LISTENING to “Luister”, the video recording of several eloquently related accounts of language discrimination and racism experienced by black students in Stellenbosch and at the University of Stellenbosch, makes me wonder what the town really wants to be known and remembered for, as a post-apartheid destination brand in 2015 and beyond.
Tourist Mecca and gateway to the Winelands
This quaint, historic town, often described as the gateway to the wonders of the Cape Winelands, has for many years been a magnet for discerning tourists wanting to experience the truly magical region of the Cape Winelands.
It is replete with natural and man-made historic memorabilia preceding even the arrival of the first European settlers into the country centuries ago, and has become a colourful tapestry of the culinary and cultural wealth of this region and our country. But the profile of global travellers is also fast changing.
Apart from increasingly mobile black South Africans who travel around the country, spending hard-earned disposable income, the foreign visitors who contribute billions of rands in foreign exchange to our gross domestic product also come in many hues.
Increasing numbers of them are no longer drawn by colonial nostalgia alone; they come here to experience the amazing natural scenic beauty of our country and its people’s hospitality. But this hospitality, especially in places like Stellenbosch, must first be extended to our fellow South Africans, natural ambassadors of our nation’s brand.
Painful, almost palpable language barrier
The accounts related in “Luister” made me dig up an Op-Ed piece I had written for the Cape Argus in January 2012. In that article I also shared memories of an incident that left a lasting mark on me, when members of the board and the executive management of an organisation I worked for had sessions during which some mid-level scientists came to present projects they were involved in.
Coloured and white employees made their presentations in Afrikaans – a language they grew up with and spoke at home and in their everyday lives with ease – while African employees made their presentations in English, a second language most of them had barely mastered.
Naturally, the Afrikaans-language speakers were flawless and much more enthusiastic and engaging in their presentations because the audience was mostly Afrikaans-speaking. Eye contact with the audience was positive and encouraging.
While the content of the presentations by the African scientists was also interesting, the delivery was much less engaging, often full of linguistic flaws.
It was clear that they needed to overcome the language barrier first before they could even get their scientific message across; something that was not the case with their coloured and white counterparts.
It was also clear that they knew their work and would have been much more appealing and interesting to listen to had they been presenting it in the languages they were most comfortable with – the languages they had grown up with and spoke at home.
The largely Afrikaans-speaking audience in the board and executive management readily asked questions and entertained long, in-depth discussions in Afrikaans with the young scientists who spoke this language; not so with the African scientists.
In fact, very few questions were asked after the presentations by the African scientists and consequently, very little discussion engaged in with them. On the whole, they were merely politely acknowledged. The language barrier was so heavy that one could almost touch it.
I felt their struggle deeply.
To see today, in 2015, young South Africans going through the same pain their parents and the parents of their parents had fought against many decades ago on the one hand, and on the other young white South Africans brought up in a culture of hate, disdain and disrespect for Africans, can only mean that many have not learned anything from our sad history; the battles fought and sacrifices made have been in vain.
Brand Stellenbosch must clean up its act
But the future sustainability of Brand Stellenbosch should matter to all of us, especially to the political, business, and academic leaders of this town.
It shouldn’t be left up to the leadership of Stellenbosch University alone to clean up a brand that is being tarnished by the conduct of those, on and off campus, whose priorities remain trapped in narrow world views of the past.
If they believe in the ideals agreed upon by the founding fathers and mothers of our new democracy, the residents of Stellenbosch can no longer claim to have been unaware of what is being done to the image of their town, in their name. They must stand up and publicly repudiate this madness!
To protect and enhance Brand Stellenbosch, the leaders of this town cannot rely solely on reacting to the cries of the besieged African students under their watch; they must develop a holistic, proactive, plan touching on language and culture, communicated through all relevant media platforms.
That is the only way they can define new values and, hopefully, attract new generations of tourists, local and international students and academics, investors and the rest of us to beautiful Stellenbosch.