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.” 

 

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