On the segregated campus of South Africa’s University of the Free State this weekend, tensions were thunderously high as black students planned a mass protest for Monday against the white students who made a video humiliating their black cleaners.
The film has gone around the world on the internet and sent the country into shock. All the more so because the young students are products of post-apartheid South Africa with its rainbow nation aspirations. Black student leader Tom Thabane (20) wants two white students expelled and their hostel, Reitz, to be closed. “Reitz is like a cult. If you walk past there, they shout abuse and throw white napkins at you,” he said.
The two offending residents, Roelof Malherbe and Schalk van der Merwe, 22-year-old agriculture students, are among four white men who filmed the mock initiation of five black cleaners. In one scene, a student is shown urinating into a bowl of soup before it is apparently served to the kneeling cleaners – four middle-aged women and a man — who are also seen being made to run a race, play rugby and down beer. The film ends with a caption in Afrikaans that reads: “At the end of the day, this is what we really think of integration.”
“It wasn’t real urine, honestly,” one white lad claimed. “If you look closely at the video, you can see he has a little water bottle tucked under his T-shirt.”
Reitz hostel, a group of bungalows in the verdant campus of the university named after a premier of the Orange Free State, one of the early Boer republics, on Saturday remained under police guard while groups of students — each racially distinct — went about their business. An elderly black car park attendant, who identified himself only as Michael, said: “There is going to be fighting. The blacks are going to get their revenge for those ladies. We’ve had many race riots here, and now there will be more. The Free State is the mother of apartheid.”
But Reitz residence head Christo Dippenaar denied the 120-bed hostel was a hotbed of racism resisting the university’s integration moves. “If you are going to put white and black together, there will be tension. There has to be something to bind them and we believe the link is rugby. Reitz has been a finalist or winner of the National Residences Competition for the past 12 years. So we told the authorities that we want to select our black residents. They refused, though out of the eight black residents they sent us, four play rugby.”
“If any harm was done, we as a hostel are sorry. But the guys who made the video are my brothers — so I’m not going to say it was good or bad,” he said.
The university has advised Malherbe and Van der Merwe to stay away for the time being. They are to face a disciplinary council, though it is unclear when this will take place. The other two filmmakers, Daniel Grobler and Johnny Roberts, both 26, graduated last year.
Dippenaar (37) said the video was made as part of last year’s initiation events for first-year students. He explained: “It was just a prank. Reitz has a strong tradition of initiation. The first year students have to make the tea and there’s this thing we do where we pee in the teapot. So we have a lot of jokes around urine.
“We made two other films for culture day, do you want to see them?’ A laptop is produced. One film begins with sound effects of a student masturbating in the lavatory, another with mock drug-taking. All participants are white.
“The black ladies are our friends. They had a good laugh at the film. They saw it in September and they worked here without saying anything until a few days ago when the university put them on leave.
“Most of the boys at Reitz are from farm areas. They have grown up with a black woman in the kitchen who is like a second mum. These ladies sort of take over that role when the guys come to university,” he said.
Lawyer Lesley Mokgoro said the workers had not been aware of what they were taking part in. “They are very hurt,” he said.
Dippenaar claims the row has been seized on by politicians to distract the nation from its everyday woes, including electricity power cuts and divisions in the ruling ANC party. “Why don’t they sort out Zimbabwe instead?” he asked. “This reminds me of 1994 and before, when we, the Afrikaaners, were blamed for everything by the whole world.”
Two black residents arrive but do not wish to give their names. Medical student Wim Hiddema (22) said: “They have a right not to talk. They will be in danger from other blacks if they say anything.” He claims the film was passed to the media by militant members of the South African Students’ Congress (Sasco). Sasco denies the claim.
“We are not against whites. We are against racism,” said Thabane. “We are living in modern South Africa. We come from multiracial schools. The time has come for us not to tolerate segregation.”
In 2007 the university senate finally passed a motion to integrate hostels. A 70% to 30% split has been reached in female hostels, but in traditionally white male hostels, fewer than 15% are black. No white students this year took up accommodation in black hostels, opting to find digs off campus.
Of the university’s 25Â 000 students, 41,6% are white. Nationally, 2% of South Africans are white. – Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008