Audience take over conversation at public debate on racism and human rights in Stellenbosch

The voice of audience members dominated the discussion at a public debate on racism and human rights held at Stellenbosch University Museum on Thursday night.

Panellists included Ryland Fisher, media personality and author; Motlhabane Koloi, an alumnus of the University; and Lize-Mari Doubell, a current student. Stellenbosch Proportional Representative Councillor Franklin Adams of the Democratic New Civic Association also joined the panel.

The audience quickly set the pace and theme of the debate. They used opportunities for questions to voice their opinions and experiences within the Stellenbosch Community.

LLB student and panelist Lize-Mari Doubell said: “The discussion ended up being a discussion not so much between  panellists but actually between audience members which I think is also very important because when having discussions around race or social justice we have to realise that it’s not a theoretical discussion, it is a very personal discussion, it is a discussion about experiences and it is often a discussion about hurt and about pain.”

The conversation ended off with audience member and Stellenbosch University student Kerwin Jacobs jumping to his feet to voice what he felt were unexamined concerns. “We need  to ask  why it is that in an institution that says it wants to redress, after how many years, that it’s still 80% of the academic staff are still white?” he asked.

“How can we [Stellenbosch University] transform things when we still only accept people above quintile three, four and five? The very people that this institution should benefit cannot come here because we want to keep up the facade of an 84.5 % pass rate.”

Sit back and listen: The panelists spent more time listening than speaking. PHOTO: Aydn Parrott

Addressing older members of the panel and audience who had suggested that race is an apartheid era social construct and that young people should not see race, Jacobs responded saying, “yes race is a social construct but just because it is a social construct doesn’t make the effect of it any less real biologically, so you can’t just deny the fact that there is a history in which a certain person based on the colour of their skin was forced to be a certain level of education and skill.”

Former Cape Times editor and debate panellist Ryland Fisher said: “I came here and I felt that I was walking into somebody’s kitchen and they were having an argument and I was standing there and I had no idea what they were arguing about because a lot of the stuff that people were arguing about was Stellenbosch specific.”

He added that he had realised that due to its history Stellenbosch has a lot of issues that are unresolved. When asked about his feelings regarding the audience leading the discussion he said: “I would be disappointed if the students didn’t hijack the discussion and speak up for what they believe.”

Acknowledging the emotional triggers present in the discussion he said that “you are going to have people speaking and all of them are going to have a lot on their hearts and they are going to raise it and so in some ways you must have a session like this without panelists.”

Stellenbosch University Alumnus and debate panellist Motlhabane Koloi said of the audience diverting the discussion that “given these discussions, you don’t have a direction. Everything happened the way it should have happened. Being in several discussions like this for the past four years now I mean it’s nothing out of the norm.”

The debate was held to commemorate Human Rights Month as well as the UN international day against racial discrimination, as agreed in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination which came into force on 4 January 1969. – Aydn Parrott