Khampepe report ‘a sobering moment’ for Stellenbosch University

The rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University, professor Wim de Villiers, has received the final report of the Independent Commission Inquiry into Allegations of Racism at the institution.

The report, which was released on Tuesday, was commissioned by a retired judge of the Constitutional Court, Sisi Khampepe.

In June, Khampepe was appointed as commissioner to lead the inquiry and table the recommendations to improve the culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the university.

De Villiers said the university is studying the report and will communicate the findings and the subsequent plan of action and the way forward as soon as everything is finalised.

“The report of the Khampepe Commission, with its findings and recommendations, is a tipping point for Stellenbosch University. In appointing the commission and requesting the inquiry, the university made itself vulnerable and exposed itself to possible criticism. However, with a view to the future, we regard this commission as an important investment in the wellness of our university,” said De Villiers.

“We are in a process of studying the report and we fully engage with the findings and recommendations. This is a top priority for the university.”

Racial incidents rocked the university in May when a first-year law student Theuns du Toit entered 20-year-old Babalo Ndwayana’s Huis Marais room in the early hours of a Sunday morning and urinated on his study desk.

Asked by Ndwayana why he was doing that, Du Toit is said to have responded: “This is what we do to black boys.”

Ndwayana filmed the incident and the footage went viral on social media. Calls followed for Du Toit to be expelled from the institution.

Du Toit was suspended from the university and expelled from the residence. Ndwayana initially forgave him, but with pressure from his father and South Africans he laid criminal charges against Du Toit.

Sunday World reported at the time that the university had dealt with 42 cases of racism/discrimination between 2016 and 2021 after its spokesperson, Martin Viljoen, laid bare measures put in place to prevent racial exclusion and to ensure transformation.

Viljoen said the university is guided by its Vision 2040 and values, which include excellence, compassion, equity, respect, and accountability. Viljoen further told Sunday World that the policy on unfair discrimination and harassment and the student disciplinary code, as well as corresponding codes for staff guide acceptable behaviour.

He said: “The equality unit looks at various categories of transgressions. In terms of alleged discrimination, there were three cases in 2016; 16 in 2017; 13 in 2017; three in 2019; seven in 2020 and 0 in 2021 – with varying outcomes.

“There have been no dismissals of staff for racism or race-related conduct in the last five years [2017-2021]. With regard to students, only one student was expelled in 2017.”

He added, however, that the institution takes “a zero-tolerance approach to racism, discrimination, prejudice, and violence on campus”.

“As communicated before, we want to strengthen existing and implement new comprehensive measures to combat such violations and continue to improve those measures on an ongoing basis.

“The Stellenbosch University leadership is sensitive to the wellbeing of the entire student and staff community, and the impact of such incidents on our university community.”

Khampepe’s report is a hard pill to swallow for the institution. De Viliers said it is a “sobering moment”, as they have come to a realisation that in fact black students and staff members have been feeling unwelcomed at the institution despite measures enforced thus far.

“This is a sobering moment for the university. It is evident that black staff members and students do not feel welcome here, despite our deliberate transformation efforts to date.

“We must face the reality that there is a gap between our intentions with regard to various transformation initiatives and the implementation thereof. We have to work hard to align our institutional commitments with what is happening in practice and on the ground level.

“Although there is much in the report for the university to take heart from, specific fault lines have also been identified. There is a lot of work to do across Stellenbosch University, in the interest of all our students and staff, in the sincere spirit of being welcoming and inclusive.

“Justice Khampepe made various recommendations that we are now studying deeper. We will evaluate the findings and implement action plans to address the areas for improvement as identified in the commission’s recommendations,” said De Villiers.

Conclusive findings

In the report, which Sunday World has seen, Khampepe suggests that the university is fraught with a toxic culture at its residences caused by ancient racial scars and beliefs that have been neglected for far too long, which now bleed on the younger generation.

Khampepe made recommendations regarding the toxic culture and the university’s language policies, notwithstanding the need for greater change in leadership.

“Earlier in this report, I mentioned that the evidence exposes two polarised perceptions of the university,” reads the report in part.

“One perceives the university as the final bastion of Afrikaans pride and heritage, which must be protected at all costs to safeguard the legacies and rights of the white, Afrikaans community. The other understands the university as exactly the same place that it was during the apartheid era, and perceives it as a hostile and unchanged environment for black people.

“My conclusion, at the end of an arduous and comprehensive inquiry, is that these perceptions are equally untrue.

“They are both influenced by the preconceived ideas of different groups of people with radically different histories, and they indicate that much learning and introspection are needed.

“This inquiry unveiled many past scars and traumas and indicated that there is still much healing to be done in our country.

“The university can only hope to realise its potential of becoming the national asset that it can and should be if all members of the university feel that they belong and that it is a place for them. The solution is not to fight and defend the past, it is to unite and build a future together.

“After all, the fact that an identical sentiment of fear was expressed by both white, Afrikaans and black students at the university is an indication that members of the university community are missing opportunities to communicate, connect and understand one another in terms of similarities rather than difference.”

Khampepe said the university’s state of affairs must be tackled through her findings and recommendations to ensure that its transformation apparatus is optimised. “If this does not happen, it is unlikely that the university will be able to shed its historic scars, heal and grow into the national asset to which it aspires.”

“Although it is the work of the entire university community and our greater society to rebuild a country in which all people are provided opportunities to flourish, this cannot be achieved unless every individual is willing to look inwards and change.

“That is precisely why this commission has recommended the implementation of a compulsory shared humanities module in order to facilitate this critical process of introspection and growth.

“My closing advice to the university, and indeed anyone willing to listen, borrowed from the words of another luminary of transformation, have been chosen with equal deliberation: ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that [Martin Luther King Jr]’,” she concluded.

DA’s Leon Schreiber expressed concerns over the findings and said the party will challenge the report in court. According to Schreiber, the report paints a bad picture of the Afrikaners, thereby making them a scapegoat for all the university’s troubles.

He said since the dawn of De Villiers’ appointment, the university has committed several injustices against Afrikaners.

“The Khampepe report escalates the attack on Afrikaans to unprecedented levels by effectively blaming the 7-million speakers of Afrikaans, the most diverse language in South Africa, for any and all racial tensions and incidents such as the urination scandal,” said Schreiber.

“It is clear that this finding was designed to provide De Villiers with the excuse he had long sought to completely eliminate Afrikaans as an academic language.

“Equating Afrikaans with racism is not only a disgusting insult to an entire language community in South Africa, it is also completely irrational, based on anecdotal and totally non-representative evidence, and contrary to everything our constitutional democracy stands for.

“Therefore, the DA immediately instructed our attorneys to challenge Khampepe’s report in court. As the foremost political champion for language rights in parliament, the DA will spare no expense in protecting the dignity of our indigenous languages, including Afrikaans.”

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