Free State Four: Who's to blame?

A video made by white students that shows them humiliating black university employees on Thursday continued to draw angry protests as well as criticism that racism remains entrenched in South Africa 14 years after the end of apartheid, with the Democratic Alliance (DA) questioning the role of the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) in the matter.

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 they were launching a criminal probe. 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”.

The rector, Professor Frederick Fourie, has condemned the video and the gross violation of human rights that it portrays, and promised to deal “swiftly and firmly” with the matter, a university spokesperson said.

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.

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.

‘Play-acting’

However, the controversial video was “no more than play-acting”, according to a lawyer’s letter delivered to the rector’s office, Volksblad newspaper reported on Thursday.

Two students of the Reitz men’s hostel who have been barred from campus, pending possible disciplinary action, deny in the letter that they committed any actions that make them criminally liable, the report said.

The students’ lawyer, Nico Naude of Honey Attorneys, said in the letter that if the students were to be prosecuted, they would consider countering with charges of wilful prosecution.

In the lawyer’s letter, RC Malherbe and Schalk van der Merwe deny they are guilty of either criminal actions or deeds. The letter says that should any scene or scenes create such an impression, Naude wishes to make it clear that the video was mere “play-acting”.

The letter, addressed to the executive council of the university and the dean of student affairs, also informs the UFS that Naude and the rest of the students’ legal team, including a senior advocate, wish to be present at any disciplinary hearing or any other action planned against the two, and that a list of allegations against the students be provided to them as soon as possible.

The Volksblad report said the students had indicated earlier that they wanted legal representation at a disciplinary hearing, but apparently this was refused by the university.

Outrage

The African National Congress (ANC), meanwhile, said it was appalled at the outrageous acts of racial abuse committed by the students.

“The ANC joins the overwhelming majority of South Africans—both black and white—in finding such behaviour barbaric and repugnant,” it said on Thursday. “The acts captured in video footage show utter contempt for the inherent dignity of all people and a shocking disrespect for black people, women and people who are their seniors.

“It is reminiscent of the most perverse forms of racism that were committed against South Africa’s black majority during its apartheid past.”

The actions point to a racist sentiment that persists at the university and which continues to resist integration and transformation, the ANC said.

It called for the “strongest possible action” to be taken against those responsible, for the university to take proactive measures to root out racist behaviour, and for all stakeholders to work together to mend relations at the institution.

“These appalling deeds have shocked the nation,” the ANC said. “They should serve as a call to action to all our people to confront the demon of racism that has plagued our society for generations. Such deeds should unite all of us in our determination to make a decisive break with the attitudes and practices of our past.”

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