Stellenbosch University’s transformation through visual redress

Published On: 27 October 2021|

Dr Leslie Van Rooi, Senior Director: Social Impact and Transformation at Stellenbosch University, was the third panellist to tackle the sub-theme of The Engaged University and Transformation during the Transformation Strategy Group’s session at University South Africa’s recent Higher Education Conference. He related the transformation and engagement journey of his institution.

Stellenbosch University, a historically white institution, recently accepted a Visual Redress Policy, which, according to Dr Van Rooi, will help solidify attempts by the institution to achieve inclusion of all its constituencies.

The university defines this as a process “to make right, to set right, to remove, to change and to contextualise hurtful symbols; symbols in general and to focus on an African centrality that allows for a sharing of a variety of stories, identities and histories.”

These deep and now formalised engagements at Stellenbosch University came about after the RhodesMustFall and FeesMustFall movements of 2015/16. These demonstrations influenced what became known as the ‘Open Stellenbosch Movement’ – an institutional call for inclusion from marginalised groups of students and staff.

He said visual changes in historically white institutions began in the late 80s and continued to the 90s. “After the FeesMustFall movement, conversations around transformation became quite deep. Almost all universities had to rethink whose photos, whose portraits, and whose paintings were up on their walls.”

Dr Van Rooi (left) said these engagements and processes of visual redress have since enabled even broader publics of the institution to “engage on the stories of our university; the histories; and of course, how we would like to represent and present our university visually.”

The turning point, at Stellenbosch, was the removal of a plaque that honoured Hendrik Verwoerd, Prime Minister in the apartheid regime. It enacted what became open and frank conversations about the visual identity of the institution. The plaque removal catapulted the university’s movement towards acknowledging and breaking away from its apartheid history.

He said the institution would like these changes to impact teaching, learning, and research, as part of an integrated understanding of an engagement.

As part of the changing artworks, Dr Van Rooi singled out contextualisation boards. These are installed in front or within buildings that have gone through name changes. On them are stories that share the histories of these buildings, on the one hand, and the new narratives with which the university wants to identify and move forward. “This is also a way to indicate that it is not an erosion of history,” he said, referring to the changes already in place and yet to come.

Affirming what they call ‘deep engagements’, the University’s transformation committee has run surveys to see how staff have experienced the changes over the last three years. They also intend to run a similar poll to students and external stakeholders — to see if there is a different feel or uptake on these matters.

Wrapping up, he admitted that the publicness of this process allows for it to be deeply embedded and that, of course, it slows it down. “But in the end, it does allow for a very fruitful, deep and impactful engagement with the university and its publics, and impacts on the curriculum,” he said.

Discussion time:

First respondent, Ms Lerato Mphahlele (below), former National Executive Member of the South African Union of Students (SAUS), said that engagement with students should begin the moment they set foot on campus, at first-year level.

She said instead of becoming ambassadors of their respective institutions, students arriving on university space simply move about as stakeholders whose mission is to obtain knowledge and leave. Only thereafter, as alumni, so they transition to ambassadors.

“The ambassadorship, for me, starts primarily when the first-year students come into the university. And I think that is a very critical thing that will drive how we engage, as students, and form part of the engagement in the transformation of the university.

“I like Dr Van Rooi’s presentation where the transformation plan of Stellenbosch University prioritises both campus and community engagements, one of the three pillars of university functions alongside teaching and learning, and research and innovation.”

She encouraged universities to establish engagement platforms immediately students arrive on the premises. “That is how I believe we will then play a successful role in building a continuous model of transformation within university spaces,” she added.

Mphahlele then shifted her attention to Professor Keet’s input.

“The decolonisation and transformation of universities are discussions that we, as young people, have amongst each other. And we do not primarily get the platforms and forums to write and contribute towards a university’s transformation.

“I see that in the metrics that you just delivered in your presentation; there is a very small dot of decolonisation. The terms of decolonisation and pedagogy, which are only currently starting to come up in our discussions as 4IR, have impacted how teaching and learning are delivered to us as students.”

She said this was crucial research that they would take up as students.

Ms Mphahlele called for universities to create platforms for students to form part of these discussions. “I believe that is where Student Representative Councils and Student Affairs bodies continue to have an important role — by creating engagement platforms for students, and allowing them to shape the transformation discourse.”

According to Ms Mphahlele, Student Affairs could collaborate with faculty deans to integrate engagement into academic activities. This should include engaging university communities and extended communities – what she referred to as social entrepreneurship.

Second Respondent, Mr George Mvalo (below), Director: Social Justice and Transformation at the Vaal University of Technology & Chairperson of USAf’s Transformation Managers’ Forum (TMF), said he found the presentations insightful but battled to find radical approaches to transformation in institutions.

“So, the bibliometric analysis, for me, really is an aspect that needs to, from time to time, be embedded in how we begin to look for thematic gaps in our knowledge systems – in the articles that get published. We also need to create better alignment for universities.”

“One thing that I was battling to find in the presentations is a radical approach to transformation in institutions. Maintaining the status quo is well and good until a particular point. But, if the events of 2015/16 are anything to go by, we begin to see that institutions will eventually always be on the backfoot regarding being responsive to some of these important, fundamental changes that need to happen in our institutions.”

Mvalo then echoed Professor LenkaBula’s sentiments on how universities have become complacent as consumers, rather than owners of advancing digital systems. He said this matter called for a dedicated focus in collaboration with the Department of Higher Education and Training.

On Stellenbosch University’s Visual Redress trajectory, Mvelo submitted that this demonstrates the influence of the fallist movements on our universities, commending the much more rapid response to things that should have been done sooner, which universities “now have to do.”

Third Respondent, Mr Siseko Kumalo (below), PhD candidate at the University of Pretoria and Author, also commented on the inputs shared.

To Dr Van Rooi, he suggested that universities adopt a horizontal approach to accountability.

“In most instances and in the South African context, we find vertical accountability. We have institutional administrators reporting to the Department of Higher Education and Training and the Department of Science and Innovation, and not necessarily this kind of horizontal accountability where we are responsive to our local institutions. I think this is what we get from this case study presentation that we got from Dr Van Rooi.”

Responding to Professor LenkaBula, he said institutions ought to function as spaces that facilitate justice for all. He cited one of leading feminist scholars, Professor Drucilla Cornell, who talks about the alignment of the ethical with aesthetics.

“In Dr Van Rooi’s presentation we see the aesthetic component in terms of the presentation of the institution itself, and how it bleeds into the community and aligns itself with contemporary modern democratic principles in South Africa.”

“What we begin to see from these two presentations by Professor LenkaBula and Dr Van Rooi, is how do we align the ethical with aesthetics in facilitating this project of democracy, specifically if we think about the historical ambitions and desires of the leaders of the sector at the dawn of democracy in our country.”

On Professor Keet’s input he said he found the critical anthology fascinating, “because it allows us to be able to facilitate this deeply embedded responsiveness of the institution, which I think many South African universities are attempting to do, to a certain degree.

“And so, the question I have and want to leave us with is around whether indeed, the process of African epistemology allows us to answer western philosophical problems; or whether it gives us new philosophical problems that are African oriented. If that is the case, if we are using African epistemology in service of western problems, should we or are we to be sort of disinterested in that orientation, or should we indeed commit our own epistemologies to answer historical questions.”

Fourth Respondent, Mr Cas Coovadia (below), Chief Executive Officer of Business Unity South Africa (BUSA), also shared other insights.

“What we need to do is ask whether our universities are engaged as we would want them to be engaged, or are they engaged in ways that render them unreachable.

“And I guess what we want to do here is to ensure that universities are engaged in a way that they not only respond to transformational issues, economic issues, social issues in society, but that they also lead in the engagement that transforms themselves, academia, and our society.”

He cautioned that there were a myriad of challenges concerning transformation, which, if not addressed properly, could impact significantly on the university.

“We need to define what we mean by transformation, and we need to ask ourselves, transformation to what effect? I think that our definition and identification of transformation has to be such that its achievement will lead one to a more engaged and equitable university – that will enable that university and its students and every constituent of that university to play an appropriate role within the context in which society finds itself in today.”

“I think one of the transformational roles of universities, and I do not think they do this effectively enough, is to tackle head-on some of the harder issues — ones related to race, economy and different aspects of society. Enable different thinking and enable society, and the country, to address these positively.”

The writer, Nqobile Tembe, is a Communication Consultant contracted by Universities South Africa.