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Activist Cleric Strives for Reform at Top South African University

Former anti-apartheid cleric Russel Botman is the first black dean of one of South Africa's top universities

Stellenbosch University's first black dean struggles to attract black students to traditionally white institution

The town of Stellenbosch looks like a painting. It’s surrounded by mountains and vineyards, with ancient oak trees towering over neat streets and old Cape Dutch homes. Stellenbosch is in South Africa’s Western Cape Province and is often called the country’s most picturesque place. But the beauty sometimes veils an ugly past in which the local university, through its whites-only policies, helped to uphold apartheid.

In 1996, during a speech at Stellenbosch University, then-president Nelson Mandela called it the “leading intellectual home of Afrikaner nationalism. It was from this university that apartheid received a great deal of its theoretical justification.” Every one of South Africa’s white leaders between 1910 and 1978 studied at Stellenbosch University. Its international reputation as an institution of academic excellence was tainted by its association with apartheid.

Since democracy came to South Africa in 1994, Stellenbosch University has opened its doors to students of all races. It’s also sought to strengthen its links with the entire continent, establishing groundbreaking research projects across Africa. Partly as a result of that, the international evaluator of world university rankings, the Webometrix website, ranks Stellenbosch University third best in Africa – behind two others in South Africa -- Cape Town and Pretoria.

Almost 2,500 of its 24, 000 learners are international students – mostly from other African countries. They study at Stellenbosch because its high standards ensure its students are accepted for post-graduate studies at the world’s leading centers of learning.

Yet, despite these achievements, it wasn’t until Stellenbosch University appointed its first black dean in 2006 that its battle for internal change began in earnest.

Black students put off by university's past

Professor Russel Botman’s a soft-spoken academic who cut his teeth on the violent frontlines of the struggle against apartheid. At the time, he was a church minister, but didn’t shrink from getting his hands dirty by standing – and sometimes falling – alongside fellow human rights activists who opposed the apartheid state’s security forces.

Stellenbosch University is situated in the middle of some of South Africa's most breathtaking scenery
Stellenbosch University is situated in the middle of some of South Africa's most breathtaking scenery

Now, Botman’s involved in a different war…one he acknowledges he’s fighting to win. “My goal is to attract significantly more black students to Stellenbosch University. But before we can do this, we have to change perceptions in a vast range of areas,” Botman says. “Black students feel they will be crushed at Stellenbosch because of the perception that it is still an exclusively white, Afrikaans institution.”

He gives the example of an exceptionally talented black scholar from a local impoverished township. “We sent all our people to his house to recruit him. We offered him all the money that we could. He refused (to accept our offer). He (instead) went to UCT (the University of Cape Town). He (told us), ‘I have been a success (up until) now; do you want to turn me into a failure (by studying at Stellenbosch)?’”

Botman wants the university to be place where black people feel they can be successful. But at the moment, because of the institution’s legacy of racial discrimination, many feel exactly the opposite. “It’s kind of a Catch-22,” he says, sighing. “We want to transform, but we can only transform by attracting quality black students.”

Botman adds, “We will have reached transformation at Stellenbosch if the daughter of the (black) farm worker has the same opportunity (of) higher education as the son of the (white) farmer.”

But at the moment, white students make up 76 percent of the student body, with most being Afrikaans. Less than 2 percent give Xhosa – the language spoken by black people in the Western Cape – as their home language.

Resistance to his language policy

In a bid to attract more black students, Stellenbosch University has started giving some classes in English, which is also spoken by many black South Africans.

Botman insists that in the “new” South Africa, “multilingualism” is required. He says Stellenbosch students must be exposed to Afrikaans, “in the (same) way that Afrikaans (students) will be exposed to English and to Xhosa. And the idea is that we will create the kind of professionals that we need in the country, that are multilingual, that can serve the country best.”

But the professor’s language policy has been resisted vociferously by powerful elements in the Afrikaans community, who fear it’ll damage their culture, of which they consider the university a major part.

“Some of them say they want it as an exclusively Afrikaans university. Others say ‘No, we don’t really want it exclusively, but we want it to be by default Afrikaans’…. It’s hard to appease everyone,” Botman says.

According to the dean, many Afrikaners regard Stellenbosch University as “probably the last secular place where they can experience their culture and where the walls will speak to them. The difficulty is to get the walls to speak to others as well, to get the place to be multicultural, without losing Afrikaners and their identification with the institution. Our best bet is to find something that’s more inclusive, rather than making Afrikaners feel they’re now on the margins of the institution.”

But he acknowledges that white Afrikaners, including those associated with the university, are feeling increasingly alienated. “They feel they are no longer wanted in South Africa. So they study at Stellenbosch, and they take their skills overseas. We want them to stay, but for them to stay, they must feel part of a new South Africa.”

Grasping for ideals

Botman’s trying to assure Afrikaners that the university will “remain linked to its Afrikaans heritage,” despite all the negativity associated with that history.

“If we can change Stellenbosch University and deal with its transformation without further marginalizing Afrikaner people, then we’ve been successful,” he says.

Yet he knows that won’t be easy to achieve.

“It’s very difficult to maintain balance. Communities are very sensitive. If we do one thing, we are accused of being anti-Afrikaner. If we do another thing to include Afrikaners, then we are accused of being anti-transformation….”

But Botman maintains he will continue to strive for ideals – no matter how far out of reach they may seem.

“South Africa will become an example to the world in terms of respect for multiculturalism. And where better to start with achieving this than at universities, where the greatest young minds and the thinkers of the future are being forged?” he asks.

“If the maties (nickname for Stellenbosch University students) can think of themselves as multicultural, non-racial, non-sexist people, then we have contributed to the (transformation of the) country,” Botman says.