subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now
Louise van Rhyn, Stellenbosch University council member. Picture: Supplied
Louise van Rhyn, Stellenbosch University council member. Picture: Supplied

The promise of winds of change coming to Stellenbosch University (SU) reflects “a transformation that may be incomplete, but one that is already a source of hope for a future that opens to horizons of shared solidarity”.

This was the prescient observation of Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela in April this year, as a campaign for inclusivity at the university gained momentum. Gobodo-Madikizela occupies the research chair in studies in historical trauma and transformation at SU.

The battle has been won — for now — by progressive convocation members who grouped under the banner of SUNewConvoRise and supported Louise van Rhyn, winner of an intense university council election held last month.

Van Rhyn replaces former convocation president and council member Jan Heunis, who was ousted in a motion of no confidence in June.   The motion was led by Van Rhyn and supported by nearly 250 convocation members who accused the convocation executive of acting without a mandate. 

The convocation includes graduates, academic staff and retired academics. It has about 230,000 members. Its objective, according to the university statute, is “to promote the welfare of the university by maintaining a mutually beneficial relationship”.

Three members of convocation serve on the university council, its governing body. The other two are conservatives Leon Schreiber and Willie Liebenberg.

The battle started in April when the executive under Heunis’s leadership called on the council to sack rector and vice-chancellor Wim de Villiers over allegations of nepotism. (An inquiry subsequently found no misconduct by De Villiers that warranted his removal. It said he made an “error of judgment” and showed a “lack of ethical insight” when he used his discretion to admit two of his wife’s nephews to the university. De Villiers has apologised.)

According to Van Rhyn tensions have been building over years with attacks from the convocation executive in response to SU’s attempts to create a more inclusive culture. These attacks had been based mainly on the single issue of Afrikaans and included Heunis’s dismissal of the Khampepe report in November last year. The report found that black staff and students did not feel welcome on campus and urged the university to address this. 

Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape. Picture: SUPPLIED
Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape. Picture: SUPPLIED

“Members of convocation want to feel that they have a voice and are able to contribute to an SU, focused on academic excellence, where all students and staff feel that they belong,” Van Rhyn told the FM.

“Many of us were at SU when it was primarily an Afrikaans institution where white Afrikaans students knew that they belonged and others felt unwelcome. Students and staff in 2023 have a very different experience and it is important that the convocation supports the changes that have happened.”

Being part of the SU council was not on her busy 2023 agenda, she says.

Buoyed by the support of SUNewConvoRise, Van Rhyn agreed to be nominated for the council. She won by a slim margin, against contenders who included runner-up Johan Acker Smit of Stellenbosch Staan Op, a conservative faction that promotes the retention and expansion of Afrikaans as a language of instruction, using a Trumpian slogan: “Make the University of Stellenbosch great again!”

Social and print media have been abuzz with messages of support for change at Stellenbosch, including from Thuli Madonsela, Prof Jonathan Jansen, Gobodo-Madikizela and a significant number of young alumni of all races and disciplines. 

Law graduate Thembalethu Seyisi, who is also active in SUNewConvoRise, says: “Louise’s presence on the Stellenbosch council will undoubtedly enhance its maturity. She joins a distinguished group of individuals in this endeavour.”

Van Rhyn is realistic about the forces at play. “The recent election has shown there are still many people who are against the changes that are happening at the university.”

Gobodo-Madikizela warns: “The horizon will remain elusive, for there will always be events, or people, that show a failure to appreciate the humanity of others. And when people are confronted with these attitudes, and they must carry the burden of making others recognise them, it is an exhausting daily labour.”

Van Rhyn’s credentials for this work are impressive. 

Her approach is shaped by 38 years’ experience in organisational change and leadership development. She holds a doctorate in complex social change from the University of Hertfordshire Business School in the UK.

Van Rhyn is an award-winning social entrepreneur who believes “the world’s huge intractable problems can be solved through cross-sector collaboration and a solid understanding of complex social change”.

In 2010 she launched Partners for Possibility, a leadership development nonprofit that has brought more than 3,800 business leaders and school principals together to collaborate on solutions to improve education. This programme has won many national and international awards for innovation and impact.

* The original version of this article said a “deplorable error of judgment”. It has been amended to remove the word "deplorable", as this did not appear in the original report. We regret the error. 

subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.