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Stellenbosch University students march in the Western Cape town demanding the expulsion of Theuns du Toit, the student who urinated on a fellow student's laptop and belongings, on May 26 2022. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER
Stellenbosch University students march in the Western Cape town demanding the expulsion of Theuns du Toit, the student who urinated on a fellow student's laptop and belongings, on May 26 2022. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER

A land of extremes. A week of extremes. Monday, May 16 2022 saw Stellenbosch University wake up to face both its past and its future.

The final preparations, delayed by Covid-19, for the installation of a new chancellor who is renowned as a campaigner for social justice and inclusion, were juxtaposed with news of a horrendous allegedly racist act that recalled the past and the history of the institution as “a white university”.

An internet search using the key words “Stellenbosch University” now brings up news of this dehumanising incident rather than the institution’s ground-breaking work in health, economics and social impact.

We strongly condemn the act and believe it is time for action. It is certainly a time for responsible leadership. What marked the university’s response was that the leadership stepped up to own both its past and its future. The pomp of the chancellor’s installation was littered with speeches referencing what had happened and a commitment to move forward.

Furthermore, the institution displayed a high level of the transparency needed to inform rightly angry and upset internal and external parties, while respecting the required due process.

As a leader in responsible leadership research, Nicola Pless of the University of South Australia says “a responsible leader is a person who reconciles the idea of effectiveness with the idea of responsibility by being an active citizen and promoting active citizenship inside and outside the organisation’’. There was evidence of this active citizenship this last week.

Responsible leaders are stewards of their organisations and aim to nurture and advance them to a better state. They are citizens of their communities and work to advance these communities as servants for their stakeholders. These characteristics are essential for many organisations, not just Stellenbosch University and Stellenbosch Business School, if we are to address many of the challenges we face in society with a vision for a better future.

Edwin Cameron, as the new chancellor, embodies much of what the future of Stellenbosch University and Stellenbosch Business School aims to be. He is a courageous leader who challenged apartheid in his role as judge, worked alongside Nelson Mandela in the creation of a new country, has publicly owned his HIV positive status, and has campaigned tirelessly for inclusion, gay rights and the voice of students.

While we feel dismayed, angry and sad about the racist acts our colleagues and students have experienced they must also be a source of energy and, for us, an opportunity to stand up and be counted — indeed to demonstrate our own responsible leadership. The transformation of SA and its institutions was never going to be an easy endeavour. It is this challenge that requires responsible leadership, courage and accountability to drive a vision of a better future.

At Stellenbosch Business School we are committed to including responsible leadership in all that we do and across all of our programmes, not because it is easy, but because it the right thing to do when faced with the challenges we face as citizens of society, as stewards of the planet and as servants of our stakeholders.

Responsible leadership starts with us, and the ongoing transformation of who we are. In doing this we can advance the dignity and inclusion of our fellow students and our colleagues to transform our institutions towards a better place, and indeed follow the leadership of colleagues like Cameron.

The students and staff who have protested this week are fighting for a country that embodies these values and we at Stellenbosch Business School are too.

• Prof Smith is director of Stellenbosch Business School.

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