Reflections on the Reitz incident implications

The emergence of the now infamous Reitz residence video at the University of the Free State (UFS), and the worldwide reaction to it, has shocked the higher education community in South Africa. For us as a university – for students, staff and management – it has been traumatic. It has been strongly and publicly condemned by the council and the management of the university. We have also apologised to all those affected and traumatised by the video. As an institution, UFS is dealing with the Reitz matter as quickly and fairly as possible. Council and executive management have already adopted a programme of action to address this specific matter as well as deeper issues raised by the incident. The fact that the video was produced as part of resistance by some white students to our new policy to increase diversity in residences – that is, the racial integration of residences, which is part of our broader transformation agenda – is even more troubling for us. Sadly, protest behaviour by some black students and student leaders in their reaction to the video has also not been free of racist talk and racist threats. Significant polarisation has occurred.

Indeed, the video incident has highlighted the existence of a wide range of differing perspectives, especially among our students, about race relations and transformation. Racial fault lines and stereotyping, perhaps dormant or invisible for some time, have come to the surface again. For us this has been a great disappointment, given how hard UFS has been working for the last 15 years to build a campus community characterised by non-racialism, non-sexism, diversity, multi-culturalism and multi-lingualism.

As early as 1993, UFS introduced English as a medium of instruction alongside Afrikaans. This parallel-medium tuition policy opened the doors of learning to all, leading to a major transformation of the university as evidenced by black students making up approximately 60% of total enrolment at UFS. Five years ago multi-lingualism was extended to the administration. Official meetings are conducted in English and Afrikaans with the necessary professional interpreting services, and with all documentation in both languages. At some student leadership meetings Sesotho is also included in the interpreting service. Most direct service points dealing with the public deal in three languages.

In the late 1990s the university also integrated student residences for the first time, though that effort – perhaps too early? – led to violence and did not bring the results management had hoped for. That is why we have once again made an effort to integrate residences as from 2008. The rationale for this step was educational: that is, to prepare students for a non-racial workplace, to provide them with the necessary diversity skills, to help them appreciate the enriching effect of working and socialising with people from different backgrounds, and so forth.

But we see transformation in a much broader sense as well. The academic core of UFS has been transforming regarding what we teach and how we teach, bringing in an African orientation among other things – albeit slowly.

For many years we have been providing diversity workshops for staff and students, including all first year students in residences (though this is clearly something that we need to revisit). UFS also is one of the leading universities when it comes to community engagement. This means our students must not only learn in a classroom situation but in a community context as well through assignments, practicals, research etc.

UFS has also been debating a draft Institutional Charter as part of efforts to change the institutional culture of the university. A key goal is to create a sense of belonging for all – whether white or black, male or female, speaking English, Afrikaans or Sesotho or another language, South African or foreign national. This goal is embedded in a broader effort to develop a culture of human rights, respect and human dignity.

It is sad that resistance to our renewed integration efforts by little more than perhaps 1,500 white residence students (out of a total enrolment of more than 25,000 students) can so obscure this sincere and ongoing transformation effort. (In this they have been supported materially and emotionally by the Freedom Front Plus, a small political party on the right of the political spectrum.)

UFS is being looked at through lenses that are clouded by the video. Old stereotypes of this institution, its people and its province are being revived. Moreover, our country appears to have been polarised yet again, with racial fault lines coming to the fore in many forms. Questions are being asked about how thorough our efforts at nation-building and social cohesion really have been, about how we relate to each other as individuals, about our attitudes and prejudices.

An opportunity

Amidst the pain and embarrassment caused by the Reitz video incident, there is a real opportunity for UFS – and for other universities. It is an opportunity for our country to really develop a common vision of the future and to embrace that vision. It forces all of us to go into deep introspection and confront the realities of race, racialism and racism in South African society, and how this reality is reflected on our campuses. It also forces us to think about the role of universities in addressing this very South African reality.

In a sense, the Reitz video has made it too easy for many individuals and institutions to sidestep the real issues. It is too easy to say: "We are not like that" – and move on to other things. Perhaps this is what our society has been doing with racist incidents, or with the broader issue of race and non-racialism. Perhaps we are in denial? Meanwhile, covert and more subtle forms of racialism may still be deeply embedded in our psyche and behaviour – together with other dimensions of intolerance, discrimination and bigotry. This is the sad legacy of our past, the real legacy of apartheid (and of world history).

To what extent do people in South African society – and staff and students on campuses – still think in terms of groups, still see individuals as 'representatives' of a racial, language or cultural group, still make generalisations about groups based on the behaviour of individuals, still think in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’? (Come to think of it: how many people or organisations branded the entire University of the Free State and its management as racist because of the behaviour of four students out of 25,000, behaviour of a kind which could have happened at any other university in South Africa?)

To what extent are these attitudes an ingrained part of institutional culture at universities? And what are the social mechanisms that cause the perpetuation and 'social reproduction' of such attitudes and behaviours? To what extent do residences, residence culture and initiation practices serve as socialisation mechanisms? What part do teaching and learning (and curricula) play in the socialisation of students?

If it is true that such attitudes and such kinds of institutional culture still are prevalent, in some form or another, on many or all of our campuses, what are universities to do?

One question may be whether it is the task of universities to change the attitudes and behaviours of their students, to re-socialise them, to guide them towards non-racialism and respect for human rights. Some may ask: Shouldn't universities stick to the academic and career education of students?

My view is that this could be the case in normalised, stable societies. However, given our huge transition and social transformation, and given the highly diverse nature of our society, universities cannot wash their hands of such tasks. We must play our part in the socialisation of students, while recognising that students are significantly pre-formed in their families, schools, churches and communities before coming to university.

This task of universities is encumbered by the fact that the student body, and student leadership, turn over so quickly. Universities have but three or four years to impact on students, and but a year for each generation of student leadership.

Nevertheless, South African universities now have an opportunity to tackle issues of racism head-on. We must show the intellectual leadership to consciously and purposefully take up our part of the responsibility of shaping a new generation of leaders and citizens who can move this country towards non-racialism and non-sexism.

We must help to analyse and unpack the concepts of racism, racialism and non-racialism and to build a deeper understanding of these complex matters. We must teach students to live non-racialism, non-sexism and non-discrimination. We must teach students to embrace and value diversity. We must teach them to respect differences in language, culture, gender, perspective, social and economic background, and so forth.

We must increase diversity, and sustain sufficient diversity, on our campuses and in our residences. We must also engage with communities and other societal institutions about their formative role regarding the racial and other attitudes and behaviour of children and young people. This is the only way to construct the South African rainbow – that common vision of our future.