Citizenship, racism and campus culture

Condemnation by the local and international media of racist initiation practices at the University of the Free State raised very serious and interesting questions about the state of, and the responsibilities of, higher education in South Africa. The media – ranging from local print and television to BBC, CNN and The Economist – with one or two notable exceptions beat a drum of outrage and ‘back to the old South Africa’. Politicians and parliament tried to 'out-outrage' each other or, like the Freedom Front, deny any responsibility. The decision to devote a University Wold News Special Africa edition to the problem of racism in higher education is partially based on the fact that these outpourings shed little light on what was actually going on, and even less on how to move forward. This article deals with three recently reported incidents on campuses: racism at Free State, exploitation of students at Vaal University of Technology, and violence at the University of Limpopo. It concludes by looking forward and recommending an expert group to study the state of citizenship in higher education, with a focus on race issues, and the adoption by more universities of the many ‘best practice’ programmes already in place at individual universities to support students.

The first two academics we approached to contribute to this edition surprised us with their responses. The first, a media-prominent black vice-chancellor, asked: "Are you not in danger of perpetuating racism here? Would it not be misconstrued as racist that two white people request an African to write about racism when the issue is so hot to handle?" The second, a media-shy senior white academic, commented: "I have nothing interesting to say about this, except that it is a major f...up." In some ways these two responses reflect aspects of the problem, such as: who should legitimately talk about it? Is there anything interesting to say about it? And, should we talk about it all?

To start on a positive note, it must be remembered that from the early 1990s higher education has had, on a daily basis, about 500,000 young people of all races mixing with each other in close quarters, and at least some of them living in mixed-race residences. The Free State case is the first major racial incident to hit the news.

This is quite remarkable for a country returning from the brink of a race war and 300 years of pent-up race hostility – or what Jonathan Jansen evocatively calls ‘bitter knowledge’. This must be seen in the context of a society in which a white boy randomly shot black people in a township only a few months ago, and where the Human Rights Commission recently declared schools the most dangerous place for children to be (where last year alone numerous learners of different race groups fought and, in some cases, stabbed each other with scissors and knives). It is also quite remarkable, when compared to experiences in the United States for example, with its random shooting sprees and numerous racial incidents on campuses, that there have not been more reported incidents of racially-motivated physical conflict and abuse in South African institutions.

Ostensibly then, in comparison with the rest of society, higher education has done surprisingly well, and it is rather ironic that it is this sector that will now be investigated through a commission. Surely the Minister of Education, Naledi Pandor, should start with schools? No doubt, many academics will argue that if schools did their job properly, universities would not have a problem. But it could be argued that universities have done 'so well' not because of their efforts to address racism on campuses, but because they draw on a pool of young people who have been socialised in post-1994 private and integrated middle class schools.

But does it mean, since only one racial incident has been captured on video over the past 13 years, there is little or no racism in higher education? The answer, of course, is no. One suspects that, as was the case of torture by US soldiers in Iraq, the video footage could represent only the tip of the iceberg. (Another similarity with US soldiers in Iraq is that in both cases it was the perpetrators who provided the evidence, after they had fallen out with each other.)

Over and above the racism that was entrenched during the apartheid years, another factor played into the incident at the University of Free State; namely the tradition, particularly at Afrikaans universities, of student initiation. When I entered a men's residence at Stellenbosch University in 1967, initiation had just been 'banned' at the hostel. The previous year, the practice had degenerated into a drinking binge. One student was partially paralysed when he dived, blindfolded, head-first into a mud pool which he had been told was a swimming pool.

It is difficult to comprehend how the physical and psychological demeaning of students contributes to the socialisation of these students into scholarly life. The fact that 40 years later management at some universities still turns a blind eye to this 'cultural practice from the past' or, as in the case of the warden at the offending Free State residence, actually defends it, is simply unacceptable. For this, the warden and the vice-chancellor should take direct responsibility. How could they not have foreseen that bringing black students into this so called 'cultural practice' from the old South Africa was not an accident waiting to happen? But, in a country where you only have to confess to be absolved from apartheid crimes, or where management of the electricity utility can collect 'performance' bonuses when half the country is in darkness, the university officials will probably 'confess' to racism on the campus and then collect annual pay increases.

If universities want to play a leading role in society, some actions against senior officials need to be taken, including the chair of the governing council of an institution that waited 12 years after 1994 before they tried to integrate a residence, and then did so in such a clumsy manner. The suggestion by Free State’s management to close the residence and turn it into a ‘transformation shrine’ is bizarre, apart from being a pathetic attempt to deflect the source of the problem from the inhabitants to the building.

Another incident relating to residence life was highlighted recently in an episode of Special Assignment (screened by the South African Broadcasting Corporation on 11 March), but received no other press coverage. The television programme showed how lecturers at Vaal University of Technology, near Johannesburg, acquired houses in a previously white suburban area and rented them to black students. The programme started by raising the problem of poor health and safety conditions in the residences. For example, in one case there were 30 students living in a standard suburban house. Apart from open electricity points and sewerage overflows, one corner of the ceiling was sagging because some students were living in the 'loft' – mattresses on an un-reinforced ceiling accessed by a ladder.

But the real focus of the programme was the running battles with the white neighbours. The lecturers and the students claimed that the neighbours were racists who did not want the (black) students there. An elderly white woman denied this. She complained about the noise, saying that students were partying every night, with sound systems at full volume, and with lots of liquor and drugs. The (white) neighbours would then call the police who would, on occasion, arrive and cart off some students. The video footage showed some very drunk looking male and female youngsters. A telling comment by a white neighbour, who sounded very working class, was: "What kind of students are these who party every night?" The programme ended with two of the (black) lecturers proclaiming loudly that they were not exploiting the students and, instead, made the counter accusation that whenever blacks engage in Black Economic Empowerment, whites try to stop it.

A much more serious issue was the murder of a student from the University of Limpopo, who was travelling in a bus with other students following a South African Student Congress (Sasco) protest meeting. The meeting started (problematically) with the University providing three buses for students to travel to the meeting: one bus for ANC Youth League supporters, one for Sasco supporters, and another for a Christian student grouping. According to one newspaper article, on the return journey, three Sasco students, who had missed their bus, boarded the bus for the Christian group. The Sasco students apparently started an argument which ended in the killing of a member of the Christian student group, allegedly because they were singing religious rather than 'struggle' songs.

This incident, which was reported in small columns in a few newspapers, did not make national or international television. Perhaps this was because there was no video or cell phone camera footage. Or more sinisterly, in violent South Africa, when blacks kill blacks it is not television news, even if it is a university student. The Limpopo incident happened on the same weekend that the newspapers and other media were abuzz with the Free State story. During the following week, the principal of the University of Limpopo issued a statement to fellow vice-chancellors saying that: "We should admit, if not to society at large then at least to ourselves, that this issue [racism] has always been hidden. It is to our shame" (Sunday Times, 16 March). No mention was made of the murder of one of his institution's students. Nor was there any statement on the university's website, which declares proudly that it is "A world class African university – continuing the tradition of empowerment".

The above three stories raise issues of racism, lack of tolerance for different beliefs, violence, exploitation of students by their lecturers (not the 'traditional' sexual type), and the lack of an academic culture. In beginning to address these problems, it could be important to think of them as issues of citizenship, and to consider the role of universities in citizenship (human rights) education. In some countries there have been attempts to 'infuse' citizenship into the curriculum. In others there are deliberate interventions in campus social life, and residences in particular are targeted for inculcating values of tolerance for differences, and individual responsibility when living in collective (hostel) communities and scholarship. But it must be remembered that, at the end of the day, citizenship and scholasticism is best inculcated during serious academic work (students and staff), which is the fundamental task of the university.

The National Commission on Higher Education of 1995 did not address these issues, partly owing to its shortened time-frame, partly because of a lack of expertise, and partly because this was a minefield that transgressed into the micro-management of institutions. Does this mean South Africa now needs a commission into citizenship education in universities? It could be argued that a group of high-profile, highly-opinionated commissioners are much more likely to raise the 'social temperature' and obfuscate the issues, than to bring clarity to the situation and offer clear action plans.

Much more constructive could be an expert group of social scientists undertaking a study into the state of citizenship education in higher education, with race issues occupying an important focus. Such a study could identify bad practices that should be discontinued, and suggest some good practices that institutions and government can implement. For good practices we do not have to look 'overseas' – there are individual institutions with excellent programmes in different areas, such as registers for private homes that meet certain standards before they can rent to students, residence programmes that provide mentorship and academic support, social programmes that foster human rights and health awareness, and so on. A major problem seems to be that bad practices are mimicked more easily among institutions than good practices.

Before a study group prescribes that all academics must also be citizenship educators and transformation agents, it should take cognisance of the fact that the average South African academic already has to deal with large numbers of under-prepared students from the school system, respond to government pressure to increase throughput (pass) rates, publish in order to receive government subsidy and be part of global academia, and be involved in community engagement activities. Perhaps a five-year moratorium could be placed on the latter while academics engage with their own campus communities? A group that should be looked at much more closely is the burgeoning layer of directors, deputy directors, executive deans and deputy vice-chancellors who have 'business-like' packages, even 'performance' contracts. The roles and responsibilities of this well-endowed strata to make South African university campuses human rights sites, need to be spotlighted.

While taking a break from writing these comments I visited a restaurant in Cape Town’s Kloof street. The audience was unbelievably mixed, with about 100 people of a wide variety of shades from north, west, and southern Africa, interspersed with visitors from at least three other continents. And fashions ranged from 'business rasta' to Bo-kaap chic (Cape Malay with jeans, flamboyant costume jewellery and colourful turbans). The band, suggestively called The Restless Natives, represented every major racial category in the country, and the music was totally integrated.

Sitting in a crowd that was more mixed and casually integrated than I had ever seen in New York, London or Dakar, the first question that occurred to me was, is this in the same country as Reitz residence in the Free State? And then, why are these types of gatherings, with a lot of university types present, and even a professor or two, not held up by parliament, the education minister and the media as the New South Africa? Is it because we are more familiar with the 'old South Africa'? And finally, do we address the race issue by going backwards, with the apparently endless cycle of shame and blame, and the familiar counter-responses of quilt and defiance, or do we 'pull' students forward into the global community by focussing on the almost endless opportunities for integration that the new South Africa offers for the young educated middle class?

* Dr Nico Cloete is the director of the non-profit Centre for Higher Education Transformation in Cape Town. CHET mobilises trans-disciplinary skills for tertiary development projects, coordinates a network of higher education researchers and provides a forum for dialogue.

1 Sunday Times, 16 March 2008, p6