Living with racism at two universities

The recent obnoxious and racist video by four white students at the University of the Free State has generated a furious hullabaloo on racism in South Africa. This has, in the main, been characterised by condemnations, threats and, to some extent, the homogenisation of white people as racists – notwithstanding the fact that the dastardly video has been roundly condemned by whites as well. A tourist visiting South Africa at the time the video surfaced would be forgiven for thinking that racism was long since dead and buried in this country, and that the four students were awakening an unwelcome ghost. The tourist may also have been tempted to believe that the video incident was an isolated case. How else would s/he take it, as it has been 14 years since racism as a state doctrine was discarded. Unlike the tourist, I have lived in the 'rainbow nation' for almost four years now, located in both an historically advantaged and in an historically disadvantaged university. I have experienced racism all through these four years, both within and outside the two institutions. In restaurants, shopping malls, supermarkets, taxis, on the streets, in the neighbourhood where I live, on the beaches – all over.

The racism I have experienced, especially in the two institutions, is the covert, insidious and subliminal type. I come from Africa (as I'm always told, especially by some black South Africans). I am a black person – and a very black one for that matter. I also speak English with an accent that is unfamiliar, if not strange, in this part of the world. These two features, especially my pitch black complexion, have always marked me out as the 'other', or as ‘that black guy’ as some local 'Africans' at the historically advantaged university (HAU) preferred calling me. Again, because of my dark complexion, I've been asked several times whether I come from the North – Limpopo, where dark people in this country supposedly come from.

At both institutions some white colleagues often told me "you are not like them [local blacks]". And this is supposed to be a compliment. In their estimation, my apparent 'unlike them' grasp of English, and average cognitive endowment set me aside from local blacks. According to them, I don't neatly fit the script hence the surprise and the 'compliment'.

I usually keep quiet when I experience these covert acts of racism. In some cases I smile sheepishly and walk away – lest I'm told, "you are being over-sensitive". But on one occasion I was forced to behave differently. I'd gone to find out my fee balance at the HAU and I was ordered by a middle-aged white woman to write down what I wanted because, apparently, she could not understand my accent. I responded in kind. I requested her to start first by writing down what she was telling me. Of course she suddenly understood my accent and served me – with a smile!

One question that I am almost asked on a daily basis, especially by some African and coloured (mixed race) people at the historically disadvantaged university (HDU) is where I 'originally' come from. Having answered this question many times, I had resolved never to answer it again. This was probably a blunder. On two occasions, after refusing to answer, I was told: "You cannot hide. I know where you come from. You are an illegal [immigrant]!" What I found annoying and incomprehensible was not the response per se but the haughty laughter that accompanied the response and the immense sense of self-satisfaction with the 'discovery' that I was an 'illegal immigrant'.

I have also encountered racism among South Africans, against each other. On several occasions, some of my South African friends, acquaintances, students and colleagues at the two institutions have made racist comments about their fellow South Africans. In one incident, a white auxiliary staff at the HAU asked me: "Do you think these students [local blacks] will pass Professor X's course?" The black students had turned up to register for the (white) professor's course. She took pity on them. I have also heard racist comments being made by black South Africans about whites, 'coloureds' about blacks, and whites about Indians. Generally, the racist comments are stereotypes: blacks and coloureds as good for nothing and incompetent; whites as ruthless and 'racist'; and Indians as crafty and exploitative. These stereotypes are usually presented as though they were genetic traits.

Linked to racism is the phenomenon where race is mobilised to silence divergent views. This I have observed at several seminars where certain government policies are criticised, especially by whites. Not infrequently, the responses to the criticisms have been ad hominem. An example will suffice. At a seminar on HIV-Aids at the HAU the speaker, a white man, and a prominent researcher on the subject criticised government policies on HIV-Aids. In response, a black student asked: "Are you trying to incite us against a democratically elected black government?" I know several white colleagues at both institutions who prefer to keep the peace rather than being labelled anti-government or anti-black.

What I've listed above are just but a few illustrations of my encounters with racism (and race thinking) in two institutions. Overall, there seems to be a problem with being different – it is as if being pitch black is a sin, something to be detested and caricatured. Being black, averagely fluent in English and 'intelligent' is seen as an oddity. Difference is seen as inferiority, and as epitomising certain negative intrinsic traits or strange behavioural dispositions. Notions of inherent superiority to the 'other' still abound. The 'other' is not seen as a unique and valued being.

Racism is to South Africa what ethnicity is to many African countries. Like racism, ethnicity also goes with stereotypes. In Kenya, for instance, a certain ethnic community is regarded as loving money more than the average capitalist, and their predisposition to stealing is considered to be above average. Another one is thought of as being sexually insatiable. One other community is said to comprise of cooks and watchmen. The list is endless. Not unlike the rest of Africa, South Africa is also a country of stereotypes – many of which are racially motivated and demean the 'other'. Not surprisingly, these stereotypes have also permeated the South African academy.

* Dr Gerald Ouma is a Kenyan postdoctoral fellow. His research interests include higher education policy and financing higher education. He would prefer for his institutional affiliation not to be revealed.