The Reitz four and limited reconciliation

The Reitz four. They could be a band. Or a singing troupe at the very least.
You know—powder-blue suits, crèmed hair and toothy grins. Afrikaans acapella—why hasn’t that been done yet?

But no. They had to go and make a racist video instead, in what they endearingly called a “Leon Schuster movie gone wrong”. Which if, you think about it, tells you more about the depressing state of South African film than anything else.

We’ve seen the former University of the Free State (UFS) lads ousted, their eponymous residence hastily converted into a centre for reconciliation (racism ... now you see it—now you don’t!) and the drama of the court proceedings against them.

Until Friday. When hastily converted vice-chancellor, the racially-savvy and helpfully coloured Jonathan Jansen, caused a minor storm of controversy by dropping charges against the students.

It was brave move that was guaranteed to create an outcry. Never mind Jansen’s “blueprint for transformation” at the university—including compulsory Sesotho lessons for white kids and Afrikaans lessons for black kids. Forget the reparations that will be paid to the humiliated workers, the hefty punishment already meted out to the students and the near universal acknowledgement that what happened in that video—urine or no urine—was wrong. The institutions that matter (read: ANC and the relevant trade unions) want their pound of flesh.

“Nation-building is good—but there are no shortcuts,” announced ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu, in a magnificent return to the ethics juggle we haven’t seen the likes of since the departure of master performers, Jessie Duarte and her thieving colleague Carl Niehaus. (Who, incidentally, was offered to be “redeployed” in the amorphous ANC after his confession. Proving that justice is good—but there are lots of shortcuts.)

But my absolute best on the Reitz quartet is Sizwe Pamla , spokesperson of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union. He informed any remaining dimwits, who may stupidly have taken any of Nelson Mandela’s words to heart, that the time for reconciliation in racism cases was “long gone”.

“Yes, we must embrace reconciliation, but it has its limits,” he said.

Now fancy that. Anyone with hopes for the Middle East peace process should just give up now. Limited reconciliation. Is that like limited democracy? Or maybe just limited love. It’s definitely up there with limited forgiveness.

Here’s what I don’t understand—and maybe I’m just slow. As utterly awful and degrading as the video was, it was far removed from the horrors of apartheid. Which was followed by an institutionalised reconciliation process that, successful or not, was at least in name supported by government. If this whole forgiveness business is “taking things too far”, what are we saying about the amazing amounts we’ve supposedly let go off already?

But the powers-that-be have made it clear that they want these racist young men to pay. In court. “At the end of the judicial process all of us would have been persuaded to forgive the former students,” said Mthembu on Saturday, in another masterful display of how forgiveness really works. Once the person has, you know, suffered enough. And said sorry like they mean it.

Except that this issue isn’t just about four inane men and their warped minds.

“The biggest mistake in the analysis of Reitz is to explain the incident in terms of individual pathology,” Jansen said at his inauguration last week. “Yet to dismiss the video as a product of four bad apples is too easy an explanation. This video recording was preceded by a long series of racial incidents protesting racial integration.”

He is attempting a holistic approach: tackling the entire institution and examining what allowed the atrocity to be committed in the first place. Dropping the charges is just one facet, designed to challenge every white UFS student tempted to play the victim in the wake of the incident.

Will it work? We’ve yet to see. But tempting as it is to exempt the Reitz quads from any kind of forgiveness, and direct our collective rage at them, that is too easy. What we demonise we fail to learn from. And what we dehumanise we treat in isolation, avoiding looking around and asking: what allowed this atrocity to be committed in the first place?

Read M&G Online editor Chris Roper’s take on the Reitz saga

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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