Racism – an event or a way of life on campuses?

Another racial eruption on a campus in South Africa. Is it just one event involving the gross mistreatment of some human beings by others who happen to be of a different shade? Media coverage, national and international, has put pressure on the University of the Free State to attend to one event – but not to get to the root of the problem. So is this a solution to racial tensions that still exist in South Africa? What does it take to get people to scrutinise racism? Must individuals be degraded and human rights sacrificed before we pay attention? An attack on a white citizen by black criminals might draw some attention too, but not as much due to high crime levels: an incident can be written off as just another criminal act. At what point is that act not seen as a racial attack? How do we explain an attack by black criminals on a black person? Is that not a violation of rights just as much as a racially motivated act is? Does racism only exist on campuses, or is there racism in broader society committed by people from both sides of the colour line? Is racism not a violation of the human rights that so many died for, and that Nelson Mandela upheld when he stated that never, never again would one racial group oppress another in South Africa. What about individuals oppressing other individuals? There are more questions than answers. But answering questions about different understandings of racism requires deep reflection and sharing of ideas, so that the different understandings can be brought closer together.

The problem of racism exists in society as well as in universities, which is no surprise because universities reflect society. University communities are made up of members of society who bring with them, as capital, values acquired long before they arrive on campus. As one of my colleagues often says, students arrive on campuses as damaged goods, but institutions do very little to repair that damage. Should awareness of racism issues not be part of the curriculum in schools that are now integrated but have no programme to help them deal with racism? Should there not be appreciation of difference and diversity at school level, so that kids challenge and work out for themselves what they believe as the grow older? Learning to appreciate difference could continue at university, with the foundation laid earlier. A colleague from the University of Pretoria talks about how much damage control he has had to do, especially with young white males entering the system – but with a bit of effort, they are able to integrate into the university community. The same could be said for young black males.

Generalisations are dangerous, so I would not like to be interpreted as implying that all institutions are at the same level in terms of addressing racial issues. What I have found to be amazing is that universities, with their capacity to stimulate debates and critical thinking, seem not to be doing well in addressing sticky issues in society such as racism. Raising the issue is not easy for most people – indeed, it is almost taboo to express an opinion about racism or sexism.

A week after the University of Free State event was reported in February, there was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a racial incident at Oregon State University. Institutions in the US and South Africa are all facing racial tensions that result from the integration of students from different racial groupings. Some actions are planned and meant to be malicious, while others happen due to lack of sensitivity or even ignorance of what certain actions might lead to. In the Oregon case, the choice of black out of the two school colours (orange and black) by the student governance as a way of celebrating a homecoming game led to interpretations that the choice was made to mock black students and led to serious tensions. Was this an interpretation or was it intentional? Did students run amok over something that was meant to be neutral, and took it too far? Is the emergence of nooses on campuses or at doors of staff members a signal that racial issues are not being addressed? Was the now forgotten Makgoba affair at Wits a racial act or not?

The numbers of questions that arise out of such eruptions call for universities to seriously address the issue of race. South African universities do not have as part of their strategic plans a component that is aimed at addressing diversity issues and the cultural capital that inhabitants – students and staff – bring to institutions. There is a Human Rights Commission in broader society charged with tackling human rights violations. But should universities not have offices that proactively address the issue and make an attempt to harmonise human relations on campuses? Such offices exist on US campuses and they at least try to deal with problems, before they even arise. There have been mixed successes but at least something has proactively been done. What South African institutions do have in place are Employment Equity offices, some placed strategically in the highest office, others mostly within a human resources function. These offices were set up in response to legislation; universities did not proactively create them. As long as the top administration at universities, consisting of blacks and whites, co-exist in a pseudo harmonious way and nobody rocks the boat, then all seems fine – they feel they can focus on the 'real issues' of navigating the Asmal oceans (former Minister of Education, Kader Asmal, initiated sweeping higher education changes).

Violations of human rights on campuses, rape of local or foreign students on campuses, murders on campuses, and other violent crimes call for action by university leaders in a more structured manner than on a case by case basis. Do institutions keep records and report statistics of violent crimes committed by students or on students? Government keeps the statistics even though they are often not released to the public. Are institutions imitating government or just ignoring the situation? If we do not keep nor record criminal activities, how can we have data that indicates to us the seriousness of the problem? What knowledge will inform policies that are needed to address problems like race and rights violations?

Racism in South Africa will not just disappear on its own – as we have seen in countries like the US, that are still struggling with race issues. Many decades after the Jim Crow era, the electorate for the current presidential elections is not focusing much on issues and who is best suited to address them, but on the race and gender of the candidates.

Higher education needs to provide leadership in addressing societal issues such as racism and many other problems that plaque our society. Transformation is an ongoing process. A lot has been achieved and lot more has to be done. Laws have been repealed to enable integration to take place. In the same way that the Human Rights Commission's report once revealed how much racism exists in schools after the implementation of integration policies, the same kind of racism exists at university level too. There are more black students at historically white institutions but the reverse is not true.

Asmal’s strategy of changing the landscape of higher education by merging institutions has not addressed the issue of integration.

There are still residences on campuses that are mainly white – in most of these cases, race is not openly used as criterion for selection; instead, the more palatable 'culture' is used for self-selection in the assignment of residence places. A year ago, when I was applying for places for my son at some formerly white institutions, and he had to apply to stay in a residence too, he was warned by other students that he should be careful which residences he chose because he would not be ‘welcome’ at white-dominated residences, even though the university might place him there. The reverse applies too, where there are residences that have more black than white students, and white students do not feel comfortable staying there. One of the major changes in housing on campus has been in the number of white students who are opting to stay in private housing rather than in residences that accommodate black students too.

Transforming institutions need to play their role as leaders in transforming society. If students become accustomed to debating and engaging with so-called ‘other cultures', they will challenge their parents to think about how they set children up for failure in this county. There have been some attempts, on a small scale, to conduct workshops for students as part of orientation, to get them to learn about each other and address basic issues such as stereotypes and to respect difference. Some activities at those orientations are unfortunately juxtaposed with 'ruling cultures' within institutions linked to unacceptable initiation practices. Such practices actually contribute more to feelings of alienation and fear among students who are already entering a new system. Some of them are first generation university goers and have to deal with issues of separation from families that have no idea what goes on in universities.

I believe South African universities could learn from some of the models that exist in the rest of the world. Based in the US, I would offer some knowledge of what exists here. A concept often used in US institutions is that of ‘learning communities’ within residences. Residences are not used as power houses for those who have power over others, but as a place for continuation of learning and an extension of the lecture room. Students are organised into learning communities in the residences, to learn together whilst living together. Staff are appointed to stay in the residences with students to extend the academic culture. Learning communities foster a sense of learning together and develop common values and beliefs among members of that community. These practices are informed by theories of learning that believe that learning is a cultural practice of a group of people learning together.

Residence life in the US is highly professionalised and is organised under institutional departments of Residential Education. Faculty Fellow-in-Residence positions are created and offered to professors who live with students so that they can continue interacting beyond the classroom. Parents or guardians are also encouraged to get involved in students’ education, with parent visit days and many other services offered through workshops on conflict mediation, discussion of roommate agreements or contracts, how to live with a roommate etc. In South Africa parental involvement is limited to paying fees, or being called to a university when the institution has either expelled or is about to expel their child.

Lack of discussion or attempts to come to a common understanding of what racism is, is in itself ground for potential conflict that is not addressed in society. Incidents of racist acts are seen and interpreted as isolated, and are not seen from a broader perspective. When a white male goes on a rampage, killing blacks, or throws a black male into a lion's cage, those occurrences are seen as isolated and not a broader problem that society needs to tackle. The same goes for incidents on campuses, which are not seen as a broader issue for the university or for the higher education system.

How can you just put people together who for generations were taught and forced to live apart, and not see that as ground for conflict? Institutions, just as society, have not put in place mechanisms to promote appreciation of and respect for difference. At institutional level in the US, offices are set up with different names but a common mission.

New York University has a Centre for Multicultural Education and Programs which provides programmes to support students and address challenges brought about by putting students of different backgrounds together, and which educates the university community on the benefits of cultural diversity. Appointments are made at the high level of deputy vice- chancellor to pay attention to diversity issues, and policies are put in place to ensure that the curriculum addresses the issue. The programme I teach in offers a compulsory course for masters students on Diversity in Higher Education, as part of their training for positions as administrators in the universities.

In South Africa a lot is assumed by administrators on campuses with regard to how integration will take place – you just put students together and hope for the best. The position of Deans of Students is held by a black person in some institutions, which assume that by virtue of being black the person will know how to deal with black students when trouble erupts. I was once offered a similar position, and when I declined the council chair, an Afrikaner woman, without flinching said: "Oh, it's a pity that you will not take the job because you are such a motherly figure". I was stunned, and wondered what made her think that with my interest and skills in higher education policy, I should not rather be a position where I could play a role in transforming the institution.

The self-interest of people running institutions is evident in ways that they have – or have not – focused on addressing diversity and equity issues among faculty and staff, or challenges facing students. Understanding the potential human time bomb that is ticking away in South Africa is critical – and universities should be leading efforts to diffuse it.

* Teboho Moja is a South African professor of higher education at New York University. She has served as an adviser to two Minster of Education in South Africa, as well as on the National Commission on Higher Education during the 1990s.