A racist video — featuring University of the Free State (UFS) employees on their knees eating food that had been urinated upon — was widely condemned by various institutions and political parties on Wednesday.
The video, made by members of the Reitz men’s residence on the Bloemfontein campus, came to the attention of the public on Tuesday.
It depicts a mock initiation of five black staff members — four females and a man — into hostel activities and refers to the university’s diversity policy for campus residences, which was announced last year.
The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) said in a statement on Wednesday that it is investigating whether the UFS played a role in perpetuating the human rights violations featured in the video.
”The commission is investigating whether the university played a role in perpetuating these violations and whether the university actually indirectly or directly took part by sanctioning some of them by allowing them to continue while it was aware of what was happening,” the SAHRC said.
The video added to an already tense situation at the UFS after students rioted last week over the university’s hostel integration policy.
The SAHRC has received complaints indicating that the university does not promote a culture of human rights — ”in fact, it allows and condones violations of human rights”.
This was gleaned from the video, an advert on the university intranet system requesting a roommate who ”should not be black and should be Christian”, dehumanising initiation practices and lecturers making fun of a student with an albinism condition, the commission said.
The commission has submitted a letter to the university rector, to which he should respond within seven days, to assist in its investigation into racism and other human rights violations at the institution.
The SAHRC questioned in the letter what steps the university has taken — given its ”whites only” history — to promote racial tolerance.
Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille said the SAHRC should secure redress for the victims whose rights have been violated and investigate the underlying causes of racial tension at the university and other institutions facing similar challenges. She said human rights training should be put in place to assist institutions facing such challenges.
The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) was appalled at the revelations of racism and abuse taking place at the UFS, a union statement said. It also called for the minister of education to conduct an official inquiry into this specific incident and, ”more importantly”, the conditions prevailing at the university that allowed this kind of activity to take place.
Independent Democrats (ID) leader Patricia de Lille called on parents to allow their children to grow up in an integrated South Africa, without the prejudices of the past. The ID condemned the video and commended the university on taking ”swift action” against it.
The United Democratic Movement (UDM), meanwhile, condemned the ”barbaric act” at the university. Party president Bantu Holomisa said an attack on the dignity of fellow South Africans has no place in the country’s democracy.
Meanwhile, the UFS cancelled all classes on Wednesday afternoon after a protest march by hundreds of staff and students against the video. UFS spokesperson Anton Fisher said all student classes were suspended after the protest march. ”It’s to calm the situation on campus.”
Students and members of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union handed over memorandums to the UFS management against the making of the video.
The UFS announced on Wednesday that attorneys have been instructed to formulate criminal charges against the four students involved.
AfriForum, the civil rights initiative linked to the Solidarity trade union, strongly condemned the incident. ”The group of students’ actions was inexcusable,” said Kallie Kriel, CEO of AfriForum, adding he was sure that the small group’s behaviour would be condemned by the majority of the students of the university.
He hoped the incident would not be used to portray all students at the university in a bad light.
Freedom Front Plus (FF+) youth leader Cornelius Jansen van Rensburg distanced the organisation from the ”atrocities screened on a video reportedly produced at the University of the Free State”. He said in a statement that the FF+ youth would never condone nor justify the violation of the human dignity of any person.
The African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) called for tough action to be taken against the students involved. The league said the ”barbaric” act had dehumanised the workers. It said workers suffer daily at the hands of racists ”who can’t differentiate between a dog, baboon and a human being”.
The Inkatha Freedom Party youth added their condemnation of the video, saying it was clear that racism was ”rife” at the university.
‘Damage to race relations’
The South African Institute of Race Relations said that racial tensions in the country appear to have risen over the past month. This was in reaction to the UFS video.
The institute’s deputy CEO, Frans Cronje, said events over the past month raise concerns about whether South Africa is able to capitalise on the general improvement in race relations the institute has monitored over the past years.
He referred to the Skielik shootings in North West, where a young white man allegedly went on a shooting rampage that claimed several black lives; the Forum for Black Journalists ejecting white colleagues from a recent meeting; and the UFS case.
He said his organisation was shocked by the video. ”Actions such as these shown on the video will do great damage to race relations in South Africa.”
He said much of the hard work done to improve race relations after 1994 was undone by these latest actions. ”It probably sets us back a significant amount of time.”
Cronje said it is important to set a precedent that racial abuse will carry stiff penalties.
He said it is important that the broader community should see that justice is done in the matter.
Meanhwile, the Reitz residence committee expressed its disgust with media reports on the video, which was made in September 2007.
The house committee said in a statement they and the current house residents distanced themselves from incidents of racism and regretted that the video was seen as a racial incident.
”The house committee and members of Reitz hostel have, particularly from the beginning of 2008, tried to positively implement the UFS’s policy of hostel integration in a manner that was conducive to racial harmony, and was glad to say that no racial incidents, perceived or otherwise, were reported so far this year,” a statement read.
The committee felt it would be unfair to judge all for the actions of a few.
Reitz residents would abide by any reasonable action taken against any guilty individuals, the house committee said. — Sapa