The question is whether there should be space for cultural, linguistic and intellectual diversity – and the free academic institutions on which such diversity depends – or whether we must all conform to the ANC’s racial ideology of demographic representivity?
There is a deadly struggle under way at North-West University to determine whether its Potchefstroom campus will retain its Afrikaans character as a semi-autonomous unit of the university. NWU’s new Vice-Chancellor, Prof Dan Kgwadi, insists on introducing a unitary system on the university’s three campuses – Potchefstroom, Mafikeng and Vaal Triangle – and in appointing single deans to run faculty affairs on all three campuses. Prof Kgwadi is determined progressively to bring the student bodies and faculties of all three campuses more closely into line with national demographics. Although he claims that he is “a friend of Afrikaans”, his approach would inevitably lead to the demise of the Afrikaans character of the Potchefstroom campus – and in all likelihood to the loss of many Afrikaans-speaking students and faculty.
At Stellenbosch University there has been intense debate on the need to remove the names of DF Malan, HF Verwoerd and BJ Vorster from university buildings and institutions.
There is little disagreement that they all implemented unacceptable policies that make the retention of their names extremely distasteful for multi-racial students and faculty in 2015.
On the other hand, there is a view that historical figures should be judged within the context of their times. Few historical heroes would survive scrutiny if subjected to current norms: Napoleon would be viewed as a mass murderer; Churchill as an unreconstructed imperialist and our own King Shaka as a ruthless despot (although nobody is suggesting that Durban’s international airport should no longer be named after him).
Skeptics also warn against the danger of political correctness and double standards. There is no similar debate at the University of the Free State demanding that Bram Fischer’s name should be dropped from university buildings – even though he was a Stalinist who would have imposed a far more repressive system on South Africa than anything that Verwoerd ever contemplated.
There is a view that historical names should be retained, not as a mark of approval, but because they are inextricably part of our history. History should not be a popularity contest: it should tell us where we have come from – and enable us to learn from the experiences of previous generations.
The implications of the Stellenbosch debate go much further than the retention of the names of previous Afrikaner leaders. For most of its existence Stellenbosch University was undisputedly an Afrikaner institution. It was the spiritual and intellectual heartland of the Afrikaner people – where generations of young Afrikaners developed their own unique traditions and intellectual identity.
Now, 21 years after 1994, the university’s residual Afrikaner heritage is viewed by many as a source of deep embarrassment. Efforts are under way to eliminate it as rapidly as alumni donors will allow. The goal is to move as unobtrusively as possible toward greater demographic representivity – in expiation of the guilt still felt by many well-intentioned white Afrikaans-speakers – and in compliance with the increasingly insistent demands of the ANC government. That is why the names of Malan, Verwoerd and Vorster are being removed from university buildings.
However, it is not only the cultural identity of Stellenbosch University that is being challenged. Students at UCT are demanding that the statue of Cecil Rhodes should be removed because of its unacceptable association with “colonialism”. Rhodes was a deeply flawed politician – and there is no doubt that he was a colonialist. However, he did donate the land on which UCT was built – and was responsible for instituting Rhodes scholarships. For better or worse he had an enormous impact on the history of southern Africa.
The protests against Rhodes are, however, only a salvo in a broader battle for the radical transformation of the university and the replacement of what is regarded as its excessively white, Eurocentric ethos.
The UCT ethos is, however, not just about the remnants of its colonial origins: it centers on the pursuit of academic excellence – in which race plays absolutely no role. It is committed to achieving the highest standards within an environment of untrammeled academic freedom. These values have enabled UCT to become the most highly rated university in Africa and one of the top 125 universities in the world. Now it is being confronted, once again, by a government and protesters who view its culture as inappropriate and insist that race should be the primary consideration in the appointment of faculty, the admission of students and the determination of the university’s culture.
It is quite understandable that black students, who now comprise a 60% majority at UCT, should want the university to reflect their values and culture. However, do the white English-speaking students – who used to predominate on the UCT campus – and the Afrikaans-speaking students at Stellenbosch and Potchefstroom not also have a right to study in a non-racial environment that accommodates their cultures, their values and their heroes? In our multicultural society, is it expected that minorities must conform with the values and language and cultural preferences of the majority wherever they might find themselves?
Should there not be space for universities that cater on a non-racial basis to the special cultural and language needs of minorities – as there are in other multicultural societies. Is there not a place for universities like UCT that, in their pursuit of academic excellence, focus on merit rather than race?
Demographic representivity will inevitably result in the imposition of what the ANC calls ‘African hegemony’ in all our universities. It will negate the constitutional right to education in the language of one’s choice – and, because faculty will be appointed on the basis of race rather than merit, will in all likelihood have a very negative impact on academic standards.
Our Constitution recognises our right to academic freedom; to use our cultures and languages and to receive education in the language of our choice. We should insist on these rights with all the vigor with which liberal universities defended academic freedom and non-racialism under apartheid.
By Dave Steward, Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation