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(Just) Listen

Not terribly long ago, a documentary was released on behalf of a student movement at the University of Stellenbosch – Open Stellenbosch – presenting the uncomfortable accounts of students at the university. The title of the documentary was simply ‘Luister‘ – Listen. From the sound (ahem) of it, not very many people did. Oh, it’s evident that a lot of people watched it – at the time of writing it had close to 300 000 views on Youtube – and a lot of people have spoken about it, but from the various reactions it’s quite evident that the viewing was not very attentive.

Political parties, in unison, jumped to denounce racism, discrimination and all it’s various synonyms, and to affirm their own personal commitment to “building a more inclusive country” (DA) and “ensuring that transformation at all our institutions of higher learning is speeded up” (ANC).

The Vice-Chancellor at the US, Professor Wim de Villiers, was also quick to agree that racism is a terrible thing, and almost as quick to defend the University – ” to insinuate that the University is not serious about transformation…cannot go unchallenged.”

And, of course, the men and women of South Africa weighed in with any number of opinions, broadly divided into two camps with a moat down the middle, possibly filled with lava. There were those who sympathised strongly with the students in the video, and those who pulled a Kanye (“imma let you finish, but…”). Certainly a few brave souls risked the lava to take the middle ground. And then there were probably a lot who just don’t care. Stellen-where?

But let’s talk about the Kanye’s.

Seek first to understand

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received was this: Seek first to understand, before seeking to be understood. It’s the fifth habit of highly effective people, thought that’s not where I first heard it, which was at a pre-marital counselling session. It’s advice that virtually nobody who watched the Luister video apparently heard or remembers – at least not many of them who had so much to say about it. By the way, since I’m talking about the people who talked about it, and not the video itself, I’m exempt from that last accusation.

On 1 April 2014, a media organisation pulled a ‘prank’ on it’s readers to demonstrate how frequently people comment on news articles they haven’t actually read. The title of their article was “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” but the body of the article simply requested people who’d read the article to ‘like’ it without commenting. As you can imagine, there were a fair number of comments on the article (agreeing or disagreeing, in their camps, separated by lava, and amusingly united in the failure to…listen).

So it goes, far too often. People, having already made up their minds, listen only long enough to formulate their counter-argument. There’s an irony in that. If we assume that people are arguing with something they disagree with because they wish to change the minds of their audience (and not, say, because they like listening to themselves, because there are better mediums for that, like the shower), then they are making an argument without having listened but with the assumption that their audience will listen to them.

It’s like yelling at someone to calm down.

The Kanye’s

But back to the Kanye’s – much as Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift’s VMA award in 2009 – “You’re great, but…“, many have responded to the Luister video with buts. We hear you and your stories are sad, but…

…but we’ve had democracy for twenty years, get over it,

…but you knew about the language policy before you enrolled,

…but you’re not the only ones with problems,

…but technically, it’s Elsenburg and not Stellenbosch,

…but we’re actually doing a LOT of things to address the language issues,

…but you’re just looking for revenge,

As people have watched the Luister video, or have read about it, they have tended to listen only for as long as it takes to find something to support the views they already hold, and argue back. Perhaps people who struggled with the language policy in the past (English people with Afrikaans classes, or Afrikaans people with English textbooks) feel resentful that Open Stellenbosch expects special treatment. Perhaps those who do argue for transformation at Stellenbosch see Luister as an accusation that they have not tried hard enough. Perhaps white people who themselves feel threatened by transformation see the Luister video as another onerous demand. Perhaps black people who’ve already succeeded at Stellenbosch (or elsewhere under greater challenges) feel ashamed that their fellow black people ‘can’t cut it.’

It’s not difficult to find something to criticise about any movement, if a criticism is what you’re looking for. There are undoubtedly those who associate with Open Stellenbosch who could rightfully be accused of any of those things – those who are victims, those who are lazy, those who want vengeance more than they want transformation. But if you only listened long enough to find the evidence that proves your assumptions…you haven’t listened long enough.


I don’t think that the message of the Luister documentary is about the language policy. Not really. It’s not even about transformation. Maybe I wasn’t listening, but if anything, the message was about belonging. The language policy is simply the most obvious (but not only) way in which the relevant student’s lack of belonging is emphasised. Similarly, the message of #RhodesMustFall is not really about the statue but about the way the statue reminds some students that they don’t belong.

Belonging – perhaps the most fundamental of all human needs (though only in the middle according to Maslow) – and one of the most difficult to quantify. It’s easy to notice when you don’t belong somewhere, but difficult to put into words why you feel that way. Maybe it’s also difficult to know what to do differently for someone who doesn’t feel as if they belong – assuming you’re trying, of course, and not trying to throw them out yourself.

Maybe that’s why we’re struggling to make sense of the Luister story. We’re not listening, even with instructions in the title. Instead, we’re trying to talk back louder.

The listening exercise

I may occasionally seem like a know-it-all, a fact brought painfully home by my young son’s habit of starting his sentences with, “Do you know?” Despite that, I spend many more hours reading about a topic and exploring related ideas than I do writing about it. I find my opinion changes significantly during the course of the exercise. Listening to learning leads, Yoda might have said.

It doesn’t matter if Open Stellenbosch, and movements like theirs – “Feminism”, “#BlackLivesMatter”, whatever – aren’t getting it completely right. Their voices matter. And in simply listening to those voices, we may actually achieve more – through empathy – than by prematurely trying to fix something we don’t understand. DON’T ACT. Just listen. And keep listening.ear

It’s a good principle even if you’re not a humanist – understanding the system before you interact with it is just good sense.



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