On Monday 27 January, Stellenbosch University students received an official email from Student Affairs Director Dr Choice Makhetha, announcing that alcohol and its consumption will be temporarily banned on campus.
This decision, as described in the email, is one that was reached by university management after a number of tragic events occurred on campus in the last few years, and following a “compelling memorandum” from the Anti-GBV Movement of SU. In addition to this, the university’s council requested that stakeholders need to do more to combat alcohol abuse on campus.
SU management has decided that this ban must include: banning pubs in men’s residences, reviewing Residence Rules regarding alcohol usage, banning alcohol consumption on university property, banning the display of alcohol on university property and confiscating alcohol found on university property. This is all with the aim to eliminate “binge drinking culture”.
Leading up to this announcement, there had already been mixed messages and uncertainty since House Committee members of residences and PSOs were introduced to the “idea of a ban”, but staff members had called it “a conversation” and did not have any physical policy to show student leaders what the ban would actually entail.
A few alumni and students have come out in support of the ban and have stated that it is not appropriate for an education institution to encourage drinking culture in any form. An alumnus even expressed that the drinking culture at Stellenbosch University is so damaging that it has “ruined people’s lives and futures”.
Another alumnus expressed approval of the ban by stating that it would make spaces more inclusive for Muslim students who often are not accommodated in spaces since alcohol is left or spilled on counters and tables where they may need to cook or stay in.
This is, clearly, a quite radical decision that the university has taken, and it has sparked outcries as well as praise by students and alumni alike. The first issue that some students raised was the lack of consultation and information.
This decision seemed to have come “out of the blue” without considering students’ interests, needs and wants. This top-down strategy is nothing new, considering that the university has made various decisions without student consultation, notably that of removing The Village from the LLL program, converting it to a senior residence, as well as the shuttle fee “mess” in 2019.
Some students, such as Michelle Almendro, believe that there should not have been a “total ban” but rather “control mechanisms” in place to limit alcohol consumption. She also expressed concern about this policy possibly resulting in students drinking more outside of their living space which could result in more consequences for them.
Stellenbosch Alumnus George von Berg says that this decision is clearly focused on “protecting the university’s brand”. The true aim of this policy, Von Berg argues, is to “minimise future incidents” in order to prevent “bad PR”. It is essentially the “easy solution” for the institution.
QueerUS Executive Member and iLizwi contributor, Paul Joubert, took to Twitter to raise a number of questions regarding this ban. “Is this the end of the beer and wine societies? Can societies still serve alcohol at events? Can resident heads still drink in their flats?” He goes on to question whether alcohol will be served at Varsity Cup or whether the university will choose to be “selective” when it comes to the ban.
There are clear contestations to the decision made by Stellenbosch University. Perhaps a further question which management did not consider is whether the binge drinking culture is a result of deeper problems at the institution. The truth of the matter, as Paul Joubert put it, is that we live in a “broken society” and the broken pieces are not being repaired. The university does not want to solve the reasons “why students drink”.
Hence, this policy may have good intentions but without resolving historic trauma and addressing the lack of transformation as well as the mental illness epidemic, this ban may not benefit the institution’s students at all. Sadly, due to the lack of support on campus, many people end up relying on alcohol as “an escape”. The institution should rather focus on implementing a mental health policy and invest in more psychologists.
As for the argument that the alcohol ban will reduce gender-based violence – that could be a risky notion. Yes, it is true that many sexual assault cases brought to the Equality Unit involve alcohol, so removing alcohol may reduce GBV as well as prevent perpetrators from using alcohol as “an excuse” for their vile behaviour.
However, the difficulty is that alcohol consumption will begin to move to clubs and bars off campus which could make it more dangerous for students. GBV could possibly increase off campus and thus, students will return to campus more traumatised. It’s clear that GBV is a deeply rooted issue that may be influenced by alcohol, but does not originate from alcohol consumption.
It must be noted that Dr Makhetha’s email indicates that there will be “ongoing engagement” regarding the alcohol ban and drinking culture, in general. This, however, contradicts the decision that has been taken to discipline student leaders who have been caught drinking on university property earlier this year, long before this email was sent.
2020 is the beginning of a Prohibition Era for Stellenbosch University, and only time will tell whether the institution has created more problems for itself, or whether its radical decision is truly going to solve the scourge of binge drinking culture and high levels of gender-based violence on its campuses.