The current protests sparked by the murder in custody of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer reminded me of my days as a student at Stellenbosch University from 2015 to 2019.To cut to the chase, for too long, the institution continued to operate as it did way back when it operated to serve a few.On transformation, there was a minimum standard attached to what transformation looked like and it seemed to be the acceptable standard.It was not until bright-eyed and bushy-tailed students decided it was time to “Open Stellenbosch”, and with that a movement was born.The call to Open Stellenbosch was as unambiguous as it was intentional because there are 97 reasons – the institution’s year of existence when Open Stellenbosch was formed – why the university needed to truly transform.That some of apartheid’s key architects walked the streets of the town, ratified decisions and evicted anyone who did not look like them – white – is a story for another day.For starters, one could never shake off the feeling that black people had to prove why they were there while white people were exactly where they needed to be.When this hostility was pointed out, students – black – were accused of being up to machinations.Floyd laying on the concrete while ex-officer Derek Chauvin’s knee took the life out of him, shouting “I can’t breathe” reminded me of the movement specifically.What’s in a message?Chauvin faces charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter (culpable homicide). Three other officers are charged with aiding and abetting murder.Chauvin, 44, appeared in court by video link on Monday and his bail was set at $1.25 million.Floyd, meanwhile, was laid to rest in his hometown Houston on Tuesday, more than two weeks after the events that led to his death on 25 May.The message then was, albeit figuratively, I can’t breathe, in this space because of what it represented and what it continues to perpetuate.It was the unrelenting pressure from Open Stellenbosch that made university management realise they could not keep the act up any longer.The protests in the US and across the world must continue if any change will come.A relook of the language policy got us under way at Stellenbosch University which meant that not only would English be the lingua franca at teaching level, residences too had to slowly abolish their archaic rules.It was met with discontent from those who view Stellenbosch University as a citadel for them and them alone.Forward TogetherIn lecture halls, the accusation was that there would be a list of never-ending demands coming from the pressure group; already doubling down on the misapprehension that there are different sets of rights we enjoy.The harangue from residences who called themselves “traditional” was that the university was bowing to public pressure and eschewing the rights of all for the rights of some.The irony was certainly not lost.What they missed was that the university could no longer sustain its backward approach while claiming to be going forward.The slogan for their centenary in 2018 was “Forward Together”. And while, at that stage, still largely affected by the ills of the higher education system, such as a lack of consistent care for the most poor and vulnerable, who are often black, the Stellenbosch University of 2018 was markedly different to that of 2015.Since then, not only had the university’s student representative council been filled with black leaders, but it had also been led by black students.Key appointments for positions dealing in the main with student governance are occupied by black people – most of the time, black women.While that was happening, key positions on leadership forums and societies in and around campus, including on the sports field, were also looking more representative of South Africa, and not Stellenbosch per se.All of these gains would not have been possible had the institution not had the appetite to transform. In other words, it would have been easy to once again disparage transformation.No one should stand in the way of reform In the wake of Floyd’s murder by what can only be called consistent belligerent police action against black people, Congressional Democrats introduced a police misconduct reform bill on Monday.House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reasoned: “Today, with the Justice In Policing Act, the Congress is standing with those fighting for justice and taking action.”Police brutality is a heart-breaking reflection of an entrenched system of racial injustice,” she empathised from Capitol Hill.She would also say that Democrats are transforming a “moment of national anguish” into “a moment of national action”, promising the bill is the first step in a series of actions Democrats will take this year.A news report by ABC suggested that “while Democrats hope Republicans will support the new policing reform package, it’s unlikely the Senate will take up the sweeping proposal, especially in an election year”.However, Pelosi was intransigent: “The president [Donald Trump] must not stand in the way of justice. The Congress and the country will not relent until this legislation is made into law.” The point here is simply that change for the better should never be seen as a nuisance, because with every catharsis, it always feels new, and yet it’s a repeat of old cries with a different face.We can write extensively about past and present trauma, but the future is at the mercy of those who are listening.Stellenbosch University showed us that being inclusive is not as hard as they made it out to be and, as a reminder that Black Lives Matter yesterday, today, tomorrow and every day following that, it’s now time for white people to remember that as well.The next viral moment is not the cue to denounce all forms of discrimination: every day is that moment.It is time for institutions to remember that so that five years from now, we are not circling this aphorism again.- Kamva Somdyala is a content producer in Cape Town.
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