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The second tragedy of Russel Botman’s death

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Dignitaries at the funeral of Prof Russel Botman. Photo: Denvor de Wee / City Press

Dignitaries at the funeral of prof Russel Botman. Photo: Denvor de Wee, City Press

The unexpected death of prof Russel Botman on Friday, 27 June came as a shock to the faculty and students of Stellenbosch University. I was on my first day of leave in the Kruger National Park, and with the little cellphone reception I had, I could see the hundreds of messages on Facebook and Twitter. Messages of thanks and support. Messages of hope that his legacy will be carried forward.

After a week in the Park, I returned yesterday and could finally read through the several obituaries written about prof Botman. Those written immediately after his death highlighted, as expected, his exceptional achievements in his fight against the apartheid structures, his rise as a leading theologian and his success at continuing the transformation process at Stellenbosch University. As one commentator mentioned, Botman often had to straddle two (or even three) worlds: balancing the diverse demands on Stellenbosch’s first black rector and vice-chancellor was no easy task even for someone as capable as him.

Yet what saddened me even more on my return was the clumsy and, in my reading at least, cynical attempts to link prof Botman’s passing to the apparent persistence of white nationalism. Here, for example, is the blurb to a recent article by Marianne Tham:

While family, friends, colleagues and dignitaries paid tribute to Stellenbosch Rector and Vice Chancellor Russel Botman at the weekend, Afrikaans singer and self-proclaimed activist, Steve Hofmeyr, triumphantly tweeted that he had just sung Die Stem to a crowd of 45,000 gathered at the “Innibos National Cultural Festival” in Nelspruit. While the two events may appear random and unconnected, they offer an entry point into an increasingly necessary national debate about the meaning of transformation in a constitutional democracy.

No, they don’t. They appear ‘random and unconnected’ because that is exactly what they are. Steve Hofmeyr and his Mbombela stadium of fans (in Mpumalanga) singing Die Stem is as representative of events at Stellenbosch University as Julius Malema and his cheering crowds in Marikana are of transformation debates at UCT. (The latter may actually be more representative, seeing that the EFF won a million votes in the recent elections, and 2.5% of the ward where UCT is located. Hofmeyr, remember, is a singer, not a politician.) Thamm, though, sees a correlation: “The hardening of attitudes among some Afrikaans speakers can be evidenced in the type of ‘activism’ popular [of] Afrikaans figures like Steve Hofmeyr’. No evidence is provided for this ‘hardening of attitudes’ at Stellenbosch. The best Thamm can do is to cite the report on initiation practices at North-West University. And a quote by an unidentified individual more than a decade ago.

Pierre de Vos, in his blog Constitutionally Speaking, makes exactly the same unfortunate generalisations. Fascinatingly, he starts with an anecdote of his experience at Stellenbosch in the late 1980s. His inability to register his religious affiliation as atheist in the late 1980s somehow has a bearing on initiation practices at North-West today. He then continues to argue that white, Afrikaans universities are unconstitutional because the exclude black students. Let me restrict my remarks to three short points: 1) As a good friend notes, Afrikaans != white, especially in the Western Cape. Check the census. 2) The Stellenbosch of De Vos in the 1980s is vastly different from the Stellenbosch of today. As I wrote a few weeks ago, Stellenbosch is transforming rapidly. Check the numbers. 3) The comparison with North-West and Stellenbosch is problematic. North-West has three campuses with one, Potchefstroom, teaching almost entirely in Afrikaans at the undergraduate level. Translation services are successfully used to accommodate non-Afrikaans speakers. In my faculty at Stellenbosch, all courses are offered in English and Afrikaans. At the graduate level in Economics, all instruction is in English. In that sense, Stellenbosch approximates Pretoria and Bloemfontein, two other universities where Afrikaans is taught (and which Pierre fails to mention). Check the facts.

Both authors disregard the transformation of the Stellenbosch campus over the last decade, much of it due to the work of prof Botman. Neither authors cite any statistics, which are readily available from the university website. Instead, they choose to use anecdotes and tweets to say something about the apparent unwillingness of Stellenbosch to transform. As with bad science, they seem to want to prove a point before they consider the evidence. At a time when we are supposed to celebrate the contribution of a fine leader, their sloppy journalism only leads to discord based on disinformation. That is exactly the antithesis of what Russel Botman stood for.

Written by Johan Fourie

July 8, 2014 at 07:46

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