The truth about racism on SA’s cam­puses

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - WORDS SARAH KOOP­MAN .co.za claire marie

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.

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