Nic Spaull, PhD student at Stellenbosch, recently wrote a long response to a comment I had made on his Facebook wall. In a nutshell, Nic’s argument was that the dominant culture at Stellenbosch is white and Afrikaans and therefore also conservative and subversively homophobic. I still don’t agree entirely with Nic, but let us focus on another issue which Nic and I have debated since his post and to which he alludes in his final paragraph: that Stellenbosch has not done enough to acknowledge and distance itself from its apartheid history.
Here’s the evidence: There is still a DF Malan* building on campus (erected with National Party funds to honour the founder of apartheid). There is still a plaque commemorating Hendrik Verwoerd in one of the entrances to the Accounting and Statistics building (which used to be called the Verwoerd building). These are the architects of apartheid. The fact that these names and artefacts continue to exist sends a strong signal, Nic argues, that Stellenbosch is unwilling to change. Black students find these relics deplorable and possibly preserved with malicious intend. These relics say: ‘You are now stepping on Afrikaner domain – this is our bastion’.

Architechts of apartheid: Malan, Strijdom and Verwoerd all have Stellenbosch roots

Malan, Strijdom and Verwoerd all have Stellenbosch roots

There is no doubt that some black students find Stellenbosch an uncomfortable and often abusive place. In my conversations with them, they’ve expressed similar views to those expressed on Nic’s blog or on other forums. Racist incidents around Stellenbosch’s bars and pubs seem, sadly, to be a particularly popular anecdote. But for a long time, the university itself harboured an inhospitable attitude towards English-speaking black students. Classes were only in Afrikaans, with little additional support provided. Residences seemed to be places of white exclusivity, the last remnants of what must look like a modern-day version of the Broederbond. Even though the university continued to excel in research, moving up international rankings, the campus remained, and remains, predominantly white and Afrikaans.

My sense, though, is that this is changing. I’ve lived in Stellenbosch for more than a decade. The campus today looks remarkably different than it did when I was a student. Nic showed some graphs that suggest little has changed, which is the reason he argues that not enough is being done. I tend to differ, mostly because I believe that the best type of change is that which happens organically. A call, if you like, for incrementalism. Here’s some hard numbers published on the university website: since 2007, white, male undergraduate students have increased by 9.6%. In the same period, black, male undergraduate students increased by 73%. White females increased by 6.4%. Black females increased by 148%. Yes, black students are still a minority, but these numbers reflect a rapidly growing minority. Given another decade, Stellenbosch should have the same racial profile that UCT has today.

Accessibility is one reason for these dramatic changes. All courses in the faculty where I teach (Economics and Management Sciences) are now taught in English. In 2014, for the first time in Stellenbosch University’s history, more English-speaking students enrolled than Afrikaans-speaking students. Various campus activities, like the very successful Diversity Week, encourage debates about gender, race, religion and sexual orientation, and activities that engage students from different social networks. Several building projects on campus are actively promoting social integration between those living in residences and commuters, for example. The point is: the Stellenbosch campus in 2015 will look very different from the Stellenbosch campus of 2010.

Many Afrikaans-speaking whites might sneer at such changes. ‘There are more than enough English universities for English-speaking South Africans to go to’, the argument goes. ‘Why do they want to come to Stellenbosch?’ Three reasons: 1) Because, if Stellenbosch wants to be the best university in Africa, we want to attract the best students. For a long time, and for historical reasons created by the Malan’s and the Verwoerd’s of the past, the best students used to be white and Afrikaans. Not any more. 2) Because the firm of the future wants to appoint employees that can interact with a diverse array of clients and colleagues. Computer programmers, marketers, scientists, engineers, artists will have to collaborate with people that do not share the same ideas about the world. The best place to get exposure of such interaction is at varsity. 3) Not only that, but one of the most fundamental lessons we have learned is that diversity – of race, religion, ideas – promotes the scholarly process, that there are positive externalities generated by interacting with people that see the world different from yourself. The whole (universitas) is greater than the sum of its parts.

Which brings us back to the question of whether the DF Malan building should be renamed. Perhaps renaming it to the Beyers Naude Memorial Centre will send a strong signal, even if it is only a signal. But I fear that is a too easy solution. As Nic noted to me, if the name is changed, Stellenbosch can take the ‘moral high ground’ having distanced itself from its horrible past. No, Nic. The moral high ground is exactly the place we should avoid, because it leads to self-satisfaction and self-congratulation that you have ‘dealt with the past’ when South African society all around us is so obviously still affected by its legacy. Changing a plaque on a wall cannot and should not give ‘us’ the moral high ground. Instead, our collective history should serve as a constant reminder not only of where we come from, but how we’ve travelled and how far we still have to go.

This week Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi’s wife, Nombulelo, received an Honours in Public Administration from Stellenbosch University. The degree was conferred on her in the DF Malan Memorial Centre. Some may see this as irony, and perhaps others may see shame and tastelessness. I disagree. In a country where our recent history has such a devastating impact on the present, this is how we claim agency of the future. I say let’s keep the DF Malan Memorial Centre. Let’s keep the historical artefacts in buildings to apartheid founders. For Cecil’s sake, let’s keep Rhodes University’s name, and the Rhodes Scholarships, and the Rhodes memorial in Cape Town, even if it is named after one of the most racist men in history. And we do so not to celebrate their deeds, but to celebrate how far we’ve come as a country.

It’s been only twenty years since the end of apartheid. In another twenty years, Stellenbosch will be irrevocably different. Not because you won’t hear Afrikaans (you will), or because you won’t see a white face (there will still be many), but because it will be a place where the sharpest minds congregate to solve Africa’s most daunting challenges. And to graduate in a hall that remind us of the long and costly road to freedom for all.

*Lindie Koorts, postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Free State and former PhD-student at Stellenbosch, has written an excellent new biography of DF Malan. The Financial Mail reviews it here, or you can read Steve Hofmeyr’s review in Afrikaans here. Listen to Lindie’s interview on SABC here.