SOUTH AFRICA: 'Hostel of hate' to be shut down

The University of the Free State has announced it will close the Reitz student residence on campus on 20 June. The residence, dubbed the 'hostel of hate', attracted worldwide notoriety in February after a video of black cleaners being humiliated by white students became public. An 'institute for diversity' will replace the residence. The university's credibility hinges on whether the move is 'window dressing' or creates an outstanding academic institute that works honestly to combat discrimination and promote transformation.

The decision to close the residence came about after a video shot by four young white male Afrikaners residents in Reitz became public, and outraged South Africans and the world. Four black cleaners were tricked into participating in a video in which they were humiliated, including being fed food the students pretended had been urinated on.

The video was filmed by the students as part of a backlash against the university's hostel (racial) integration policy. This is a policy the university says it has been struggling to implement, despite a constitutional guarantee adopted 15 years in South Africa that was meant to ensure that institutions (such as Free State) would not be able to discriminate on the basis of race - including not discriminating against students on the basis of race when it came to placing them in a university hall of residence.

Yet the (almost entirely white Afrikaner) management of the university has kept 'white' hostels predominantly white. The university has also allowed right-wing groups such as the Freedom Front+ student organisation to engage in alleged acts of racial vilification on campus. Into this environment of racism, and under some pressure to reform the racial profile of its hostels, Free State began tentative steps at integration. The video was the result.

Footage showing the degrading abuse of black cleaners by white students did Free State's national and international reputation great harm. In a desperate effort to manage the crisis, the university hammered the line that it was an act by four rogue out-of-control students. It neglected to mention that the video, made in 2007, had been by Free State faculty late last year, who thought nothing of it.

Let me be clear: university staff viewed the video and at the time failed to see that there was anything wrong with it. Moreover, the university's position failed to acknowledge the manner in which racism has pervaded every aspect of its operations - from senior management down.

(I wrote to the acting Rector, Professor Teens Verschoor, and asked whether it was within Free State policy that staff use their offices to display propaganda posters extolling far right-wing and white supremacist organisations, as I witnessed in 1998. I have had no reply to that or to queries about whether campus security had been challenged over allegations that they have refused to assist black students who have been threatened by white students.)

This leads to an important insight into the creation of the Institute for Diversity. Verschoor has said that closing the Reitz residence and turfing its inhabitants was an important strategic imperative - an opportunity to demonstrate reconciliation - and was motivated by strong international pressure.

It is regrettable the first reason was not that closing the residence 'was the right thing to do'. It is also regrettable that the public announcements about the institute's creation came with an announcement of how the UFS would seek to repair the public relations damage done by the Reitz video, including hiring consultants to assist with that.

If the reason for creating the institute is motivated principally by public relations 'window dressing', then it will fail - and with that failure will come another crisis for the university. The damage done to Free State and its top management by the last crisis is such that I do not believe they could sustain another. A second Reitz-like crisis and the call for the university's leaders to step down or be sacked will be irresistible. If Free State continues to be a haven for old-style apartheid types, then the credibility of the institute will be irreparably damaged, and with it the ability of the university to maintain any standing internationally whatsoever.

Consequently, Free State stands at a crossroads.

It can establish the institute as an adjunct of its PR efforts and keep the institute 'tame', not allowing it to ask too difficult questions - especially about the university itself. In that case, the institute will fail to garner much respect from its peers and will fail to alert the university to issues facing transformation. As a result, Free State will blunder into a next crisis as it blundered into and through the last one.

Or the University of the Free State can create an institute which selects top scholars, possibly by appointing academics from other South African universities, particularly from universities historically opposed to apartheid. If the institute's functions and operations are protected from interference by a board of advisors drawn from South Africa's leading figures in justice and equality - retired constitutional court judges, for example - and if only that board exercises control, then the institute's staff would be confident of their tenure and would conduct research without fear or favour.

In that case, Free State could potentially create something outstanding: an institute renowned for forthright honesty and an unfettered search for truth; an institute respected by colleagues the world over for quality scholarship and courage in fulfilling its mandate, including if need be the courage to criticise the university. Such an outcome would not only benefit the country and its people, but could be instructive internationally. It would repair the university's shattered reputation, and ennoble it.

The question is whether the 'diversity' project is undertaken as spin, or with the utmost integrity. Time, the little that remains for the University of the Free State, will tell.

* Andy Schumlow is an advocate of the High Court of South Africa and a lecturer in law at Victoria University in Melbourne, as well as a research associate in the Centre for International Corporate Governance Research.