The speech that won’t go away

Address by Stellenbosch University Alumnus demands deep reflection – and action

As the student movement readies itself for the challenges of 2016, an address by Stellenbosch University alumnus, Lovelyn Nwadeyi at its Convocation last month, has laid down serious challenges for the university leadership and for higher education more generally.

The speech by Lovelyn Nwadeyi, a Stellenbosch University alumnus, at its Convocation last month, has struck a powerful chord across the country. And it presents a deep challenge to the university authorities.

She described her words as incorporating honest reflection, painful truths and a hopeful outlook.

As the first black female to address the convocation at the formerly white university- not to mention the youngest- Nwadeyi’s powerful and moving speech fearlessly tackled the role that language plays in oppression, and problematised Mandela and Tutu’s ‘Rainbow Nation’ concept of forgiveness by black people for centuries of oppression and exploitation under white rule.

Nwadeyi gave voice to the experiences of black students who, on a daily basis, are forced to deal with instances of racism and brutal inequality at the university – an institution that bred the architects of apartheid such as DF Malan. She also called the university to task, which has attempted to ‘exempt [itself] from the winds of change that are blowing through the country’.

Her speech came in a national context in which students are getting ready to take forward the issues that arose from last year’s #FeesMustFall protests.

With registration periods coming to an end and university campuses across South Africa back in full swing, many have already faced student protests as the so-called ‘born frees’ continue with their call for free education and an end to outsourcing. Protests flared up at the University of Johannesburg and down the road at Wits, Vice Chancellor Adam Habib wrote an open letter defending his decision to bring private security forces onto campus during registration, with academics voicing their concerns over intimidation tactics used by the institution to silence students.

With this background, Stellenbosch University held its annual convocation in which 2 000 alumni came together to elect five convocation members; a virtually all-white statutory body that is considered one of the most influential at the university.

Over the past few months, a number of black alumni have been campaigning to get at least one black member elected to the committee in order to drive transformation at the institution. One of them is Lovelyn Nwadeyi, who delivered the address for the evening titled ‘Courage, Compassion and Complexity’.

Nwadeyi addressed what it meant for a black student to study at an institution that was ‘built on the labour, the suffering and the land of your own people’ and considered the intersectional movements that birthed the student protests in 2015.

She addressed what it meant for white South Africans to listen and, switching between English and Afrikaans, addressed the politics of language. Despite her powerful speech, the convocation one again elected an all-white executive committee.

In an interview with the City Press, Nwadeyi said that she had to choose between ‘the speech’ or ‘the votes’ and knew that what she had to say would prove unpopular with the predominantly conservative, white audience. She says that she did not regret her decision to use the platform to speak on behalf of those who continue the fight for transformation in higher education.

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