Racism revisited in South Africa

Over the last few weeks, having returned to South Africa after a long absence, I have been struck by the sharp contrast between the racial situation in the country now and that when I first visited in 1992. One of the most striking aspects of the last years of the struggle against apartheid was the successes in responding to racism. Given the repression, violence, and humiliation perpetrated by apartheid, as well as the misinformation and myths it fostered, the aftermath of the elections in 1994 was amazing for the calm that followed, the reconciliation, forgiveness, confidence, eagerness to move forward, and what seemed to me a collective commitment to transform the nation. To be sure, there were some white South Africans who felt they could not live in a system of equality and many of them left the country. And there were some victims of apartheid who demanded retribution and eschewed reconciliation. But that was neither the tone of the country nor the norm.

I was one of the election officials working on verification of the count during the 1994 election, and I remember walking into the streets outside the Carlton Hotel on that night of 5 May after the results were announced. The streets were overflowing with a multi-racial throng of thousands cheering, hugging each other, dancing and singing. It was a striking contrast to the predictions of those who feared strife and it was a preview of the reconciliation that was to come.

I had been working with twelve historically black universities and technikons since 1993 – a project that continued until 1997. After the elections, I was struck by the fact that even supporters of apartheid among the university and technikon faculty members, staff and students, seemed to be relieved. Some apologised for not understanding the depth and violence of racism, others for believing government propaganda about the ANC, others regretted their doubts about the future.

During the struggle period, race had not defined who opposed apartheid, and it did not define my experience as a white outsider. The question was not one of race, but of what you believed, how you treated people, how you acted in a context of repression and violence against the black population. And for the majority population following the elections, there was a phenomenal graciousness toward those who had not joined the struggle, a willingness to forgive and move on.

Those who listened to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as I did driving between historically black institutions from one end of South Africa to the other, could not help but be struck by the fact that it did promote reconciliation, that it did allow many people to put their fear, loss and anger behind them. It was the most remarkable period of awakening, new understandings, generosity, and civility I have ever heard about or witnessed. This was a period of amazing transformation for many whites who had supported the apartheid government, a wonderful period of forgiveness and openness among the victims of apartheid, and a commitment to work together to make the new order in South Africa a success.

Much of this happened on university and technikon campuses – at Fort Hare, Peninsula Technikon, University of the North, Pretoria, Cape Town, University of the Western Cape, University of Natal, ML Sultan Technikon and many others. I do not want to overly romanticise this period; there were detractors, efforts to create white racist redoubts, to subvert the progress made. And not all people, white or black, embraced the new order of reconciliation. Nonetheless, the level of reconciliation and the collective efforts of all races to build a new South Africa, were extraordinary.

It was a powerful lesson to me, coming from the United States, which has still not overcome its history of slavery and racism. Though there has been great progress, we still have racist incidents at our universities and elsewhere – cross burnings, nooses hung to intimidate, racism in some workplaces. And it is a constant struggle. The young do not remember the civil rights marches, Martin Luther King's "I have a dream", or the horrors of slavery, lynching and the ravages of racism. Some schools, colleges, and universities have learned that multi-culturalism must be retaught, that avoiding racism is a constant battle that requires ongoing education programmes, reinforcement of norms of equality, fairness and justice, and overt action when racism appears.

What struck me on returning to South Africa in February 2008 is that some of what was learned the hard way in the mid-to late-1990s seems to have been forgotten. Much of the civility and graciousness of that period has been lost. For some of the white population the lessons of forgiveness and openness also seem to have been lost and in their place a new racism has emerged, especially among the young who did not experience the struggle. Notions of superiority long suppressed are re-emerging; a sense of entitlement is evident once again among some parts of the white population, and there seems as well to have been a loss of civility in some quarters.

During this trip I have witnessed racism toward black students in Cape Town. And then there was the press coverage given the incidents at the University of the Free State and other demonstrations of racism that have been reported in its wake. Most people took these seriously. But for others it was a ‘joke’, ‘boys will be boys’, ‘this has been taken out of context’, ‘these young men are being used as scapegoats’. I think not. The young men knew what they were doing – they were trying to maintain white elitism in their residence halls, they intended to humiliate and demean, they were trying to assert white dominance. Yet the context, as Jonathan Jansen astutely writes in another piece in this issue, suggests the need for a new engagement – renewed efforts of the sort that were fostered a decade-and-a-half ago.

That the university allowed this residential housing to be segregated at this late date is amazing. That the issue of racism has not been focused on as well as it should be in education, on an ongoing basis, is less surprising but tragic. Perhaps after the trauma of the struggle, amid the euphoria of majority rule and real success in breaking down many barriers and fundamentals of a culture of racism, including at most universities and technikons, people did not realise that the task was incomplete, that defeating racism has to be an ongoing struggle, one in which each new generation must be involved so that they too come to understand the terrible carnage of apartheid and the destructiveness of this period to ideals of justice, fairness, and equality.

If young people do not learn about this past, those who still harbour racist ideas and hopes will find fertile ground in new generations. Perhaps the lessons of the incidents at the University of the Free State are that the struggle must continue. The history of apartheid, racism, inequality and repression, must be understood by all South Africans – by all people – and a culture of understanding, civility, equality and justice must become part of the lives of everyone. Those who can not operate in such an environment must accept the consequences and be held responsible for their actions.

* Dr Fred M Hayward is a specialist on higher education with more than 25 years of experience as an educator, scholar, and senior administrator. He has taught at the University of Ghana, Fourah Bay College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was professor of political science, department chair and dean of international programmes. He was executive vice-president of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation and was senior associate for the American Council on Education for more than 10 years. He has been a higher education consultant for the World Bank, Carnegie Corporation, Ford Foundation, Academy for Educational Development as well as for ministries of education, higher education commissions and universities on higher education change, governance, strategic planning, quality assurance and accreditation. Dr Hayward has written extensively on development issues and higher education.