Last weekend, in the early hours of the morning, a white student in the student residence Huis Marais intruded into a black student’s room and urinated on his belongings.
In the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Stellenbosch University, we study what people do, think, believe, create, hope and fear; what we have achieved and where we have fallen short. Ultimately, we are concerned with who we are, in our individual capacity and in our relationship to others. The incident at Huis Marais is about all of these questions.
Regardless of the outcome of Stellenbosch University’s investigation, our faculty wants to express its abhorrence at this incident. Urinating on a fellow student’s laptop and study materials shows a gross disregard for the victim’s person and for his intellectual endeavours. It is a denial of his equal standing as a fellow student and fellow human being.
Whiteness — an accident of birth — is not a source of moral superiority. The character of a person is measured by their actions. There is no excuse for a white student treating a black student as someone whose work, whose dignity, whose personhood counts for less than their own. None.
These were the actions of one individual towards another. But they happened in this country and at this university, and therefore against the background of a history of racism, racial nationalism, exclusion and oppression.
Stellenbosch is a different place from what it was under apartheid. Nevertheless, our actions as students, lecturers and administrators are framed by the history of our country and our institution.
As a faculty, we acknowledge this. We strive, in what and how we teach, to face up to our bitter past and to equip our students to walk into the future as thoughtful, critical citizens with a sense of dignity, agency and mutual responsibility.
We do not wish to appropriate the experience of the victim of this racist incident as a “teachable moment”. It is for him to decide how to make sense of the incident and we should respect his autonomy — the very autonomy denied to him by the perpetrator. What is required of us is to reflect on our actions, in whatever role we may play at this university.
Our commitment as a faculty is that we will not look away from racism. We will continue to try to understand its sources and manifestations and to incorporate this understanding into our teaching. It is only by knowing what is going on in the world that we are able to change it.
We cannot undo the past but we can resist its legacy. It is in this spirit that we will keep on asking who we are and how we got here, so that we might make a more just world for those living now and for those who will come after us.
Professors Anthony Leysens, Lindy Heinecken and Vasti Roodt are respectively the dean, vice-dean: research, and vice-dean: teaching and learning in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Stellenbosch University.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.