No more excuses for racist conduct
Why is racial integration so difficult to achieve at South African universities?
The difficulty is evident not merely in grotesque episodes such as that involving the four Reitz students at the University of the Free State (UFS), but also in everyday interactions among students in lecture halls and residences in many institutions. Black and white students may occupy the same spaces, but often lead very separate lives within them.
A popular answer is that white students in general are prejudiced against their black counterparts.
This thinking is implicit in the recent agreement to bury the hatchet between Jonathan Jansen and the Free State ANC.
They decided that the Reitz students who put their prejudices on public display should undergo a programme of corrective instruction in progressive ideas about ‘race issues”.
Jansen made his case for the significance of prejudice as the main barrier to integration in his recent book, Knowledge in the Blood. The book did not deal explicitly with the ‘Reitz four”, but with the white Afrikaans-speaking students in the education faculty at the University of Pretoria (UP), where Jansen was dean prior to his appointment as vice-chancellor at UFS.
Socialised to hate
Jansen argued that these UP students were all afflicted by prejudice, stemming from the ‘bitter know-ledge” uniformly imparted to them by their parents, school teachers, church ministers and community leaders.
They were socialised by these agents to believe that Afrikaners ‘belong on their own” and are ‘superior to blacks”. Jansen found that although his UP students were superficially decent, they also had the capacity to indulge in ‘vicious racial violence” along the lines of the Reitz four, largely because their minds were still polluted by the ‘knowledge” their elders had taken for granted in an earlier era.
Jansen’s way of dealing with his white students’ prejudices was to recognise how difficult it is for the children of oppressors to deal with what their elders teach them as ‘fact”. In his book he argued that Afrikaner youth is torn between respect for these elders and a sense of shame and guilt over what their parents and others did in the past.
He suggested that it is necessary to have compassion for their plight and to reach out to them in ways that disrupt the outmoded prejudices they have all imbibed.
In Knowledge in the Blood he provided examples of how he himself did this at UP. It is clear that his interventions with students usually occurred in one-to-one situations and in contexts he could control by virtue of his standing as dean. But when he attempted the same tactic at UFS, in the public forum of his inauguration, the local ANC and the youth league objected vociferously to his action.
Same analysis by the ANC
The subsequent rapprochement between them makes it clear, however, that ANC leaders do not object to his analysis of the problem, but to the way he saw fit to deal with it. It is clear that these leaders also give priority to white prejudice against blacks as the main stumbling block to campus harmony.
But they do so not to embark on the magnanimous redemption of white Afrikaner students, but to have a convenient stick to hand with which to chastise them for a long time to come.
Instances of outright beastliness—such as the actions of the Reitz four—aside, prejudice is often in the eye of the beholder. But the ANC leaders’ stance is that if they discern prejudice in someone’s behaviour, their supposition is fact. If I’m black and you don’t like me, or affirm me enough, you must be a racist.
Deliberately conflating the actions of the Reitz four with all indications of dislike provides a justification for demanding affirmation forever.
The face-saving deal Jansen and the Free State ANC have hatched ignores the fact that people can learn not to express their prejudices openly. The course the Reitz four must sit through if they wish to resume their studies may provide them with no more than a politically correct language with which to mask their determination to continue discriminating against black people.
Never in a position to discriminate
In this instance the cause of reconciliation and integration would be better served if one ensured that such people were never in a position to discriminate again.
How might one achieve such a goal? One way is to realise how counterproductive it is to make assumptions about the universality of racial prejudice. In the context of UP or UFS this would mean recognising that there has been a long debate among white Afrikaner staff and students about whether they belong on their own and are superior to blacks.
As this debate started at least as early as the 1980s, one needs to recognise that those who still hold to notions of Afrikaner exclusivity and superiority cannot be allowed to shelter behind some threadbare psychologising about the ways in which they have been socialised.
They cannot occupy public institutions and continue to behave as though these were private property. If they want to be a people apart, let them go to Orania. And if they behave as though they were in Orania without having the courage actually to go there, they should be severely punished for their actions.
On the other hand, it makes no strategic sense to tell people in these universities who have spent several decades struggling against those who preach exclusivity and superiority that they are still afflicted by prejudices derived from the bitter knowledge transmitted from the past.
There are many such people in these institutions and their numbers are growing as they are joined by new generations of young students who have not been subjected to the dismal socialisation on which Jansen focused.
It is insulting to offer people such as these the prospect of well-meaning therapy, or courses intended to cleanse them of lingering prejudice. What they need is support in their struggle against Afrikaner exclusivists and in their endeavours to address the real challenge confronting the process of integration at these institutions.
This challenge is not the alleged universality of prejudice among Afrikaners (or white South Africans in general), but the legacy of racialised inequality that lends significance to the prejudices to which some of these people still cling.
John Sharp is professor of social anthropology and deputy dean of the faculty of humanities at the University of Pretoria