From racism to valuing diversity

What the racism incident at the University of the Free State demonstrated was not only the lack of transformation in tertiary education but also the limited impact of reconciliation among people who were born a few years before the democratic transition. Both situations are cause for serious concern. What is shocking is the blatant and banal nature of the racism captured in the Kovsies (the university’s nickname) video, when we have started to think that these types of incidents are isolated and limited to right-wing thugs, not university students. It therefore begs an analysis of the limited nature of integration at historically Afrikaans universities, but also of the meaning of integration. When is a campus 'integrated’? When students of different race groups sit together in the same classroom or stay together in the same residence, yet do not mingle outside these spheres? Or when they respect each other's differences even when they do not live in the same residence? The complexities of historically Afrikaans universities are tied to what is referred to as the ‘language issue’.

It is very difficult for Afrikaans universities to diversify their students and staff components and keep Afrikaans as the language of instruction. Not a single historically Afrikaans university has managed to come up with a satisfactory model to accommodate both Afrikaans and English-speaking students at the same time. It seems that a large part of the problems at Kovsies stems from parallel medium teaching where English students are taught separately from Afrikaans students and apparently no cross-fertilisation of ideas takes place because black and white students do not get an integrated education.

The University of Stellenbosch's model is more complex, with different options of which the T-option (tweetaligheid or bilingual teaching) is the most challenging for lecturers and students. The T-option means that lecturers have to use both languages equally at the same time in the same class. This is also unsatisfactory because both groups of students think that their language of choice is not used enough and many become confused when the lecturer shifts between languages. But at least students have to sit in the same classroom. The only other alternative is to become English medium universities, which is problematic since language is linked to cultural expression and claims that Afrikaans will disappear if not spoken at university level. This is of course debatable if we take into consideration that no other African language is a medium of instruction on tertiary (or school) level.

The even bigger challenge for transformation on these campuses is the institutional cultures that are steeped in an apartheid past, being white and male dominated with invisible rules that may alienate and marginalise groups from other cultures. While blatant racism is an indication of attitudinal racism based on stereotyping and prejudice, structural racism embedded in institutional cultures is far more insidious.

As Philomena Essed (1996) argues, "racial prejudice has an element of common sense, based on false generalisations of negatively valued properties attributed to racial groups other than one's own. Common sense should not be understood as a product of deliberate, systematic, and consistent thought. It is derived from and designed to cope with routine activities of everyday life [in the institutional culture]...Moreover, the dominant common sense about race...does not necessarily imply an awareness of an underlying race ideology...nor does it explicitly adhere to a goal of confirming and perpetuating inequality, but neither does it include elaborate notions of opposition against racism...Thus racial discrimination is defined in terms of acts and their consequences even when actors do not intend or realise, let alone pursue, the social consequences of their actions.”

I quote Essed at length because she makes it clear that racism takes on subtle forms far more difficult to deal with than the very extreme forms of ‘old racism’ experienced at Kovsies. As Essed furthermore argues, people can explain very well that racism is wrong but when you ask them what racism is, they will be inclined to associate it with extremes, such as the nauseating video made at Kovsies. But while this type of blatant racism lurks on every historical Afrikaans university campus, in most cases racism is much more subtle and encoded in the norms and behaviour of institutional cultures that are notoriously difficult to change. The fight against this type of behaviour is so much harder because it is so intangible. But it is at the heart of what should be transformed at Afrikaans universities.

No tertiary education institution is devoid of racism (and that does not mean that historically Afrikaans universities should not reflect deeply about the problems of racism on their campuses). But the debate should be steered in a different direction – that of tolerance of and respect for diversity. You cannot have non-racialism in tertiary education unless lecturers (and parents of students) at universities make students understand what diversity entails, that cultural differences exist and that we all have to tolerate (and embrace) these differences.

At the core of this diversity approach is tolerance of difference, not a homogenisation of cultural differences or an ‘othering’ of those who are different. Tolerance means to ‘put up with’ those things that we may not agree with or accept. Integration does not mean that cultural specificities should disappear.

The incident of blatant racism at Kovsies has polarised South Africa along racial lines to the extent that anger floats just beneath the surface. Anger is a positive response in the face of racism, but countering with racist sentiments and slogans such as black students at Kovsies are doing now will only harden attitudes on both sides. Essed argues that those who are angry should go beyond anger to be assertive. Three types of assertiveness are important. First, political assertiveness – recognising relevant channels and using them to protect group and individual rights. Second, cultural assertiveness – the capacity to expand one's possibilities by using key elements of the norms and values and other culturally specific skills of one's own. Third, psychological assertiveness – the ability to value elements in the dominant culture without loss of self-esteem, expressed with confidence. It requires a critical view of culture and tradition.

This view puts the responsibility on those who feel victimised to act in a positive way, but I also think that the perpetrators of racism should reflect on exactly what the ingredients of their cultures are that makes it possible to dehumanise others.

We should, however, not underestimate the impact of class differences. Class as a variable that can explain difference is relatively under-researched in South Africa, but it is quite possible that differences between students are also related to white students who come from middle-class backgrounds while many African students may be first generation university entrants not from a middle-class background. We know far too little of how class differences are reflected in reality on campuses, and this should be investigated.

It is clear that there was a climate on the Kovsie campus that made it possible for students to make the racist video that they did – and that climate led to very angry retaliations. Once a campus enters this downward spiral, it takes a lot of hard work to get it back on track. One of the things that other historically Afrikaans universities should learn from this incident is not to tolerate the type of climate in which racism festers.

* Amanda Gouws is a professor of political science and chair of the department at the University of Stellenbosch.

Philomena Essed (1996) Diversity, Gender, Color & Culture. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.