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Racism: a forever stain on SA universities?

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Picture: Leon Lestrade/African News Agency (ANA) – University of Cape Town students walk on campus between lectures. Instead of being spaces for transformation, ‘a large spill of racism, has cast an ugly shadow across many of South Africa’s institutions of higher learning, and it continues unabated’, the writer says.

By Kim Heller

It is recommended that to get rid of the smell of urine, one must stir a measure of peroxide, with a tablespoon of baking soda and a dash of detergent. For former vice chancellor of the University of the Free State, Jonathan Jansen, the putrid stink of urine is a forever stain on his standing.

In an appalling incident of racial chagrin and dehumanisation in 2008, a video emerged showing a white student at the University of the Free State urinating over a bowl of stew and then forcing black workers to eat it. On the video, the white student says, “That, at the end of the day, is what we think of integration”. In a rather shocking gesture of reconciliation and forgiveness, the four white students who orchestrated this horrendous act, were “pardoned” by Vice-Chancellor Professor Jonathan Jansen. The University withdrew charges against the students, who were to become infamously known as the ‘Reitz 4’. The same students were to be found guilty by the Bloemfontein Magistrate’s Court, in July 2010, of crimen injura.

The Guardian’s David Smith wrote of the incidence; “A university has tested the limits of racial reconciliation in South Africa after dropping disciplinary action against white students accused of humiliating black workers in a notorious internet video… Jonathan Jansen, the first black vice-chancellor of Free State University, announced that the four white students would be allowed to resume their studies as a gesture of forgiveness”.

Jansen’s gesture of forgiveness was scorned by the ANC who said “Our view is that such an act will not lead to reconciliation, but it will again harden racial attitudes, not only in the university but in the country broadly …. the dropping of the charges has robbed the former students, their victims, the university and South Africa of such corrections.”

One has to pause to ask two penetrating questions. One, if these workers had been mother or father of Jansen, would he have been so forgiving? Secondly, whose forgiveness is it anyway? For Jansen to grant forgiveness on behalf of the humiliated workers renders them not only powerless but invisible.

This episode is a moment of shame that will forever linger in our collective memory as South Africans. It is by no means the only incidence of racism that has occurred in universities, for sadly these are commonplace, but it is certainly among the vilest. For it involves the degradation of powerless black cleaning staff by privileged white students. A shameful attack on the dignity of someone’s mother, someone’s father by young white boys.

In his Rivonia Trial address Mandela said, “White supremacy implies black inferiority. Legislation designed to preserve white supremacy entrenches this notion. Menial tasks in South Africa are invariably performed by Africans. When anything has to be carried or cleaned the white man will look around for an African to do it for him, whether the African is employed by him or not.

Because of this sort of attitude, whites tend to regard Africans as a separate breed. They do not look upon them as people with families of their own; they do not realise that they have emotions – that they fall in love like white people do; that they want to be with their wives and children like white people want to be with theirs; that they want to earn enough money to support their families properly, to feed and clothe them and send them to school. And what ‘house-boy’ or ‘garden-boy’ or labourer can ever hope to do this?

After the horrific Reitz 4 urination case, the then Minister of Higher Education, Naledi Pandor announced the establishment of the ministerial committee to investigate discrimination in public higher education institutions. The 2008 Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions, highlights that “unless attention is paid to changing the institutional culture (at universities), racist incidents and practices will continue unabated”.

When Jansen left UFS in 2016, the Higher Education Transformation Network’s Hendrick Makaneta told a Sowetan journalist that Jansen had “failed black students and staff at the university by focusing his energy on manufacturing fake race relations at the expense of the fight against racism and abuse of human rights”.

“We are equally disappointed in him because he failed to transform UFS into a racially and culturally inclusive university‚ in line with the new dispensation‚ thus perpetuating white supremacy and anti-black racism on campus‚” he added.

Jansen had the opportunity to change the institutional culture at the University of Free State. He chose not to. Instead of being an agent of change, as one would have expected, he entrenched the might and right of white.

ln a 2022 piece in the Mail & Guardian, entitled ‘Tackling systemic racism in South Africa’s higher education system’, Awethu Fatyela writes of the Eurocentric hegemony in South African higher education and how the country often experiences racist incidents on university campuses. She argues that a mistake universities often make in addressing and documenting acts of racism is in framing them as isolated incidents, whereas this is a systemic issue.

Her view is that while South Africa’s historically white universities have opened their doors to black students, not much has been done to transform university spaces, institutional cultures, and the curriculum. She writes that “Universities are complicit in continued racism through institutional cultures that allow it, protect the perpetrators and lack the political and moral will to make meaningful systemic and structural change”. Fatyela writes that “Performative commissions, committees and task teams are set up; recommendations are made, and symbolic measures are put in place to deal with racism, yet nothing really ever changes”.

In a thought piece in City Press, on 30 September 2023, Nombulelo Shange writes that racism on SA campuses is alive, well and venomous. He writes that “South African universities have struggled or refused to adequately address the historical racism and exclusion on which they were founded”. “These universities, especially previously white institutions, are inextricably linked to colonialism.”

Shange contends that “we learnt many important lessons from the 2015/16 #FeesMustFall students”. “One myth that was debunked and exposed was the idea that there was racial unity and harmony in universities. In fact, black students, academics, and support and outsourced staff are marginalised in different ways.”

Racism has stained the very fabric of South Africa’s democracy. It is the everyday stitch and twitch of the ideologically clumsy reconciliation of 1994. One would have expected that Universities would help to fashion transformation and a new national consciousness. But a large spill of racism, has cast an ugly shadow across many of South Africa’s institutions of higher learning, and it continues unabated.

In historically Afrikaans Universities, it is often more pronounced and more vulgar. Just last month, there was a report of a white student at the University of The Free State calling a black student a baboon. According to SRC President Axola Toto when this matter was reported to a lecturer, the lecturer, a white woman, was alleged to have downplayed and dismissed this as nothing more than a joke. The SRC says that this is just one in a surge of complaints of racism at the University of the Free State. SRC President Axola Toto told a News24 reporter that “racism at the institution was institutionalised”. “These structures are very anti-black; there must be structural changes here. I think that is what the university needs at this point in time.”

In response to these claims, the current Vice Chancellor of the University, Professor Francis Petersen, denied that the institution is racist. He argued that there had been a great investment in building transformation, inclusivity, and institutional culture. Fatyela contends that universities continue to take a reactive stance on racism as opposed to being proactive. She writes: “When incidents of racism are publicly exposed, universities centre their attention on reputational damage and meaningless assurances, instead of creating conducive environments and working on fundamental transformation.”

Until there is a strong stamp of no tolerance for racism, and Vice Chancellors stand unequivocally for true transformation, the stink of racial sewage will continue to flow through and contaminate South Africa’s halls of learning.

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions