Graphic posters apparently intended to expose Muslim homophobia have provoked the anger of Rhodes University staff members, students and alumni, who say they are racist and xenophobic.
A 98-strong group has written an open letter to vice-chancellor Saleem Badat and his executive, deploring the university's Fairness Forum's decision that the posters were acceptable "on the basis of free speech". The forum's functions include advising the university in disciplinary cases, and its decision followed a staff member's complaint about the posters last month.
Attached to the letter are three examples of posters put up on campus and at a shopping centre during Israeli Apartheid Week in March. One depicts four hanged men with their hands tied behind their backs. Another shows three dead bodies lying on the ground surrounded by a crowd. The third portrays two blindfolded men about to be hanged.
"Homosexuality is a crime punished by imprisonment, flogging, stoning, hanging or beheading in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and others," says the text on one poster.
Robert van Niekerk, director of Rhodes's Institute of Social Economic Research said: "It was gut-wrenchingly offensive to see these lurid depictions of deceased individuals on posters without any respect for their dignity." He is a signatory to the open letter, which described the photos as "racist and xenophobic in the form in which they depict deceased people of Semitic origin".
One of the posters, put up on campus during Israeli Apartheid Week that sparked outrage at Rhodes University.
The posters also "suggest mob fury against gays when there is no evidence provided to suggest that the pictures in fact represent the killing of gay people … This is not reasoned academic discourse but rather a crude form of propaganda and what can also be described as 'pornography of violence' ".
The signatories said "the selective choice of countries" referred to was problematic because "the posters target entire national groups and by implication their religion".
"Persecution of gays occurs all over the world … [even] where their rights are protected constitutionally, and has been rightly condemned wherever it occurs. So why are these particular countries singled out in the poster in a manner that implies gay persecution is only restricted to countries of Islamic background?"
No one has publicly claimed responsibility for putting up the posters. But a staff member who said he was not involved, and asked not to be named, said: "I didn't see anything factually incorrect [in them]. Homosexuality is a crime in those countries. Iran has a long and horrific history of violence around this.
"I don't believe they were racist. The photos are disturbing, but they do highlight an area of the world where human rights violations are a day-to-day occurrence – in particular against homosexuals and women. Anti-Israeli posters put up during Israeli Apartheid Week didn't document the proof of where those photos and statements on the posters came from either."
At the bottom of each poster are the words "Produced by StandWithUs". This is a Los Angeles-based organisation that describes itself as "dedicated to informing the public about Israel and to combating the extremism and anti-Semitism that often distorts the issues". Its aims include "ensuring that Israel's side of the story is told on university campuses and in communities, the media, libraries and churches around the world". Under a link called "Apartheid Week response materials", its website shows posters almost identical to those at Rhodes.
The open letter does not mention StandWithUs because "an American organisation putting up racist materials for people to download online is not the main concern", said student signatory Camalita Naiker.
"It is about whether Rhodes University supports racism and the creation of a space conducive for it or not. The fact that people put them up on Rhodes campus and it was defended as free speech [has many] far-reaching consequences."
Van Niekerk said the Fairness Forum's decision that the posters were acceptable was made "without calling on further expert advice or internal discussion [and] is thus very worrying."
The open letter calls for a "university-wide forum adjudicated by the office of the vice-chancellor where the posters can be placed on public view" and all views on their acceptability can be aired. The university has now agreed to this.
Deputy vice-chancellor for student affairs Sizwe Mabizela said Rhodes opposed racism and xenophobia and acknowledged that the Constitution limits freedom of expression in that it does not permit "advocacy of hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion. A vice-chancellor's forum will be convened to debate issues of racism and xenophobia, with specific reference to the posters … As an institution of higher learning we believe that disputes … ought to be resolved through rational debate."
Mabizela also said the role and purpose of the Fairness Forum will be reviewed in due course and that action over a student who apparently put the posters up, and the fact that a staff member was also allegedly involved, "shall follow due process".