News / Africa

First Black Student President Brings Unifying Message to South African University

Student leader has big plans for University of the Free State, which is struggling with the legacy of apartheid

Darren Taylor

It’s not just the color of his skin that makes Moses Masitha very different from past presidents of the University of the Free State’s (UFS) Student Representative Council (SRC).  This is clear merely from his everyday clothing. He doesn’t constrain his body in a stiff suit, decorated with shiny badges of honor. 

Rather, Masitha strolls around the campus, in South Africa’s central agricultural heartland, in sneakers, blue jeans and a football shirt, greeting fellow learners not with formal handshakes, but with high-fives and backslaps, smiles and guffaws.   

The current cordiality stands in contrast to tension in August 2009, following a narrow and surprising victory in the student election when Masitha became the first black president of the UFS SRC in its 105-year history.  Some white students cried in shock.

“They thought it was the end of civilization, having a black man as their official representative,” Masitha, a senior philosophy student, recalls.  “This place has been insulated from change for so long,” he adds.  

Erosion of Afrikaner culture


Previously, politics at the university had been dominated by the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), a white Afrikaans party that’s often accused of racism – a charge it denies.  In fact, for over 100 years, the UFS has stood at the center of white Afrikaner culture, and has been the alma mater of some of the most brutal architects of South Africa’s hated apartheid system. 

Some Afrikaners consider Masitha’s victory to be further evidence of the erosion of an institution they feel has traditionally been their intellectual home.

A statue of Afrikaner hero, Marthinus Theunis Steyn, dominates the Free State University's main square.
A statue of Afrikaner hero, Marthinus Theunis Steyn, dominates the Free State University's main square.

Masitha says he’s “very sensitive” to this perception.  “We are not planning to do away with Afrikaner culture, or the expression thereof,” he says.  “I think if Afrikaans students on campus would like to express themselves and their culture and their identity, let them be free to do so.  But their identity should not be an oppressive identity; their identity should not be a discriminatory identity.” 

In some respects, Masitha’s been preparing most of his life for a role as racial reconciler at an institution that once barred blacks.  He grew up in Vredefort, a small Free State district where conservative white Afrikaans farmers are the mainstay of the local economy.  Masitha went to school with their children.  

“I was one of a very few black kids that went to that school.  At a given time one would have counted about 20 (among hundreds of pupils).  At some point I was the only black person in the class,” he says.  Although there were other black children at the school, Masitha’s best friend was a white boy.  “We sort of clicked very well together.  We recently again just reunited …. That was very awesome,” he says, smiling.

Masitha says he and his white friend “never ever saw each other in terms of race” but were always acutely aware of “racial tension” in their society.  “We were very aware that the blacks within (some) schools were not very well treated and so forth, and we’d speak about it.”

White students now his allies

As a student, he’s continued confronting racial discrimination, and it’s an issue he addressed during his successful run to become SRC president.  But it’s a campaign that nearly didn’t happen.  For a long time, Masitha resisted pleas from the South African Student’s Congress (Sasco), an organization with almost exclusively black student membership, for him to be its candidate.  

A campus plaque honoring the former president of the Free State Boer Republic Marthinus Theunis. Masitha says it's time for South Africans of all races to be honored by the university
A campus plaque honoring the former president of the Free State Boer Republic Marthinus Theunis. Masitha says it's time for South Africans of all races to be honored by the university

“I just felt that Sasco, while preaching non-racialism, was just as guilty as the FF+ of practicing racially exclusive politics and politics based on fear.  While the FF+ was shouting ‘Vote for us to keep the blacks out,’ Sasco was shouting, ‘Vote for us so we can beat the whites.’”    

After Masitha received an assurance from Sasco leaders that this strategy would end, he accepted the organization’s nomination.  He then based his campaign on addressing “student issues -- by issues I mean every single thing that all students could rally around and say, ‘But these are the common things that we all struggle with.’  We had very little racial rhetoric.”

Instead, Masitha addressed topics like exorbitant tuition fees.  His messages hit home – to the unprecedented extent that white students began joining Sasco to campaign for him.  The organization says hundreds of white students voted for Masitha.    

“It was a revolt against the messages the Freedom Front has been pushing,” he says.  “The white students told us, ‘Look, we’re tired of all the negativity; let’s change things; it cannot be right that what’s happening here is not reflective of South African society in general.’”

Victory…. but campus still divided

Because of his triumph, says Masitha, UFS students of all races “now feel they have a chance to shine” on campus.  “Prior to that, I think black students at this institution have always felt secluded and placed in a particular corner,” he says.  “You see…. people wanting to participate in activities on campus, because they see that there’ll probably be a steering away from what has been seen as stereotypically Afrikaans cultures that have been dominant on campus.”

Moses Masitha, the first black president of the Free State University's Student Representative Council
Moses Masitha, the first black president of the Free State University's Student Representative Council

Masitha acknowledges, though, that racism’s still evident at a place that, after all, enforced racial segregation for almost a century.  “We had an incident recently where one white student was constantly calling black students by the K-word,” he says, shaking his head. 

Kaffir is an extremely offensive racist term in South Africa used to refer to black people.  “The (offending) student was kicked out of the residence,” Masitha explains – without any sense of victory, only disappointment.  

Masitha says most white students at the UFS are “great!  Plenty of white students here now have this reconciliatory tone about them.  They want to build this institution together with us.  They have realized that we do not plan to destroy them.”

He emphasizes that if any black students do “something negative,” he’ll be the first to condemn their behavior.

King Moshoeshoe’s honor

Masitha, ever the pragmatist, is also a dreamer.  He dreams of the day when, in front of the campus’s main building, a statue of King Moshoeshoe -- the long-dead founder of southern Africa’s Basotho nation -- is erected near the metal and stone likeness of Afrikaner legend Marthinus Steyn, who in the late 1800s led a heroic war against mighty British forces on behalf of the Free State Boer Republic.  Masitha also has a vision for the UFS as a “leader in intellectual discourse and social justice” in Africa.  

But his greatest wish is also his “simplest” desire. 

“Most of all I want to see black and white students sitting in the same class studying with one another, sharing knowledge with each other…and no one speaks about it, it’s just accepted as natural.” 

 

You May Like

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

There is growing uncertainty over whether West’s response to ISIS is adequate More

China Crackdown on Dual Citizens Causes Concern

New policy encourages reporting people who obtain citizenship in another country, but retain Chinese citizenship; move spurs sharp debate More

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

Losing ground to Islamic State fighters, Syria's government says it is ready to cooperate with international community More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?i
X
Henry Ridgwell
August 29, 2014 12:26 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Pachyderms Play Polo to Raise Money for Elephants

Polo, the ancient team competition typically played on horseback, is known as the “sport of kings.” However, the royal version for one annual event in Thailand swaps the horse for the kingdom’s national symbol - the elephant. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Samut Prakan reports that the King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament is all for a good cause.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video America's Most Popular Artworks Displayed in Public Places

Public places in cities across America were turned into open-air art galleries in August. Pictures of the nation’s most popular artworks were displayed on billboards, bus shelters, subway platforms and more. The idea behind “Art Everywhere,” a collaborative campaign by five major museums is to allow more people to enjoy art and learn about the country’s culture and history. Faiza Elmasry has more.
Video

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Uneasy Calm Settles Over Israel, Gaza Strip

Israel and the Gaza Strip have been calm since a cease-fire set in Tuesday evening, ending seven weeks of hostilities. Hamas, which controls Gaza, declared victory. Israelis were more wart. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jerusalem.
Video

Video India’s Leprosy Battle Stymied by Continuing Stigma

Medical advancements in the treatment of leprosy have greatly diminished its impact around the world, largely eliminating the disease from most countries. India made great strides in combating leprosy, but still accounts for a majority of the world’s new cases each year, and the number of newly infected Indians is rising - more than 130,000 recorded last year. Doctors there say the problem has more to do with society than science. Shaikh Azizur Rahman reports from Kolkata.
Video

Video Scientists Unlock Mystery of Bird Flocks

How can flocks of birds, schools of fish or herds of antelope suddenly change direction -- all the individuals adjusting their movement in concert, at seemingly the same time? British researchers now have some insights into this behavior, which has puzzled scientists for a long time. VOA's George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid