The University of the Free State (UFS), in the middle of rural South Africa, is moving more closely toward integrating its diverse student body. It has appointed its first black dean, and students have elected its first black president in its 105-year history.
But racial tension continues to simmer. In February, the courts are expected to rule on an incident that took place two years ago.
When the so-called “Reitz Video” – named after the university residence hall where it was made – was released to the media about two years ago, racial strife on the campus threatened to destroy the UFS. Part of it shows some young white male students feeding to middle-aged black cleaning women what appears to be food laced with urine.
The video forced students and campus authorities to confront lingering racism at UFS, and take action to ensure the survival of one of South Africa’s oldest learning institutions, where up until relatively recently students of different races had been kept apart in separate living quarters.
However, some white students feel threatened by the pace of the transformation happening on campus, and say they feel unfairly targeted.
“I am determined to end the stigma associated with being a white Afrikaans person here. Every time we fight for the rights of our culture and language, we are called racists,” says Chrisna de Kock, leader of the UFS branch of the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), a white Afrikaans political party that’s often accused of racism.
“When black students fight for their rights in a similar way, they are called ‘freedom fighters,’” she adds.
White students say most condemn racism
“Let’s get one thing straight,” Wouter Wessels, FF+ youth leader, tells VOA at the campus in the city of Bloemfontein, South Africa’s judicial capital. “The FF+ is a minority group party. We believe that it is necessary to protect minority group rights – and in our case, to protect the rights of the Afrikaner (group), which is white and which is Afrikaans-speaking. That does not mean that we are racist.”
Afrikaner students at UFS feel victimized. Most condemn the racism demonstrated in the Reitz Video, but say they’re constantly accused by black students and the media of supporting it, just because they’re white.
“Out of a student body of thousands of whites here, four white students made that video. But now we’re all paying for their sins,” says Tammy Breedt, another student leader.
Wessels is convinced that change is happening “too fast” on the campus, largely in “knee jerk” reaction to the Reitz Video controversy. Whites, he says, now fear “becoming extinct” at UFS, adding that some hostels are already populated exclusively by black students.
“Then the fear comes into my mind that in five year’s time this institution will not have 35 percent white students (as is presently the case) but will have 100 percent black students,” Wessels says.
The university’s first black dean, Professor Jonathan Jansen, says concerns such as these are unfounded. “This university will be a place for South Africans of all races, and will continue to be a home for the Afrikaner,” he says.
But Jansen’s assurances don’t satisfy some sections of the Afrikaner community.
The language now being used in classes at the university is particularly contentious, with Afrikaners like Breedt feeling their language is being “strangled to death” at UFS – a place where up until recently Afrikaans was used almost exclusively as the medium of learning. To accommodate more black students, more classes are now in English, leading to unease among some Afrikaners.
Wessels warns, “The moment a language is not spoken in a higher education environment anymore, not spoken in parliament anymore, not spoken in court anymore, it loses its higher functions and it will die out.”
Jansen’s demand that white and black students live and learn together in campus residences has sparked frequent protests by the FF+ against what it calls “forced integration.”
“Integration is a reality; transformation is a reality and it should happen. But it should happen voluntarily. Why force students to live together?” asks Wessels.
Breedt says it’s “natural” for young people to “rebel” against anything that’s imposed on them.
Jansen acknowledges that “things are often tense” between white and black students who have little experience of one another’s cultures. But he adds that, given the university’s long history of racial division, it can’t afford to wait for integration of students of different races to happen naturally, and must “force” it to a degree.
Breedt says she’s “totally against this kind of social engineering.” Wessels agrees, saying that if racial integration isn’t voluntary, “then it’s not true transformation; it’s only window dressing.”
“For people of different cultures, races, religions, languages, to understand one another takes time,” says Breed. But, she argues, South African students of diverse races aren’t being given the time necessary to reach “true respect” for one another’s differences.
Instead of “just throwing us all together and causing conflict,” Breedt suggests the university introduce special “classes of understanding” for UFS students in which they learn about one another’s cultures and backgrounds and talk with one another. Jansen says he’s in favor of this, and it should happen “sooner rather than later.”
Threats and accusations
But at the moment, resentment, anger and suspicion are still very evident across the campus -- and in cyberspace, where a war of words around the Reitz Video has continued almost unabated for the past two years.
Jansen responds that “young people are volatile and sometimes say stupid things, and we deal with that; it’s unacceptable. Just like any criminal act is unacceptable on this campus and the perpetrators will be punished, no matter if they are white or black.”
To some commentators in South Africa, the student tension at UFS continues to be a strong symbol of the country’s continuing race struggle, where many sacrifices must be made by South Africans of all races on the altar of reconciliation. And even then, Jansen acknowledges, success is not guaranteed.