The outrage sparked by what are contentiously viewed as the racist actions of two University of Pretoria students is probably overdone, but it exposes the deeper seismic racial fault lines on campus and in the country.
The two white students appeared in images on social media with their faces painted black, wearing domestic workers’ outfits and with pillows stuffed into their outfits’ nether regions in a stereotypical depiction of black women’s buttocks. Some found this offensive and distasteful; others were amused. The university charged the two students with racism and expelled them from the campus residence.
Racism depends on the circumstances and the context. We don’t know the context of the picture and, thus far, no one has managed to get the two students’ side of the story. We don’t know whether their fancy dress was simply innocuous but inappropriate fun, or whether it displayed the racist intention to humiliate and degrade black women. It probably lies in the murky grey area between those options.
The important lesson, though, is to be taken from the context of the action – a university still suffering in a racially poisoned atmosphere. The university needs to focus on tackling its institutional culture, transformation and issues of race that still tarnish its image to some degree. We accept that the university has drastically transformed itself from an institution that was created primarily to give academic and scientific credence to apartheid’s social engineering policies; it is now led by a black vice-chancellor, Professor Cheryl de la Rey.
Yet the residual effect of its historical bigotry is still felt in the lecture halls and corridors. It had, until last spring, lecturers such as Louise Mabille, who wrote that “baby rape” is “a cultural phenomenon among the black population groups”. Almost a year after Mabille resigned because of her racist views, the university community has to pay attention when such issues are raised once more – as the reaction to the dress-up photo showed. If the racial atmosphere on campus is still toxic, De la Rey needs to move swiftly to defuse it and, in the longer term, push forward the university’s transformation agenda.