Ban contacts with University of the Free State

This month a video shot in a student residence on the campus of the University of the Free State made headlines the world over. In the video four strapping young Afrikaner males are seen humiliating, degrading and assaulting black female cleaners and an elderly black male cleaner in a ‘spoof’ aimed at UFS's halls-of-residence racial integration policy. They were members of the ‘Reitz’ residence, named after a former Boer Republic president. The content of the video is too disgusting to recount. Save to say it shamed all South Africans everywhere. The fall-out from the events at Free State has revealed truths about the institution and apartheid's die-hards, for the white students shooting the video did not do so in a vacuum. They did so because they attend an old-style Afrikaans university which at least tacitly, and at times expressly, condones racism and racial segregation. What happened at UFS was not just shocking in its own right – it strikes me as an attack on the most fundamental rights of all South Africans, myself as an academic working in Australia included.

The UFS is a traditionally Afrikaans-speaking institution with all that goes with that: deeply conservative, almost completely white, Dutch-Reformed protestant Christian. Traditionally, it was a university serving the predominantly white Afrikaans-speaking farming community – the heartland of Afrikanerdom and Afrikaner-nationalism whose most salient feature was the policy of racial segregation.

The UFS was not the birth-place of apartheid or even its intellectual home. That title was one all the Afrikaans universities competed for with pride and vigour: Pretoria, Stellenbosch, Rand Afrikaans (now University of Johannesburg), Port Elizabeth (now Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University), and possibly the most far-right wing of all, the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education (now University of the North-West). But UFS did nonetheless make a noteworthy contribution to apartheid, and wholeheartedly supported, and was supported by, the previous apartheid government.

Old South African universities like UFS were white, Afrikaans speaking and openly refused to admit people of colour. It is in this context that we must judge the present-day activities of the UFS management, because it is these historical factors that best explain why it has for 15 years, since the advent of South Africa's new constitution, failed to uphold the rights of black students on campus not to be discriminated against.

English-speaking universities by contrast had as their policy, by and large, to undermine apartheid. When I was a first-year at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg in 1990, I lived in a racially integrated university residence approximately split 40:60 white to black.

That had existed for some years before my arrival and was repeated in the halls-of-residence at all the English-speaking universities in South Africa by 1990: Cape Town, Natal, Wits and Rhodes all had integrated residences.

Yet such integration was in fact illegal in the early 1990s. It contravened at least the Group Areas Act of 1966, as amended, and may also have contravened the specific university enabling acts, in so far as those acts made provision for particular universities to serve particular (racial) communities. None-the-less, these provisions were ignored by English-speaking universities because their prevailing ethos was that racial segregation and racism generally was irrational and unjust, and therefore not befitting of a 'scholar'. So in spite of the threat of sanction by the State, residences at these universities were integrated some time before apartheid left the statute books.

When Nelson Mandela was elected President we were led to believe apartheid was dead. Yet 14 years after democracy in South Africa, the University of the Free State has still not integrated its hostels. Instead they write and talk about how they are trying as hard as they can, and are trying to go as fast as they can, to achieve integration. They say these things cannot be rushed, although 15 years hardly seems to be a rush.

But Afrikaner racism in South Africa is not limited to race. It is bound up with a general angst about the prospects for survival of their language, Afrikaans, their culture, their identity, their very survival, as they perceive it. Consequently one must not assume that because a university leader is highly educated, he is not racist. Educated Afrikaners, perhaps more so than others, fear the demise of their language and culture. They may very well see their actions, in disproportionate support of the needs of Afrikaans students over the legal rights of black students, not as racism but as simply their efforts to protect their language and culture.

That may be so for them but it is not so for those against whom the protection is sought. Their rights, enshrined in the constitution's Bill of Rights, ought to take precedence over everything else. Considering that the UFS is a public institution funded by the public purse, black students denied access to university residences because of the colour of their skin are being denied their inalienable constitutional rights.

Leaders of the University of the Free State appear to have been more concerned to pander to the sensibilities of white students, and their demands their residences be kept white, than they have been to uphold the inalienable constitutional rights of black students to be given fair and equitable access to the university's facilities, including its halls-of-residence. So if management of the university does not regard black students as citizens of the Republic, equal to white students before the law, then an ethos is created of racism, racial vilification, racial segregation, and then finally the conditions are created which gave birth to that video.

Evidence of these attitudes became apparent the first time I visited UFS in 1998: staff boasted of how their online learning arm would swell the ranks of black students without bringing them onto campus. They were satisfied at this scheme to keep their campus white.

On that visit I was led into the office of an academic in the law faculty. Her office walls were plastered with posters extolling far right-wing organisations. The dean of the law knew this because he was in her office at the time. I felt then that it was entirely inappropriate to have posters in support of white supremacist organisations on view in a university office. It struck me that this was not protected 'free-speech'. It was political speech as it was so clearly partisan and should not have been broadcast from a public institution. On my second visit in 2005 she had been elevated to the level of professor.

The head of the residence where the attack on black staff was conducted and callously filmed for sport, Pieter Odendaal, is quoted in The Star newspaper as saying the whole thing had been taken out of context. What then is the appropriate context in which to view white male students feeding food to black workers into which they secretly urinated?

Management at UFS has sat back and for years done nothing about right-wing Afrikaner-supremacist organisations on campus that engage at times in overt acts of racism and racial vilification. One such organisation, the Freedom Front Plus, now controls the Students Representative Council.

But when black students and workers wished to march on the university's management to present a memorandum, vice-chancellor Professor Frederick Fourie immediately sought and obtained not one, but two court injunctions. It seems UFS is litigious if you are black and supplicant if you are white. Fourie was also quoted in the South African Sunday Times as describing the video as "good clean fun that was badly packaged". The parents of the perpetrators have complained that the media attention has violated the human rights of their sons, and their lawyers have threatened that if charges are laid against the white students because of what was portrayed in the video, they will counter-charge the university with malicious prosecution.

The UFS management has now set out to determine the future of the residence in question: Reitz. Their website says submissions have been called for regarding the future of Reitz from current inhabitants of the residence (who are all white male Afrikaners), their parents and former residents. One wonders if these three constituencies will offer much divergence in view. It would not surprise if the short version of their response is "the blacks brought this on themselves".

That is not significantly different from what the head of campus security is alleged to have said to black students being physically threatened by white students, and who had called security for protection. He is reported to have said: "You black students must stop causing so much trouble" and then dismissed their request for help.

I found the conduct at UFS so deeply offensive and so antithetical to every principle of scholarship and collegiality, I felt I had no alternative but to request my colleagues at universities in Australia and elsewhere not to make contact with UFS, not to maintain links with them or to cooperate and collaborate until and unless the university administration demonstrated a change of attitude and a sincere commitment to uphold the rights of all South Africans.

Evidence of such disapproval may have a profound affect on the top management of the university, which is overwhelmingly white and male. Should academics around the world be willing to take such steps, UFS should be informed of that outcome. Notification of the disapproval of some of their colleagues elsewhere in the world may spur those in charge at UFS to re-examine themselves critically, and to reform their conduct and civilise their views.

* Andy Schmulow graduated in arts and law from the University of Witwatersrand and was admitted as an advocate of the South African High Court in 1998. He now lectures in law at Victoria University in Melbourne.