The truth about racism on SA’s campuses
on one campus, two white students in a bakkie allegedly deliberately drive over and later assault a (fellow) black male student after attempting to mow down three black female students. On another, whole residences stand proudly at attention, forearms outstretched in a Nazi-style salute. Elsewhere, a student is told he is a ‘traitor to his race’ because of his relationship with a white female student. And even though all of these occurrences are cause for concern, a student at yet another university makes his position quite clear: ‘Diversity is pretty overrated.’ The offensive behaviour at universities in order of appearance: the University of the Free State (UFS), North West University (NWU) Potchefstroom campus, the University of Pretoria (Tuks) and the University of Cape Town (UCT).
It seems that even though some of the smartest young people of every colour find themselves together on university campuses, race relations in South African university populations are just as problematic as in the rest of the country.
In South Africa, the reaction to many race conversations is often an awkward sidestep of the topic. South Africans are tired of talking about race and that is why we can’t move forward, says UFS Vice-Chancellor and Rector Jonathan Jansen. ‘For white South Africans there is a sense of guilt and shame, because they know at a deeper level that they have been historically privileged at the expense of large portions of the population. Black [South Africans], on the other hand, are very quick to point this out.’ As many responses indicate, most young people are more likely to react as a ‘hive mind’ rather than face conversations about race individually… or at all. ‘Some of us prefer being with people of our own kind and we’re not going to apologise for it,’ says Leon Cupido*, a young coloured man at UCT. Similar sentiments are echoed on the other side of the country: ‘We’re more than 20 years past apartheid. People younger than that don’t even know what it was like.Why do we have to keep talking about it?’ asks Kelly Smuts*, a white student at the University of the Witwatersrand. ‘People keep bringing up race as if that’s the only difference between us. What about class or gender? Those are important too,’ says Nikiwe Babana*, a young black woman studying at Rhodes.
‘South Africans just don’t know how to talk about race,’ says Jansen. ‘We do not have the language to speak about it properly and
constructively. But if we can never bring it up, [racism] will never truly go away.’
Anecdotes from various campuses suggest that while this is a diverse country, it is not yet a truly integrated one. We tend to forget that campuses are not isolated from the communities their students are pooled from. It is, of course, unrealistic to expect institutions to flick on an interpersonal switch for their students, who come into universities with at least 18 years of ideology shaping their behaviour and opinions. Says Jansen, ‘[W]e simply don’t know how to deal with people who are different from us. And for most students, coming to university is the first time they are faced with people who are different from them, yet equal to them, in such close quarters.’
And it can make co-habitation difficult. ‘One of the girls on my floor spent the day cooking tripe,’ says Michelle Peters*, a young white woman at Rhodes of a black student with whom she shared a kitchen. ‘I didn’t want to say anything because she said it was traditional food. But I couldn’t stand it, so I left.’ Mpilo Kekana*, a black male student at Tuks, laments, ‘I was in Boekenhout [Residence]. From my experience, not every white person is racist, but I’ve noticed that [white students] never take anything black people say seriously.’
On conservative, often historically Afrikaans campuses, the kind of undisguised racism that usually brews in the comments section of news websites seems to bubble to the surface as racially motivated attacks or exclusion. Here, everything from language policies to residence structures are more likely to isolate those who are different or in the minority. At UFS, these exchanges have made national headlines. In 2010, four white students from the Reitz hostel at the campus filmed five members of the university’s black cleaning staff being humiliated in a mock initiation.
Trying to entrench a zero-tolerance policy regarding racially motivated incidents, Jansen explains, ‘We are clear about suspending or expelling the perpetrators of such acts, launching full investigations, making our position public and then cultivating some degree of reconciliation, if any is possible, between the two parties.’
A solution can sometimes be even more difficult when the acts are not so flagrant. ‘The racism can go deeper – it… travels down from faculty to students, ’says a former lecturer at the NWU Potchefstroom campus, who asked not to be named. ‘Potchefst room is the last bastion of Afrikanerdom in many ways and [it] becomes more fanatical on the campus, which is somewhat isolated from the rest of the country.’
‘There is a sense of intimidation from older students that is almost cult-like. Everybody is encouraged to look… and act the same,’ says the former faculty member. ‘The campus has a long history of being a conservative campus [it was formerly the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education]. As part of the residence-initiation and orientation culture, new students can be seen marching in militarystyle parade in their residence uniforms at the beginning of the academic year.’
It is this kind of behaviour, encouraged in the spirit of preserving a strong Afrikaner tradition, that has led to a sense of exclusion on the campus. ‘Everything is in Afrikaans, all signage, all lectures and university correspondence. There is live translation in some lectures, but it is not sufficient,’ says the faculty member.
Stellenbosch University often escapes such criticism as, much like UFS, the campus has taken active steps to redress the racial imbalances of the past. But the underlying culture in the environment is still predominantly Afrikaans. ‘I never experienced or heard of any acts of racism on the campus while I was there,’ says Stephanie Willemse*, a coloured student. ‘But I have never felt more aware of my race than I did walking through Stellenbosch.’
On more liberal, formerly all-white, campuses that have embraced transformation and integration, it is almost taboo to appear to view race other than through rainbow-tinted glasses. On campuses like UCT and Rhodes, where transformation is enshrined in sophisticated policies, it seems unheard-of for there to be any blatant acts of discrimination. But often subliminal aggression or prejudice creeps in and can sometimes do as much harm as any overt racism: ‘Are you on the extended degree programme?’ ‘But what is your African name?’ ‘She speaks so well!’
Often the speakers don’t realise what they are implying. ‘[These messages] are usually not serious enough to investigate, but they are hurtful enough to be offensive,’ says Jansen.
In dealing with any kind of racism, he says, ‘It is up to the university to steer these conversations in the right direction. The participation in transformation needs to be overseen and guided by the institution on an administrative level.’ It is important that all students in their campus environment feel represented, heard and understood.
‘I don’t know of a better place you could do just that,’ says Jansen. ‘Students are in each other’s space. Properly facilitated, there is a lot of growth to be taken from that.
‘We can each start with the intention to deracialise the communities we find ourselves in,’ says Jansen. ‘It is possible to move beyond racism on campus, as it is to move past racism in South Africa, but it will take time. We need to talk about it first.’ * Name has been changed
Left Students at UCT take a stand against the racism – overt and subliminal – that persists on campus.