The politics of visual redress at Stellenbosch University

Changing the visual culture at a university that was closely associated with apartheid (Stellenbosch University in South Africa) is particularly vexatious. It is central to the institution’s attempt to grow an institutional ethos and culture based on norms of inclusiveness, restitution and redress.

As we reflect on the specific location and role of visual redress in the broader context of transformation at the university, the focus is on the political and institutional position of visual redress.

It is reasonable to consider the charge made by some that visual redress at the university is merely symbolic. What is not widely known is that visual redress activities on Stellenbosch University’s campuses have been a productive attempt to lodge and stimulate changes in the university’s aesthetical domains.

Visual redress at Stellenbosch University (SU) is currently tied to other transformational activities across campus.

Historicising visual redress at the university

Historically, SU’s visual cultural history must be understood as emerging from the larger politics associated with the colonial alienation of indigenous people and the establishment of a colonial racist political economy as well as accompanying spatial and educational arrangements.

Viewing racial separatism as constitutive of the university’s ontology (its beingness) allows one to understand the historical formation of the university’s institutional culture and how this culture operates in contemporary times.

Colonial, racial and masculinist taxonomies organised the epistemic or disciplinary arrangements of the university. The university co-produced a racialised type of misogyny that was held in place by racialised political and economic interests.

The university’s beingness currently manifests as a ghostliness, a kind of spectrality with ongoing material effects.

In other words, the university’s institutional culture is held up, and adorned by the sight, feel and sound produced by its architecture, spatial layout and visual representations on the streets, buildings, lecture halls, and residences. This spectrality has ongoing material effects in the daily life of the university.

The architecture and visual culture of the university sends subliminal and not such hidden messages of Eurocentric, racist and masculinist domination, which provide the basis for the way black students and staff who enter these spaces experience them.

The black body’s experience in the university is one of affective dissonance, identity ambiguity, emotional pain and living on the affective back foot, always unsure of their place, resembling a type of ‘nervous conditions’, following the title of Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga’s 1988 book.

The learning and work experiences of students and staff are informed by a ‘nervous condition’, affective misrecognition and erasure. It is clear from the case of the violated student, Babalwa Ndwanya, whose belongings were urinated on earlier in 2022, and two further recent peeing incidents, that the black body is a mournable, disposable body, writes Dangarembga in This Mournable Body (2018).

This is notwithstanding critical and ongoing democratic and human rights reform processes in many residences and other recreational spaces of the university. The black body’s experience remains one of invisibility and erasure in some spaces within the university.

Colonial and apartheid architecture’s afterlife

Colonial and apartheid visual culture, architectural design and spatial arrangements have lodged their exclusionary logics deep in the university’s spaces and institutional culture.

In this light, visual redress is an utter priority, but the role and impact of visual redress activities depends on how the university incorporates them as part of a more integrated transformational university ethos and functioning.

The early founding of the university was accompanied by architectural building design, spatial layout and visual culture that instantiated the university’s racial and misogynist imprinting. The university’s racial and misogynistic ontology finds a material and concrete form in its visual culture.

The Marais statue on the Rooi Plein (1950) and the Danie Craven statue installed as late as 25 May 1995 tell an interesting story of the visual cultural production of the university’s identity. This is a story of celebrating a past identity. As ‘traumascape’, the university’s disciplinary identity played a formative role in its regime of racial production.

The post-1960s spatial and visual culture activities show in grotesque form the intersections of apartheid university education and nationalist apartheid statecraft.

This era witnessed the convergence of racial spatial planning, segregationist university expansion and brutalist architectural design of many of its buildings.

These aspects lodged themselves in the university in the era of BJ (John) Vorster who was SU’s chancellor from 1969 to 1983 and South Africa’s Prime Minister from 1966 to 1978.

The BJ Vorster Building (now the Arts and Social Science building), GG Cillie Education building, and the Hardekraaltjie cemetery on our Tygerberg campus are a manifestation of a racist scientistic epistemic imaginary in this high apartheid period, which the university must reckon with. These buildings were constructed on the sites from which communities were forcibly removed during the 1960s.

Aesthetically experienced, the sights, sounds and senses of racial supremacy were produced during the 1960s’ and 1970s’ conjunctural moment.

As Stephanus Muller (SU professor of musicology and director of Africa Open Institute for Music, Research and Innovation) suggested, apartheid’s aesthetics are still predominant on this campus. Racial supremacy can still be heard on campus. The soundscape of apartheid is still audible.

Visual redress transformational work peeks out

The work of Stellenbosch University reformers in the late 1990s led to the 2000 ‘Strategic framework for the turn of the century and beyond’, as noted by the SU Council in March 2020 and provided an opening for visual cultural change.

But racist forces pushed back hard against then rector Professor Chris Brink’s opening to visual redress during his term from 2002 until its end in 2006, and rector Professor Botman’s ‘Pedagogy of Hope’, whose transformational attempts were stalled by his untimely death in 2014.

The 2004 to 2014 period saw early institutional attempts at visual culture change. This involved naming changes by stealth to avoid political embarrassment, some done in the shadows and out of sight.

It was the #rhodesmustfall and #feesmustfall student movement of 2015-16 that shifted the university’s institutional discourse towards institutional transformation.

‘Open Stellenbosch’ and the ‘Luister’ video gave an opening to visual redress as ‘institutional transformationalism’.

From this, the new Language Policy (2016) emerged, the Transformation Policy (2017) was produced, and a Visual Redress Committee was established in 2017.

Visual redress activity emerged across campus: insurgent art on the Rooi Plein; restitution memorialisation in the depiction of Die Vlakte’s community in the Arts and Social Science building; linguistic inclusion via the multiple languages on the benches project; promotion of human rights via the Constitutional preamble in the clinical building at the faculty of medicine and health sciences in 2017 and later outside the law faculty – Ou Hoof Gebou (old main building in English); and the renaming of buildings, including the Adam Small Theatre, Nkosi Johnson residence, Sada Ohms dining hall in residence, Okkers Huis, and the Krotoa building.

A visual redress praxis emerged based on inclusion, restitution, cohesion and memorialisation. Visual redress praxis generated norms and perspectives and involved dialogical participation.

These processes decided on the nature of visual representation such as the mural in the Mike de Vries building (faculty of science) and the faculty charter in the faculty of medicine and health sciences. The analysis of Stellenbosch University’s visual redress practices since 2000 is told in the 2021 book Evoking Transformation: Visual redress at Stellenbosch University.

A three-year policy development process followed that emphasised restitution and decoloniality, the importance of visual redress dialogical processes, the mainstreaming of visual redress in curriculum and research, and productive links to the university societal engagement work.

The visual redress policy was accepted in 2021. Community participation is beginning to characterise our visual redress activity. A view of visual redress as a type of transformational public good is, therefore, starting to peek out.

In conclusion, the future of visual redress as transformation at SU, should be based on mobilising the university’s knowledge platform for visual culture restitution work.

Such work must engage the university’s multiple local and hitherto excluded publics in the university’s own rehumanisation.

We must start by acknowledging the university as a site of perpetual trauma, which must be interrupted. As aesthetic production, visual redress activism across its campuses is central to such interruption, as is the birthing of imaginaries capable of inciting the university’s public good role in society.

Aslam Fataar is a professor in the department of education policy studies at Stellenbosch University. He is currently doing research and development work on the transformation at the university and is a member of its Visual Redress committee. Dr Therese Fish is the vice-dean, Clinical Services and Social Impact, in SU’s faculty of medicine and health sciences. She is a member of the university’s council.

Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988). Nervous Conditions. Faber and Faber, London.
Tsitsi Dangarembga (2018). This Mournable Body. Graywolf Press, Minnesota.
Aslam Fataar and Elmarie Costandius, (2021). Evoking Transformation: Visual redress at Stellenbosch University. African Sun Media, Stellenbosch.