Reflections on the race inquiry at Stellenbosch University

On Sunday morning, 23 October, I woke to the news that another Stellenbosch University student, the third male student in 2022, urinated on a fellow student’s belongings.

In the first of these incidents, in May 2022, a white male student was expelled from Stellenbosch University after urinating on the belongings of a black student in the early hours of the morning after apparent drunken revelry. On 21 October, the National Prosecuting Authority announced that it will also be pursuing criminal charges against the student.

While urinating on the black student’s belongings, he apparently said: “This is how we treat black boys here.” This incident reignited conversations about Stellenbosch University’s racist legacy, amid much media coverage.

Subsequently, Professor Wim de Villiers, the vice-chancellor, appointed Justice Sisi Khampepe at the beginning of June 2022 to conduct an independent inquiry into:

• Incidents of racism at the university, with reference to the recent occurrences at Huis Marais (the residence where the first incident took place) and the faculty of law’s Law Dance;

• The current state of diversity, equity and inclusion within the university campus culture, with specific reference to racism;

• Given the university’s stance of zero-tolerance towards racism, whether the current structures of the university and its material university policies, rules and processes are sufficient and most effective to address the lived experience of students and staff with regard to racism in all its guises; and

• Related issues and concerns that may arise in the course of the inquiry, including the need for further investigation or consideration of related issues.

The findings of the Khampepe Commission will be released to the university soon.

Very little has been said about staff responses to the Khampepe Commission. In this brief commentary, I will focus on some staff responses following the establishment of the Khampepe Commission.

This will be followed by a personal reflection on the Khampepe inquiry and a snapshot into some of my own experiences of racism as a black woman academic at Stellenbosch University over a period of 20 years.

I will finally consider the implications and opportunities that the Khampepe Commission may afford the university.

Some staff responses to the Khampepe Commission

When I recently asked a diverse group of staff members what they thought of the Khampepe Commission, their responses included indifference and alienation, scepticism, despair and support for the commission.

Indifference was marked by responses such as: “What is the Khampepe commission? I am so busy trying to get my PhD submitted that I am not focusing on anything else.”

The reality for all academics, globally, is the fact that we work in higher education systems where we have to do much more with much fewer resources.

This phenomenon is accompanied by increasing audits, performance assessments that emphasise individual achievement and excessive competition for resources, which often lead to a disconnection from ourselves and others.

Indifference may, therefore, be interpreted as a lack of interest, but it could also signal alienation and disengagement from the process in order to protect the self from being overwhelmed so that we can complete all our required tasks.

Scepticism was common among staff. They posed questions about why racism is continuously labelled ‘incidents’ as opposed to an ongoing, pernicious, everyday institutional culture.

Others wondered why racism is foregrounded in the Khampepe inquiry since it is so intricately linked to its intersectionalities, such as heteronormative masculinities, for example.

Some questioned whether our university is locked into a reactive mode; that an inquiry is necessary as a show of force to counteract negative media images of the institution.

Some staff wondered why a legal commission or inquiry is necessary and what it would deliver that is different from what we already know about racism and its intersectionalities at the institution? This was a common “We will wait and see, but expect no surprises” response.

Despair was echoed by some colleagues. A black woman associate professor indicated that she has little hope that policies and guidelines, a common institutional response, can always protect us from racism.

She indicated that micro-aggressions proliferate her daily experience. She gave an example of a white secretary who treated her requests for access to her own research money with great suspicion every single time she made a request.

The secretary did not have these concerns about white colleagues requesting access to research funds. In my own experience, the micro-aggressions of everyday racism are most often experienced in interactions like these at departmental levels.

Numerous colleagues supported the commission and are eagerly awaiting its findings.

Some personal narratives and a brief reflection on the inquiry

Statistical transformation: I have been at this institution for 20 years. In 2002, there were few black academics and even fewer black women academics.

The statistics have improved but can improve considerably more. The institution currently has 25% black academics. I started as part-time staff and am now a full professor.

The yoke of especially white students and staff viewing me as a deficit, non-deserving, affirmative action appointment has disappeared, mostly.

Racism as incident: Racism, as incident, is misplaced and inaccurate. Racism is embedded in institutional culture and is intersectional.

Many incidents, like the urination incident, are named ‘racist’ because a white young man urinated on the belongings (computer) of a black young man.

However, this is a young white man who is likely accustomed to the fact that urination, even in residence spaces, is part of an institutional tradition of marking territory and asserting archaic but still normative, forms of masculinity.

It is not an uncommon and unfamiliar practice that young men urinate at the corners of some male residences to imprint their DNA on the buildings; and mark their ownership of the space.

We need to ask what in our institutional fabric entitles young white men to this kind of ownership.

The fact that another two students have repeated this act this year, and after sanctions were imposed on the first urinator, makes this a pattern and not a case of an isolated ‘bad apple’ or incident.

The ‘race’ of the last two urinators is not widely known, but I will not be surprised if they are both white, too, given my argument about institutional racism, toxic masculinities and ownership.

Institutional racism: In 2014, I bought a new car through the university vehicle scheme that assists staff, through loans, to buy vehicles.

I went to the vehicle dealership and walked past a few black salesmen. When I looked at them, I read disappointment and despair on their faces.

I felt as if I was walking through the valley of the shadow of death. At the end of this gloomy tunnel, I found a white male sales representative, let’s call him Johan, who was the official Stellenbosch university staff scheme representative at this dealership.

We signed all the documents and the deal was concluded, convivially. When my husband and I got back to our car, all we immediately started to talk about was what we, independently, felt on that walk of shame (for us).

What should have been a joyous event for us was displaced by our recognition and shame of our unwitting complicity in institutional racism.

In this instance, the economic model of the university was white. Bob Pease talks about privilege as “unearned advantage and systematic injustice in an unequal world”.

In my example, Johan was a beneficiary of unearned white privilege. He benefited materially with every single deal referred by Stellenbosch University to that dealership.

Black representatives did not get the same institutional referrals. How different it would have been for them if referrals were allocated according to a schedule so each representative could benefit from institutional referrals.

Institutional racism is pernicious and exists all the time. Sometimes, racism hits one when you least expect it.

In August this year (2022), after a long day filled with intense work commitments, I walked down the road from my office for a bite to eat.

It was a lovely late afternoon as I occupied a restaurant table with a view of the street. I was soon attracted by the unbridled joy of young people, dressed up in ball gowns and evening suits. They were taking photographs to remember this occasion. And then it hit me. Every single student, in the approximately 100 students that I had been watching, was white. Not one black student.

Was my mind deceiving me? Were these our students? In August 2022? When I left the restaurant, I greeted one of the excited students. “What was the occasion? Huisdans (Homedance) of Orion* residence. You look so beautiful. Please enjoy your evening. Thanks tannie (aunt).”

An extremely convivial conversation. But why is Huisdans so white? The fact that Huisdans is so white is institutional racism. It is not unknown that tickets to some Huisdances are virtually unaffordable at R800 per couple.

It is also known that when (white) students and service providers such as DJs arrange the music, white Afrikaans music commonly referred to as “Sokkie” music, is preferred.

Everyday decisions about the minutiae of a function such as price and what kind of music to include, becomes exclusionary … and white. Why not, for example, ask a range of students what they would prefer, and accommodate as much as possible a diversity of preferences that will embellish the institution as transformed … and students may even enjoy learning about each other’s music and dancing.

I was not planning to wrestle with these thoughts and feelings of despair after a long day at work. It just happened.

Racism is a traumatic experience and can distract us from our focus on what we are required to do.

For me, racism has long stopped being about derogatory insults, although it is also that and makes a huge impact on the lives of many colleagues who face derogatory remarks. They feel belittled, humiliated and dehumanised and this makes them unable to complete many tasks, as academics, irrespective of how brilliant they are.

Perhaps my class privilege and my articulateness allow me to respond appropriately, hence personal racism directed at me and expressed in derogatory remarks is less painful for me.

What racism has forced me to do, is to become extremely skilled at compartmentalising my emotions and to navigate my institutional and private spaces with deep reflection in order to complete the tasks that I have to. This takes years of intentional practice; a burden that (racial) privilege does not know.

The everydayness of racism, its institutional nature and the fact that the face of racism is fluid and changes often, combine to make it intangible at times.

One thing is clear. When we experience racism (or its intersectionalities), we know and feel in our bodies that it is racism. It takes more reflection and the ability to name what just happened, to articulate exactly why it is racism.

Racism can take place when people are “nice”. These days, I get less angry and less surprised by racism. I feel mostly sad. I am not a victim. I do worry about a first-year student who has considerably less power than I do in our institution and how they navigate inherent racisms and their intersectionalities at the university.

What should we do about racism?

I have hopefully highlighted that racism is much more complex than a mere bad attitude. I have no doubt that our institution, mostly, has a keen willingness to transform.

We have to engage openly and undefensively with the findings of the Khampepe Commission so that we understand the intricate ways in which everyday personal and institutional racism unfolds itself.

We cannot treat a condition if we do not see it or diagnose it. Personal and institutional racisms and their intersections need to be named.

There is still a place for human kindness in this scourge of racism but it cannot be the only response. We cannot rely only on institutional culture surveys to measure the pulse of transformation on campus.

Institutional culture surveys have to be supplemented with research that is detailed and specific, not dissimilar to the ethnographic observations that I describe in this article.

Finally, we need to avoid a ‘tick sheet’ approach to transformation that Sarah Ahmed highlights in her work on institutional cultures in universities.

She argues that transformation policies could easily become proof that transformation is taking place when, in reality, little of the policy is meaningfully implemented and sometimes resisted in faculties, divisions and departments.


Ahmed, S (2012). On being included: Racism and Diversity in institutional life. London: Duke University Press.

Pease, B (2021). Undoing privilege: Unearned advantage and systematic injustice in an unequal world. London: Zed Books.

* Not the residence’s real name.

Ronelle Carolissen is a clinical psychologist and a professor in the department of psychology at Stellenbosch University. This commentary is based on a presentation she made at the university’s Transformation Indaba, 20 October 2022.