Free State joins the new SA

‘Southern Comfort and pizza this afternoon, please,” moaned Lonwabo Sikweyiya as she joined two friends on the University of the Free State’s (UFS) Bloemfontein campus last Friday morning. “First the liquor store, then Debonair’s.”

The third-year BA student had just written two tests in a row—“English prose,” she said, rolling her eyes. Siyolise Mnyamana and Sinoxolo Nophali, both senior BCom students, had been waiting on UFS’s immaculate lawns to whisk her away from the ordeal.

None of the three was aware that the first black vice-chancellor in the university’s 105-year history would be inaugurated that evening.
“The new VC? Who’s that?” asked one.

With some prompting, they admitted to recognising the name Jonathan Jansen. Unprompted, they recalled that since Jansen’s arrival in July, students “could go to his office and talk about anything”.

But none of the three had so far taken up the invitation. And the reason these three articulate and assured young women gave expresses the scale of the problem Jansen faces perhaps more eloquently than all the horror headlines about Reitz residence racists: “We didn’t think it would make a difference—this is the University of the Free State,” said Sikweyiya with a shrug.

Surrounded by edifices such as President CR Swart Gebou, their sense of UFS as a forbidding monolith they would be grateful to survive—“we just want to graduate,” they said—was understandable.

But decisive blows to the monolith came that evening.

Inaugural ceremonies at historically white universities are starched and stately affairs and at all universities they are plump with platitudes and institutional self-congratulation. But not this one.

As in any moment of radical change, an air of delirious unreality prevailed. “It’s difficult to believe this is really happening,” said Busiswa Tshabalala, before composing herself for the “word of welcome” that had fallen to her as a UFS council member to extend.

The unreality was immediately underlined in surely the most radical departure from inaugural convention any university has seen.

With stiff decorum, vice-rector Teuns Verschoor laid it on the line. UFS finds a university with more than 27 000 students “struggling with integration, with an unacceptably low throughput rate and with a public image that has been tainted to such an extent that even the staunchest Free Staters hesitate to send their children [there]”.

For much of its history UFS has “uncritically followed the dominant political policies of the day”, he said. Under British colonial rule “the university operated in English only and excluded many people on the basis of their race as well as their language”. And when UFS later shifted to Afrikaans, the university “not only followed but actively promoted apartheid policy”.

Verschoor then linked this history of political compliance with the barbarism unveiled in Reitz: UFS has “failed [its] students in not educating them sufficiently in ... human compassion and respect for the dignity of fellow human beings”.

Earlier in the day a black honours student joined the three who had deferred Southern Comfort and pizza to speak to the Mail & Guardian. She offered a diagnosis similar to Verschoor’s: UFS’s institutional culture inculcates “emotional compliance”, she said.

For all these students, racial segregation defines the university’s culture, despite an enrolment mix that would have been inconceivable even in the recent past—nearly 58% African, 35% white, 5% coloured and 2% Indian.

A mix, yes, “but just look around you”, Sikweyiya said, gesturing to small clusters of students sitting around on the lawns: “They’re all racially separate groups. They think we’re funny speaking to you.”

Third-year BSc student Mlungisi Sanyaka said there’s not much Jansen can do by himself: “He’s got to instil hope that he’s not just a cosmetic black appointment.”

Any confusion between Jansen and eyeliner was explosively dispelled as soon as he started his inaugural lecture. Dedicating it to “arguably the greatest son of UFS”, Bram Fisher, he said the university faces “unfinished business, so let me get right to it”.

The Reitz video cannot be explained solely in terms of “individual pathology”, he said, and UFS must ask what “made it possible for such an atrocity to be committed in the first place”.

It is “without question a problem of institutional complicity” and that deeper issues of racism and bigotry that conflict UFS “will not be resolved in the courts”.

“I have spent many nights in tears regretting what we—yes, we—did to the five black workers ... This institution begs your forgiveness.”

He then announced UFS’s withdrawal of disciplinary charges against the four students “in a gesture of racial reconciliation and need for healing” and payment to the workers in reparation.

In the heated public debate this announcement has unleashed, Jansen’s other plans to close the door on UFS’s century of political compliance have been swamped—including that part of his own salary would be used to fund a poor white and a poor black student. UFS will be “unashamedly elitist” in its drive for academic excellence, he said, but will also work with disadvantaged schools to prepare learners for university. Every white student would learn Sesotho or Setswana, and every black student Afrikaans, whereas all would be competent in English.

“He’s a very troublesome gentleman,” Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said archly in her response to Jansen. And Ebrahim Rasool, former Western Cape premier, confessed that he did not know if he was more “frightened or inspired” by what Jansen had said.

Either way, there can be no UFS student who by now does not know his name.

‘This confirms we are nothing’
The five University of the Free State workers at the centre of the notorious Reitz residence racist incident are traumatised that the university has dropped charges against the four students who allegedly abused and humiliated them.

They also say the university failed to consult them before new vice-chancellor, Jonathan Jansen, made his announcement last Friday.

In an emotional interview on Wednesday, four of the five workers spoke of their pain.

Rebecca Adams, Laukaziemme Koko, Nitta Ntseng and Noon Phoro are middle-aged women ranging from 42 to 54 years old. (David Molete, the other worker involved in the case, could not take part in the interview.)

All are long-time UFS employees, having worked there for periods of between 19 and 27 years.

In 2007, a video showing the five undergoing a mock initiation ritual at the hands of four Reitz residence students surfaced. Among other humiliations, the workers were shown on their hands and knees, forced to eat food the students had apparently urinated on.

Two of the students had finished their degrees, the other two were expelled, and all four face human rights charges in the Equality Court and criminal charges of crimen injuria. These charges still stand, independently of UFS’s withdrawal of its charges.

Jansen also announced that the two students whose studies were terminated by expulsion would be readmitted to UFS.

“We are pained by the dropping of the charges,” the four women said, choosing to speak collectively. “We are totally not satisfied by what Jansen said because he took decisions without consulting us.”

They said they had met Jansen previously, but that was because he wanted to introduce himself to them, not to discuss dropping the charges. “So there was no agreement about that,” they said.

South African Human Rights Commission advocate Mothusi Lepheana, who is representing the five workers in a civil case to be bought against the Reitz students in the Equality Court, said the offer of reparations was “arrogant”.

“UFS is starting to flash the money when the workers haven’t heard ‘sorry’ yet,” he said.

The four women workers said that before the 2007 incident at Reitz, “we trusted the students as parents would their own children. They were like our own children.”

After the incident they had felt “heavy”, they said. “We didn’t feel like going back to work, especially because of the way our ‘kids’ used to look at us.”

In time they felt better, they said, but after Jansen’s announcement they are “even worse because it confirms we are nothing”.

One of the four, who asked not to be identified, said: “I’m saddened. I work in the same place where the urination happened, and I wish I didn’t have to work there.” She started crying softly.

Jansen confirmed that he had met the workers before his announcement. “I would have loved to talk to them about the charges, but [I] had been advised legally that to do so could have compromised their own pending cases,” he said.

Moses Masitha, the first black president of UFS’s student’s representative council, said students had demanded better consultation from Jansen, who had conceded that he should have involved the SRC more in the decision.

Jansen’s announcement has drawn deeply polarised responses. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sasco have been among those expressing support for Jansen, whereas the ANC, the Young Communist League and the ANC Youth League have panned him.

On Wednesday, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande demanded that UFS reverse its decision on the charges and the re-admission of the students. But “the decision stands”, Jansen said.

And on Thursday, the Cabinet expressed “strong displeasure” at the dropping of the charges.

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".   Read more from David Macfarlane

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