It’s not just Stellenbosch University that needs to “luister”


The frustration and dissent expressed by the Open Stellenbosch movement are shared by students at NWU-Pukke, but they don’t see change coming any time soon, writes PONTSHO PILANE.

Last week was an eye-opener for many as they watched Luister, a collaborative documentary between the student solidarity movement Open Stellenbosch and media company Contraband Cape Town. The documentary describes experiences of racism at Stellenbosch University and highlights how the Afrikaans language is used to exclude and discriminate against the non-Afrikaans speaking students at the university. But Stellenbosch is not the only South African university that is guilty of these atrocious acts.

Just a few hours after I first watched Luister, a Facebook friend, who is a student at North West University Potchefstroom (NWU-Pukke), posted an update expressing her frustration with the interpreters in two of her courses. In the midst of trying to process the extent of racism at Stellenbosch, I was being confronted with the fact that Stellenbosch is clearly not an anomaly.

RELATED: “Black students don’t matter at NWU-Pukke”

“We wear earpieces; the lecture is given in Afrikaans and [the translator] tries her best to translate into English,” she explained.

Out of fear of being singled out for speaking to the media, the NWU-Pukke students I spoke to all asked to remain anonymous. But one thing was clear: they are not happy with the conditions in which they are forced to learn.

Thabang*, who graduated in 2013, told me he found it challenging to learn in lectures conducted in Afrikaans but believes that nothing can be done to change the situation. “It was my choice to go to Pukke – nobody forced me. When I applied, I saw it in the prospectus that most of their courses are in Afrikaans and I still chose to study there. What can be done?” he said.

After the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) marched for a revision of NWU-Pukke’s language policy in 2013, the university defended its choice to conduct the majority of lectures in Afrikaans – without being mindful of the consequences this may have for the black students that make up 60% of NWU students.

Tumi*, a second-year actuarial sciences student, told me that since he started studying at the university, all of his modules have been lectured in Afrikaans. Although he uses the translation services offered by the university, he does not find it helpful.

“Sometimes the translators don’t know the words and there are constant frequency interruptions. Our notes are translated through Google, and sometimes they don’t make sense. I have resorted to self-study because that is much better for me,” he said.

The frustration and dissent expressed by the Open Stellenbosch movement are shared by Pukke students, but they don’t see change coming any time soon.

“Our SRC [Student Representative Council]  is mostly Afrikaans, I don’t think this is a concern for them. They are not disadvantaged by the language policy,” said one student.

The students I spoke with all seem to have accepted the status quo. Despite their hopelessness, they seem to pin all their hope on their new vice chancellor, Professor Dan Kgwadi, who was appointed in April 2014.  “Professor Kgwadi is at the forefront of transformation and he is prioritising it. His appointment gives me a little bit of hope,” Tumi said.

In a letter penned to NWU students, Kgwadi expresses his commitment to transformation and to making the university a “vehicle of social justice”. He also said that structures and traditions that undermine social cohesion and human rights should not be entertained at any of the NWU campuses.

“What my vision does not support is that tuition in Afrikaans at the Potchefstroom Campus should be curtailed. Or that Afrikaans-speaking students should feel less welcome on the Potchefstroom Campus. This is not my view or intention,” Professor Kgwadi writes.

Student movements such as Open Stellenbosch, Rhodes Must Fall and Transform Wits have forced South Africa’s higher learning institutions to confront institutional racism on their campuses. The militant and unapologetic stance that these movements have taken are at the forefront of the agenda to decolonise academia.

My question is, who is joining hands with students at Pukke who already seem to have given up a battle that is yet to be fought?

Pontsho is our Jo’burg reporter. Got a story idea or want to get in touch? Follow her on Twitter.

* Not their real names
– Featured image via Facebook


  1. “…university defended its choice to conduct the majority of lectures in Afrikaans – without being mindful of the consequences this may have for the black students that make up 60% of NWU students.”

    Yes, 60% of the students at the NWU as a whole are black, but 70% of the contact students (attending class physically on a daily basis) on the Potch campus are white Afrikaans. That is the reason for the majority of classes being in Afrikaans on the campus. Mafikeng campus is 99% black and 1% white, these figures include part time students – what is being said about that??

    I’m sorry, but there is a problem if students from mafikeng campus, 200 kms away, comes to Potch to sing “kill the whites” in a violent “protest”.

    I hate that everyone always brings race into the picture. the NWU-Puk campus’s students runs the biggest community program of its kind in the southern hemisphere. None of those great things are ever to be heard. It’s always just about how “white” Potch is and how “racist” all the “whites” are. By definition, those who goes about that way ARE RACISTS THEMSELVES. Again, BLACK PEOPLE CAN BE RACIST TOO.

    It saddens me to hear all the blatant political bullshit about the Puk.

    The saddest: Some people won’t ever be satisfied. Some people just want to see the world burn. The real problem is the “culture of revolution” the ANC has so eagerly taught the masses. It is so very very sad to see how this country is going down, but still, “In the news headlines: Stellenbosch too white”.

    the ANC could have turned this whole country in the exact opposite direction, yet they blame the people providing what little jobs there are left of being racist and say “they” must leave.

    Tell me, what happens when all the industries leave? (I know the problem is that these companies are predominantly still white, WHICH IS UNFAIR, but allow yourself to see WHY: the ANC has only maintained segregation in this country, while they could have easily mended it.

    You cant create jobs by striking, you cant educate yourself by burning educational centres down.

    God save this beautiful country.

    • Thank you for saying what most of us are too scared to say.

      I’ve seen countless studies showing how much better it is for a person to study in their mother tongue. Yet we are being told that we can’t study in our mother tongue, becuase there is a connotation between Afrikaans and white. And being born in 1994, I’ve been taught from childhood just how wrong it is to be white.

      I also appreciate you bringing up the Mafikeng point. No-one complains about the inequal representation of races there. Yet they come on buses to our campus to protest and break down the gates?

      I am so tired of feeling guilty for being a white Afrikaner. I am also a born-free. I chose the Puk, because just like Thabang* I knew it is Afrikaans. How come no-one ever speaks to the black Afrikaners about how they feel? I don’t want to be labeled a racist just because of my skin colour anymore. (See the irony in that?) I don’t want to be critisized for wanting to study in my mother tongue.

      Just…. *sigh*
      Why can’t you just stop twisting facts and opinions to suit you, why can’t jou just stop being racist towards whites, why can’t you just let us be?

  2. Protesting black students generally are a long, long way from having mastered English. When you learn a second language in an artificial classroom environment where you leave your English behind as soon as you depart the English Language class, where you were taught “English” by someone who is not a mother-tongue English-speaker, the “English” you have is like a Chinese Whisper. It’s not authentic English, but a photocopy of a photocopy.

    They’d be better advised to demand tuition in their own proper mother-tongue spoken by real mother-tongue speakers. Just like how Hungarians and Greeks and Norwegians etc etc study everything in their own mother tongues and not in English.


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