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