Breaking white silences in South African-Dutch collaboration in higher education: Auto-ethnographic reflections of two “university clones”

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to show the complex positionality and the complexity that comes with the study of whiteness in South African higher education by Dutch, white academics. This complexity stems from the long-standing relationship between Dutch universities, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VUA) in particular, with their South African counterparts, which predominantly supported apartheid with reference to a shared religious (Protestant) background. Design/methodology/approach: The paper rests upon a literature review of the development of South African higher education, and an assessment of the prominent role played by the Dutch Vrije Universiteit in support of the all-white, Afrikaans Potchefstroom University (presently North-West University). The authors, who are both involved in the institutional cooperation between Vrije Universiteit and South African universities, reflect on the complexity of this relationship by providing auto-ethnographic evidence from their own (religious) biography. Findings: The paper reflects the ambiguous historical as well as contemporary contexts and ties that bind Vrije Universiteit to South African universities, especially formerly Afrikaans-speaking ones. The ambiguity is about the comfort of sharing an identity with formerly Afrikaans-speaking universities, on the one hand, and the discomfort of historical and political complicities in a (still) segregated South African society on the other hand. Originality/value: This auto-ethnographic paper breathes an atmosphere of a “coming out” that is not very common in academic writing. It is a reflection and testimony of a lifelong immersion in VUA-South African academic research relations in which historical, institutional, and personal contexts intermingle and lead to a unique positionality leading to “breaking silences” around these complex relations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)26-45
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Organizational Ethnography
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jan 2017


  • South Africa, Diversity, Auto-ethnography, Whiteness, Academic cooperation,


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