I watched two videos this morning. The first was Luister – a documentary comprising the stories of students from Stellenbosch University where I am on the faculty in the chemistry department. The issue they are addressing is the experience of black students at an Afrikaans university which remains predominantly white. It left me feeling profoundly saddened. The woundedness of one young man in particular will stay with me for some time to come.
Another student recounted how at the start of the first year everyone seems pretty friendly, but that by the end of the first or second term, the institutional culture means that lines are drawn.
I can’t help thinking of all the young students arriving at Stellenbosch each year. They have high hopes and perhaps higher fears and insecurities – will they make it here? As ever in human culture the easiest way to show that we fit in is to exclude those who fit in less. The way we fake it is by posturing.
I don’t know what the solution is, I just know that everyone involved is losing right now. These bright, talented young people are all (regardless of skin colour and language preference) being warped in the experience.
The second video was a talk by Pema Chodron. In it she speaks of her experience of hearing about the tragedy of 9/11 on the 4th day of a 100 day silent retreat. She speaks of the possibility of what might have happened that day if those in power in the United States had not swung back. She spoke of the incident as being a massive communal experience of groundlessness.
We all have personal experiences of groundlessness periodically, and most of us fight to recover our ground as quickly as possible. The only problem is that the ground is really fake, it is a construct of our egos. Each time our identity is stripped we have an opportunity to learn to live in groundlessness, but each time we fight to clothe ourselves again in more and more certainty – and so we begin on the slippery slope to fundamentalism.
It is what happened in the response to 9/11. We live in a far more fearful, more polarised, more fundamentalist world now than we did fourteen years ago.
So my question this evening is simply – what is the invitation to the Stellenbosch University community? How do we respond? Is there a way which will lead ultimately to a better place?
I hope so! We owe it to every single student who passes through our doors.