/ 28 February 2008

Free State Four: We didn’t urinate on meat

Two University of the Free State students apologised on Thursday for their involvement in a racist video which has sparked a national outcry.

RC Malherbe and Schalk van der Merwe said they acted without malicious intent, and expressed sorrow for the embarrassment they might have caused any individual or group, including their parents.

”Messrs Malherbe and Van der Merwe … participated in the making of the film but remind their critics that they were and are students,” said a statement released by their lawyer in Bloemfontein.

The video, which was made last year and surfaced on Tuesday, features black University of the Free State employees on their knees eating food that had been urinated on by white students from the Reitz men’s residence, in a mock initiation into hostel activities. The video, which can be viewed on YouTube, refers openly to the university’s diversity policy for campus residences.

University authorities said on Wednesday that the students would be criminally charged.

Two of the students involved left the university last year and the other two have now been barred from campus. The latter two have denied in a lawyer’s letter that they committed any actions that make them criminally liable. The letter refers to their actions in the video as ”play-acting”.

‘Satirical slant’

Malherbe and Van Der Merwe said in Thursday’s statement that the media and the public had crucified them as racists following the airing of the video.

They said the film, made in September 2007, was made as a ”satirical slant on a topic which was then prevalent and controversial”.

”Although, as was intended at the time, it appears to viewers as if one of the persons urinated in the traditional brew which was prepared, it most certainly did not take place and a close study of the particular insert will confirm that the — totally harmless -‒ liquid was squirted from a bottle,” the statement read.

The two men said the four university employees who featured in the film were not only loyal friends of the filmmakers but also of the inhabitants of Reitz hostel.

The statement said the employees took part voluntarily in the making of the film and even enjoyed it.

The men said the employees knew why the video was shot and were made aware of the fact that the brew was not contaminated.

The statement said until the film became public, the employees, who were apparently suspended by the university, had good relationships with the hostel residents.

Malherbe and Van der Merwe said they were not racists and had no intention of humiliating or degrading the employees or black people in general.

The men said they suspected the film was published with malicious intent.

Earlier in the day, it was reported that a jilted girlfriend was behind the distribution of the video among students on campus.

The South African Human Rights Commission is investigating complaints that the university actually condoned and allowed violations of human rights, and Education Minister Naledi Pandor has also sent a top official to investigate the matter.

‘Repugnant bastards’

South African newspapers on Thursday splashed the faces of the four men accused of making the video at the across their front pages. The Times called them ”four repugnant bastards” and the Star labelled them as tormentors.

Beeld said in an editorial that the incident was characterised by naked racism, that the bullying incident had caused incalculable damage to race relations in South Africa and that the students had humiliated the workers and shown a lack of respect for fellow humans.

The bullies were privileged young people who had money, brains and the opportunity to study and were supposed to be the leaders of the future, while their victims were the most humble and vulnerable people who had to clean their toilets every day, said the editorial.

FF+ to blame?

The DA on Thursday expressed its shock at the video footage. ”This is an instance of naked racism. We have repeatedly condemned the abuse and have called for the perpetrators to face the full force of the law for their actions,” it said in a statement.

While the students involved must be held criminally liable, the incident did not happen in a vacuum, it said. ”The fact is that racist political elements have exploited hostel integration at the University of the Free State for political purposes. Leading this charge has been the Freedom Front Plus [FF+], as footage captured by the DA at the UFS in July last year demonstrates.”

According to the DA, FF+ supporters at the march reportedly sang the Afrikaans folk song Bobbejaan Klim die Berg (The Baboon is Climbing the Mountain). ”The question can be legitimately asked that, in the context of the tensions on the campus, who were they referring to? Events have now shown that the only animals on this campus are the students that subjected university employees to dehumanising abuse.”

FF+ posters on campus called on students to ”hit first” to prevent racial integration of hostels, said the DA. ”And this is exactly what the four students who made this video have done.”

The DA also said it was telling that Cornelius van Rensburg, national youth leader of the FF+, had distanced his party from the video incident. ”You only distance yourself from something if you were part of it,” it said.

”The leadership of the FF+ must now take responsibility for the horrific actions of students that have been incited by the party to reject hostel integration. The party could start by conducting an audit of its membership lists to ascertain whether the four students are members of the FF+ and, if so, expel them and publicly repudiate their actions,” the DA added.

In reaction, the FF+’s Corne Mulder told the Mail & Guardian Online that his party rejected the DA’s statement, saying it was ”shocking” that it was not the ANC that is trying ”score political points” in this matter, but the DA. ”We reject it [the statement and accusations] with the contempt it deserves,” he said.

Regarding the FF+ posters displayed during the march last year, Mulder said the ”hit first” sentiment was taken out of context. ”The DA’s Sandra Botha was there [at the march] to score cheap politics, and the students laughed at her. She now has ulterior motives and a direct interest in the matter.”

Also, Mulder said an FF+ investigation had found that the four students were not members of the party. ”There is no connection,” he said.