Vice-chancellors condemn racist acts at two campuses
Last week Gwebinkundla Qonde, director general of the Department of Higher Education and Training, or DHET, warned that action could be taken against the management of North-West. There had been reports of intimidation of staff who had taken a stand against such practices, he reportedly said.
When the Free State assault hit the news, it was an unwelcome echo of the notorious ‘Reitz Four’ incident five years ago, in which white male students of Reitz residence humiliated black cleaning staff on video. The incident made world headlines, and prompted the vice-chancellor to resign.
Higher Education South Africa, or HESA, the leadership body representing South Africa’s 23 public universities, issued a statement last week slamming the incidents but welcoming the “decisive action” taken by the universities.
Free State said the students would be expelled if they were found guilty in criminal and institutional investigations.
“The two incidents demonstrate that the higher education sector and universities need to remain vigilant to actions from within the university community that undermine human dignity and the values of the Constitution,” said HESA Chair Dr Saleem Badat, who is vice-chancellor of Rhodes University.
The South African Human Rights Commission said it would investigate the attack at the University of the Free State, and last week the parliamentary portfolio on higher education and training said it had demonstrated “the highest level of defiance to transformation and reconciliation”, which threatened diversity and social cohesion in society.
On the evening of 17 February, at the University of the Free State, a vehicle driven recklessly on campus by two students side-swiped Muzi Gwebu, a fifth-year economics student.
Gwebu followed the vehicle and approached the two occupants when it stopped at one of the student residences. “A confrontation started and he was assaulted by one of the occupants of the vehicle,” the university said in a statement. Gwebu sustained minor injuries, and lodged a complaint of assault with the South African Police Service.
The university’s leaders were “shocked and outraged at this blatant act of violence”, said the statement. Vice-chancellor Professor Jonathan Jansen said: “We regard this incident in a very serious light and we worked closely with the SAPS throughout the night to identify and locate the perpetrators who were driving with false number plates.”
Once found with the help of other students, the two – Cobus Muller and Charl Blom – were handed to the police by the university’s protection services, and were arrested on charges of attempted murder, assault and driving with false number plates.
The university is also conducting a formal investigation into the incident.
"It is sad and disappointing that, after so much progress with the social transformation of the University of the Free State, such a horrific incident could have occurred. It is pleasing, however, that across the board, all our students condemned these vicious acts,” said Jansen.
“The students, if found guilty in the criminal and institutional investigations, will definitely not be allowed to study at the University of the Free State.”
HESA said in its statement that the actions of the students undermined many constitutional values “including human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms; and non-racialism”.
Last Tuesday, the DHET issued a statement expressing concern at reports of orientation activities at North-West. Photographs accompanying an article had showed first year students “dressed in uniforms, marching in unison like troopers and, most disturbingly doing a ‘Heil Puk!’ Nazi-style fascist salute”, it said.
“The university management has indicated that these pictures are snippets out of a longer video ‘singing a greeting to their primaria’ which was taken out of context and what appears to be a Nazi-style salute is not that at all.”
North-West had apologised for any offence, and had indicated the activities were part of a tradition and not an initiation. However, in the DHET’s view such activities were not at all innocent and, the statement said:
“… can only be characterised as unacceptable practices, where the use of gestures associated with Nazism are shunned throughout the world and are relics of a time which symbolised oppression, persecution and some of the worst atrocities committed in human history”.
North-West was formed out of a merger between former conservative Afrikaner and historically black campuses a decade ago, and the new university has been operating successfully.
However, the DHET said, this was not the first time that such practices were surfacing and in 2008 a government task team had investigated the university following disruptions at one of its historically black campuses. It had been informed that “cultural practices in the residences were racially biased and the orientation of first year students included some unacceptable and archaic practices, tacitly condoned by management”.
A national commission into transformation in universities, initiated by the government that same year, had recommended that all initiation ceremonies and activities should be banned.
On the same day, North-West issued a release on behalf of Vice-chancellor Theuns Eloff, saying it had taken note of the government statement and, as indicated in a statement last Monday by the executive committee, regarded the matter “in a very serious light”.
A report had already been submitted to DHET. An extraordinary meeting of the executive committee had already been held and a full meeting of the council would take place on 5 March – the earliest date that the full council could convene. After that, steps to be implemented would be announced.
Earlier, the university said that an internal investigation into the incident was being undertaken by its legal office and internal disciplinary reports were being finalised.
The rector would establish a blog to encourage discussions, an independent committee would be set up to discuss issues raised and come up with recommendations to management, and an industrial psychologist would be appointed in the office of the dean of students to assist student structures and student discipline.
HESA welcomed the “action against those who violated human rights of the first year students involved, and the decision of the university leadership to remove the Nazi-style gesture from the student life programme”.
It hoped that the extraordinary council meeting next week would “institute actions that strengthen and reinforce the primacy of the core values of the Constitution as a key element of the institutional culture of the university”.