary that has gone viral in the last four days or so. Given that the highest number of hits the work of Contraband ever received was less than 8000, this is their breakthrough project.

Actually, my first thoughts after the first few minutes of watching Luister were, why aren’t there hundreds of such documentaries? Why aren’t we all making documentaries to record the historical moment we are witnessing? Where are the hard-hitting documentaries from Wits, Pretoria, Cape Town, KwaZulu Natal? If there is a need for changing the symbolic order and daily reality of  blackness and whiteness at all universities – and there is – where is the documentary from Fort Hare, Cape Peninsula, Zululand, Durban, Free State and all the others? And so, whoever they are, whatever their project, thanks to Contraband for Luister.

There are several moments on black student experiences that make Luister worth watching. Some of the moments are painful, as hearing the daily microagressions that black students have to brave at Stellenbosch University. Or the criminalisation of black male bodies, being asked to prove that you belong at the university. Or, as if we are still in the 1950s, of being attacked for speaking to a white woman if you are an African man.

Then there are the racist jokes, the indifference by university managers to the painful experiences of black students, the disrespect shown by white students to black workers working around the Stellenbosch, and the pressure to assimilate.

Why is there surprise when black students drop out? Why is there such resistance at universities to recognise the fundamental right of each of us to be treated with dignity and equal respect?

To put it in simple words, the administrators of the university appear to be deaf to the painful experiences of black students. What do black university teachers and progressive white teachers have to say about this?

One of the most telling moments in the movie is around the 17th minute. Here is a student who gets it. He is right too: many black people, and many white people too, seem not to get it.

Replay the moment.

Do you get what he is saying? Not just the words, but the possibility, the vision thing? Who does not love teaching such students? Stellenbosch needs such students, for, he is the future leader to realise that the future cannot be just more of the past.

What he says is that you can’t accommodate when you don’t have the power. He has realised that this university (like all historically white university) is engaged in attempts to perpetuate white supremacy, which is how I would say it. – This is not about patriarchal blackness, which exists, and must be challenged, but if we may, can we focus on supremacist patriarchal whiteness for a moment, please? The student cuts through the manure and wants us to appreciate that some people believe they own a public university, hence they feel they are accommodating others.

What is the vision towards which this student gestures?

The vision of a transformed Stellenbosch University lies in the realisation, which should have happened decades ago already, that as a public institution the only viable future for the university is that it belongs to all South Africans.

The University of Stellenbosch cannot be constructed as belonging primarily Afrikaners, or whites. It belongs to all South Africans, black and white. Like all the public institutions in democratic South Africa the university belongs to all, including those who will never set foot in it, even if it was initially created for Afrikaners.

The simple point the student articulates is that public institutions can’t be run in a way that tolerates racism, or sexism, or ethnocentrism, even if by omission, and still claim to be for the public. Everyone of us has a right to create private institutions wherein we can make others feel unwelcome, sure. But public universities must not just discourage discrimination. And even teaching tolerance is inadequate.

Universities like Stellenbosch must fulfill their role as places of to provide a vision for a future in which all South Africans who enter their halls, black and white, can flourish without hinder. Anything less is a failure.

Watch Luister.

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