Degrees of racism

An explosive report on pervasive racial and sexual discrimination at South African universities, and the failure of university authorities to confront it, will be one of the first challenges facing the new minister of education.

The Crane Soudien report, which the Mail & Guardian has obtained exclusively, affects every dimension of university life. It includes wide-ranging recommendations that could affect the funding of tertiary institutions and shape their policy-making.

Executive summary (PDF)

Click here
for a summary of the report
“It is clear ...
that the experience of feeling discriminated against, in racial and gender terms in particular, is endemic within institutions,” the report states.

“By failing to deal boldly with the transformation issues, higher education institutions cause incalculable damage to South African society.”

Academic Crain Soudien chaired the committee that compiled the report. It was set up by Education Minister Naledi Pandor in March last year after the furore over the race video made by white students at the University of the Free State’s Reitz residence.

Based on submissions from universities, organisations and individuals, consultations with students and trade unions and visits to universities, the 156-page report calls for a ban on all initiation ceremonies in residences, irrespective of whether they cause bodily harm, and for non-compliance to be punished with expulsion.

Institutions should abolish all race segregation in residence placement to enable students of different backgrounds to live together and ensure that “the power and authority that senior students have over junior ones are removed entirely”.

Universities acknowledged the importance of the committee’s work, but expressed concern over its “unscientific” process, “untested” claims and the limited time members spent on campuses.

However, the committee says it believes it has adequate evidence.

A key finding is that institutions have complied with national legislation and drafted policies to tackle transformation, in particular employment equity, but that these have overwhelmingly remained paper exercises.

Black students and staff continue to feel merely “tolerated” in unchanged white institutional cultures, but are too scared to speak out, even in exit interviews.

In contrast, most white staff members believe there has been significant improvement in addressing racism and equity since 1994.

The report blames the failure to implement transformation policies on poor dissemination, limited awareness and lack of institutional will, particularly in middle management. It fingers “weak” and “passive” councils for not giving strategic direction and even blocking change.

“The low-level resistance in councils is especially evident in institutions that have strong ‘historical roots in particular communities’, namely the historically Afrikaans-medium institutions,” it says. Through parents, alumni and donors, these can derail transformation. Reitz residence, for instance, was taken over by alumni after being closed for a few years, before the video incident prompted its permanent closure.

Institutions were also urged to develop a greater understanding of the impact of class, in particular on disadvantaged students.

The report urges the minister to initiate a review of language policies, judged seriously deficient in supporting the learning experience of African students in particular.

The report also recommends:

  • the department set up a permanent transformation watchdog;

  • institutions draft transformation charters as a basis for agreements with the department committing them to developing a human rights culture with clear transformation targets;

  • a government review of governance structures and councils;

  • the department use “reward and sanction instruments”, including funding and subsidy allocations, to ensure progress;

  • vice-chancellors should be accountable for achieving employment equity targets under performance management contracts;

  • clear guidelines for bridging programmes, which appear to be “vehicles of racialisation”.

It calls for compulsory training to sensitise staff to the learning needs of students of diverse backgrounds and campus ombudsmen to address complaints of discrimination.

Dismal diary of discrimination

  • Students are continually and openly told they will fail in certain disciplines, for example “blacks can’t do accounting”.

  • White students harass black lecturers by telling them “to learn to speak English properly”.

  • Students resisting initiation ceremonies are victimised and called names, such as “gingos”.

  • Lecturers demand sexual favours from students, using the phrase: “The closer you get, the more marks you get.”

  • Residences for Zimbabweans at one university are called “refugee camps”.

  • At some historically black universities lecturers teach in local languages, excluding other language-speakers.

  • White and Indian staff at the University of KwaZulu-Natal fear “Africanisation” means that they may be kicked out.

  • At Rhodes, male student “thugs” allegedly get away with the rape of lesbians, to “cure them”, and assaults on black gay men.

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