Judging from the positive response to my previous blog post, it would seem that I am not the only one who wants to be celebrated and not just tolerated. As someone who enjoys a bit of controversy, I am so very glad that my friend and colleague Johan Fourie pushed back a little and probed some of my sweeping statements related to Stellenbosch and specifically those related to language, race and culture. I believe that only in teaching do we learn, and only in defending our positions do they become truly our own. So thanks Johan – the wheels of progress are oiled with opposition, confrontation and critique.
Let me start by saying that I do love Stellenbosch. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world that I have ever been to and it has been my home for four years. I am indebted to the professors here who have taught me practically everything I know about education and social policy. In a country of horrific violent crime and incompetence, the campus is an oasis of safety and functionality. It is efficient, productive and entrepreneurial. It is also unequal and conservative.
I’m also glad Johan goaded me on this issue since I’ve been meaning to write about it for a while. Rather than paraphrase his arguments (and miss the Barry Roux reference) I’ll include his comments verbatim below and then address the points one by one.
“Hi Nic. An excellent post as usual, challenging and thought-provoking. But let me be devil’s advocate and ask whether your experience of Stellenbosch as ‘conservative, White, Afrikaans … that is subversively and insidiously homophobic (and White)’ is not your experience of ‘Stellenbosch’ but rather your experience of the church and the social networks linked to it. Even if you want to portray Stellenbosch as white, which means you ignore the black and Coloured communities, and even if you want to portray Stellenbosch as Afrikaans, which means you ignore the large presence of English-speaking whites (Rhenish?) and Xhosa-speaking blacks, how can I, white and Afrikaans and living in Stellenbosch as I am, not take offence at your assertion that I thus partake in this ‘subversively and insidiously homophobic’ behaviour? I put it to you that, perhaps, your social network of earlier were biased towards those less tolerant of homosexuality than the average Stellenbosch inhabitant you would have encountered in a counterfactual world had you arrived as homosexual Nic, a world in which, presumably, you would not have attended a church that are explicitly homophobic. So instead of ‘Stellenbosch is homophobic’, your reason to move to Cape Town is more an attempt to avoid ‘a sub-culture of Stellenbosch that I do not want to be confronted with again’. That is a more than good enough reason to move, of course, but different to the one you are currently proposing. Because, if you want to label ‘white and Afrikaans’ as homophobic, are you not committing the exact generalised prejudice you warn against?”
There are a number of points here, let me try and address them systematically:
1) Stellenbosch homophobia: sub-culture or mainstream?
I think the first point and over-arching theme of Johan’s criticism is that my views are based on my experience of a particular sub-culture of Stellenbosch (homophobic churches and associated social networks) and that this is not an accurate representation of mainstream Stellenbosch culture. I have to disagree. Let me use a well-known example to illustrate my point. One of the traditions in Stellenbosch is called “Soen in Die Laan” meaning ‘kiss in the avenue” where students congregate in one particular street on a specific day at a certain time and they kiss each other. I’m not sure how it started, perhaps a quaint throwback to earlier times of sexual repression, who knows. In any event, during my first year at Stellenbosch (2010), two gay UCT students decided to kiss each other at ‘Soen in Die Laan’ which caused a big stir in the town. It made the front page of Die Matie, the university’s student newspaper and proceeded to go viral. Now, I put it to you that if my experience of below-the-surface homophobia in Stellenbosch was merely a sub-culture then the backlash to this innocent kiss would only have been seen in church newsletters and Sunday sermons rather than the front page of the student paper? Yes, some of the reactions were positive, but much of it wasn’t, for example “Copies of the newspaper were ruined, defaced and slashed as students discussed the impropriety of the image and how it had made them ‘throw up’ “ (from here). It’s perhaps useful here to mention that this was an innocent kiss between two consenting adults? I’m sorry, WTF?! Perhaps a more recent example – last year I heard about two guys being thrown out of Terrace (a nightclub in Stellenbosch) and beaten up for kissing on the dance floor. These are just the visible surface-breaching manifestations of homophobia on campus. But Johan, if you don’t believe me, perhaps some first-hand experience may convince you – why not walk down Victoria Street around lunch time holding hands with another guy and pretend you’re in a relationship and see the looks you get. Nuff said.
2) Booby-trap consolation prize: bad is better than worse
I think one of the comments Johan made was also quite revealing: “Perhaps your social network of earlier were biased towards those less tolerant of homosexuality than the average Stellenbosch inhabitant you would have encountered in a counterfactual world had you arrived as homosexual Nic.” That is almost certainly true but misses the point of my argument. I do think that the average student in Stellenbosch is more tolerant than the average church-goer, but the whole point of my post is that I do not want to simply be “tolerated” as if that were something to strive for or accept. I think people should be endorsed, affirmed and celebrated for who they are, not merely tolerated. Basically, this entire excerpt from Johan’s comment is taking place in the “tolerating” (i.e. accepting) domain rather than the “celebrating” (i.e. affirming) domain.
3) Portrayal of Stellenbosch as White, Afrikaans and conservative – T/F?
Another point Johan raises is that my depiction of Stellenbosch as White/Afrikaans/conservative is inaccurate and ignores the racial, linguistic and political diversity of the campus. I disagree. Acknowledging, identifying and referring only to dominant majorities doesn’t “ignore” minorities it just highlights rhetorically the dominant role of the majority and the marginalization of the minority, which is exactly what I was trying to do here. Regarding the race issue, I blogged about this last year during “Maties Diversity Week” where I dug up the racial statistics in Stellenbosch (I was personally curious) and summarised the findings in the graph below.
I only include UCT as a benchmark comparator to show that even in English-speaking universities (UCT) – where language is less of a barrier – White students predominate. Yet, I was still surprised by the lack of transformation over this 4-year period (2009-2012). In 2012, more than two thirds of the students at Stellenbosch were White. (Remember Whites make up less than 15% of the South African population). It would’ve been nice to look at the linguistic breakdown of the White group at Stellenbosch and disaggregate it into first-language English and first-language Afrikaans students but alas I didn’t have time to look into it.
So looking specifically at race, yes, there are some Black and Coloured students on Campus in Stellenbosch, but for every Black student there are almost 5 White students. This is just in purely racial terms. Given that universities (like most social organizations) have strong institutional inertia/memory, the dominant culture at the university is Afrikaans culture. I am not saying that is a bad thing, only that that is the case. I also don’t think that we should equate racial “share” with cultural “share” at the university for the reason that there are often cultural economies of scale with threshold effects below which there is little legitimate cultural diversity.
Apart from a lack of cultural diversity, I also think that there is a lingering sense of half-cloaked racism on campus. Let me provide some examples:
1) A friend of mine at the university relayed a story of being told that one of the nightclubs on campus was “full” when it clearly wasn’t and that the main reason for this was that there were a group of eight or so Black students who wanted to get in and that they were “too black.”
2) It was only last year that I had my own taste of this remnant racism. Given that I was living very close to campus I was walking home at around 9:30pm one evening and as I got close to the Dagbreek student residence on Bosman Street I heard a dog barking loudly about 20 meters in front of me. The closer I got I saw that there was a large dog barking viciously at a Black student on the pavement outside Dagbreek, preventing him from getting in. This dog was clearly aggressive and kept trying to lunge to bite the student, at which point he would jump away terrified. Worried for the student and seeing that the dog was clearly only barking at him because he was Black (for the non-South Africans out there this kind of thing happens – dogs can be socialised too!) I jumped in-between the barking dog and the student and I started shouting at the dog and holding my book up as if to hit it and also shouting: “Who the fuck does this dog belong to?!” After about 1 minute of this ordeal two White Dagbreek students waltzed past and then standing on either side of the student said “Ag, don’t worry about it Sizwa [not real name], he’s only barking at you because you are Black (laughs).” This was meant as a consolation as they escorted him into his own res – he was also a Dagbreek student. I later found out that this dog (Wolf) is actually owned by a Dagbreek student and kept at Dagbreek.
3) Last year there was considerable commotion at the University convocation where many alumni and parents weren’t happy with the proposed rule that would require all residences to have racial quotas where at least 25% of their students would have to be from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. The main concerns that I could pick up (at least those publicly expressed) were that this would change the “culture” of the residences and that this was seen as a bad thing. Now I agree with them that I do think this rule will start to change the culture in res. Where I differ is that I think that’s marvellous and should be welcomed. I don’t think that you can live in South Africa – a beautiful multicultural, linguistically diverse and ethnically heterogeneous country – and not be exposed to different cultures and languages. To try and remain walled off from the rest of the world in order to preserve your culture is a losing strategy. Modernise, adapt, re-invent, re-discover, incorporate, synthesise, change. Or stagnate and die.
4) The exception to the rule doesn’t negate the rule
In his reply Johan also explains that he is partially offended that he, being a White Afrikaner in Stellenbosch, is assumed to partake in this insidious homophobia. This is a misunderstanding of dominant culture and individual variation since Johan is an exception to the rule (and there are many many others). I know Johan to be a liberal, open-minded and progressive person who has been very supportive to me and to other mutual friends who are gay. He’s a stand-up kind of guy. I also know that mainstream Stellenbosch/Afrikaans culture is conservative and subversively (i.e. not overtly) homophobic. These two things are not contradictory. This just means that Johan is in the upper tail of the cultural distribution being more educated and having travelled to many more countries than the average Stellenbosch resident or student (the latter being more important when looking at culture IMHO). If you grow up in a small, conservative, patriarchal town with religious parents and strong Christian moral guidelines, you are likely to bring that conservatism with you when you come to university. Ironically this conservatism is only tolerated to the extent that it is non-inhibiting. Parental/cultural views around drugs, alcohol and sex are clearly inhibiting and thus are usually the first to be revised.
But things like the importance of friends, family, education, language and culture are not personally inhibiting and thus the cultural dividend they pay and the identity capital they maintain warrants their retention. Unfortunately there is little perceived benefit to challenging one’s inherited views on race, homosexuality and gender. Why address these uncomfortable topics if you don’t have to? Cognitive dissonance is a bitch.
My conclusion on Stellenbosch culture is that the over-riding motto is live-and-let-live, to an extent. We (the disembodied cultural majority) are happy for you (the disembodied cultural minority) to express yourselves and your culture, as long as it does not infringe on our (majority) culture. If it does, we’ll have problems. If not, we love diversity. Obviously none of this is codified, but rather enforced through the insidious norms and expectations of most students, parents and staff.
Do I think this will change in the future? Yes – of course, it is inevitable. Am I going to stick around and wait for it to do so? No – ‘aint nobody got time for that!
A way forward…
Until the powers that be are serious enough to start tackling the extremely uncomfortable realities of race, language, history and culture in an open and transparent way, we shouldn’t be surprised at the occasional pressure-release expressions of homophobia and racism. I often wonder why there isn’t a permanent exhibition/museum highlighting the central role that Stellenbosch University played in apartheid (see here for one countervailing example). The central figures and fathers of apartheid – Verwoerd, Malan, Treurnicht, Hertzog – were all students at Stellenbosch, which has been described as the “crucible for Afrikaner nationalist ideas” in the 20th century. Do we think these students were inculcating themselves?! This is an awkward reality conveniently left out of the official “History of Stellenbosch University” webpage. [Disclaimer: This is a new area of interest to me so perhaps some of you out there (Johan?) know of existing SU programs that do exactly this that I've missed? Or articles, documentaries etc. Please post in the comments section if you do.]
What I’ve written above is reflective of my experience of Stellenbosch, which is one slice of the spectrum and by no means representative. I think the best way to figure out how Stellenbosch is experienced by different people is simply to ask them. I have no idea what Stellenbosch feels like for Muslims or lesbians or Black students? If you have anything you’d like to share about how you experience Stellenbosch please do leave a comment – I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this.