Monday, October 12, 2009

Free State University And The "Unifinished Business" Of Racism

In early January 2008 South Africans had to confront, again, the ongoing and "unfinished business" of apartheid and its brand of racism.

Around that time a group of white Afrikaner students made a video to protest the integration of campus housing at the University of the Free State in South Africa's judicial capital, Bloemfontein.

The video was made public when the ex-girlfriend of one of the young men posted it to YouTube as a kind of revenge.

The 10 minute video makes racist fun of black workers who attend to the residences where the group of Afrikaner students lived.

One scene shows a young man urinating into a pot of food which is then given to the unsuspecting workers to eat.

The British newspaper, The Times, carried an article this past Sunday that refers to the pending criminal court case and it covers the fist public interviews with the affected workers pictured below.

Here in South Africa the case is mostly out of public view but hardly anyone who pays relative attention can forget its contents.

Our apartheid past is too close and too personal for the majority to forget.

I have written here and in my academic work about the need to confront the past and our memories.

But as I read the statements of the workers who are at the center of this case I was pressed to recognize, again, that the past is hardly in the past.

For the majority the past and the present are linked by persistent impoverishment and structural distance from what is supposed to be the new era.

As a result too many are left "invisible" in the dominant post-era narrative that seeks to chart progress.

One of the workers best describes the unavoidable tension that ensues in this way:
"I was invisible to everyone before this video happened, but after it came out politicians wanted to speak to me. I met the rector for the first time. We were given tea in his office. My family was hounded by the South African media. I am not an educated woman, but I knew I was being used. Collectively we made a decision to step away from this incident. We stayed away from the university for a short while, but we all kept our jobs, we all went back to work together, although we were moved to another hostel.

We saw those boys in a different way to how they saw us ... I treated them like sons. I cleaned up their hostel and joked with them. I told them off if they made too much of a mess. We helped them when they first came into the hostel. They were young, nervous, we made them tea. They betrayed us. Stuck a knife into our hearts. We were not as intelligent as them, so they manipulated us. They told us they were playing a game.

I don’t have anger in my heart, but I understand injustice. I have travelled to work at that university for over 25 years. I see black students on campus. I see their hope and ambition. My own daughter aspires to go to university. But for me, the way I am treated, that hasn’t changed. My pastor told me that God wanted me to fight against injustice and that is why I became involved in this legal matter. He also asked me to forgive those boys, but it is not them I wish to forgive. It is their parents, for they made them that way.”
These words are haunting and their relevance at this historical moment should weigh heavy on our collective consciousness.

There is a lot of "unfinished business" that must be confronted.

This means that even while President Zuma, like Obama, may want to shy away from confronting race and racism, the nation simply cannot.

The stakes are too high.

Ignorance, denial, selective memory, and forgetting are not the ingredients of meaningful progress and nation-building.

We must double our efforts to confront racism and its class and gender intersections if we are to move toward collective freedom.


Picture Credit


Aasia said...

How sad isn't this Ridwan, that a normal fully fucntioning person can act that way and treat another person that way.

I remember hearing about this for the first time, a couple of months ago and couldn't believe it.

We still have so much to learn, and we getting nowhere slowly.

Ridwan said...

Aasia this is perhaps the most shocking public story of racism in South Africa. Well in recent memory.

When I watched the video I was about ready to flip something crazy.

What is worse is that so many in the white community, and a few others, said it was just a prank.

So even if it was just a prank it was still about dehumanizing grown black people who trusted them like family in some cases.

I think of the manner in which they refer to these grown folk (squeezas) and it makes me sick.

When I was at Rhodes in the 80s white students called female black workers in the residences and eating halls by the patronizing term, "sissie".

I made the mistake one day of saying "sissie" to a lady in the eating hall and she looked me straight in the eye and said "do not be disrespectful like those white students, I am not your sissie"!

I learned something important that day.

Dehumanization happens in supposed 'civil' interaction. The terms that are used to refer to black workers at UFS is a case and point.

Now that they have a black/coloured chancellor (Jonathan Jansen) things may improve.

Things surely can't get worse.

Peace to you!


Aasia said...

Ridwaan you don't want to know my opinion on our token brown boytjie.

He writes for the times, and most of the time I don't get him.

Ridwan said...

Oh I would luv to hear them fo' sure :)

I have my misgivings about his approach and politics.

I was thinking today that he (Jansen) wrote a paper called "When Does a University Cease to Exist" and it was most likely aimed at the school where I currently work.

He is, of course, much kinder to UFS and Pretoria and the like.

Ignoring as he goes along the distortion that schools like those have leveled over the decades.

So perhaps a more appropriate question for him now is; when does the distortion end?

I say this knowing that almost all of the faculty (especially senior ones) are all white at UFS.

The bigger problem is that the curriculum is all white and hence the continued distortion.