Racist video roils South Africa

Racist video roils South Africa

By Celia W. Dugger
Published: Sunday, March 9, 2008


BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa — The homemade video – a crude protest against the racial integration of student housing here at the University of the Free State – moves in closer behind a white student as he appears to urinate into a container of stew.

In the next scene, motherly black women in maids’ uniforms kneel in the dirt courtyard of the Reitz student residence complex, awaiting their mock initiation into the all-white house.

Rowdy students tell the women who mop their floors and scrub their toilets to swallow the stew. Gagging, the women spit it out.

"Whore, drink that whole glass!" shouts one of the students.

This incendiary video, made with casual cruelty, last week leapt from the small, enclosed world of the Reitz residence to the World Wide Web. The four Afrikaner students accused of making it in September for a "cultural evening" at Reitz are now under criminal investigation.

The university, concerned that Reitz has become synonymous with racism, is considering shutting down the residence. On Friday, the university’s governing body condemned the video as racist and an insult to women and working people.

As the video itself and postings about it spread to YouTube and Facebook, it has provoked ever more bitter racial division on the campus and soul-searching across South Africa.

"It’s bigger than the university," said Billyboy Ramahlele, who heads the university’s diversity office. "It’s bigger than the four students. It’s really a challenge to the project of nation building and reconciliation we started in 1994."

That was the year white rule finally ended here. The University of the Free State has come a long way since apartheid’s heyday, when it was a training ground for the Afrikaner civil servants who became cogs in a racist political order. Like many South African institutions, it has undergone a transformation that is sweeping, but still incomplete.

The majority of the university’s 25,000 students are now black. But the hostels where students live were still segregated after an earlier effort at integration ended in violence a decade ago. Then in January, after a year of debate, the university moved again to integrate the residences, assigning black first-year students to white, Afrikaner hostels and whites to black residences.

The white students did not take the spots allotted to them in the black residences, university officials said. Eight black first-year students were sent to live with 128 white male students in the bungalows at Reitz.

"They seriously don’t want us here," Buzwe Tsawu, 19, an aspiring architect with a stud in his ear whose painterly self-portrait hangs on the wall, said last week.

At 3 o’clock one morning in mid-January, the eight black students said they were awakened with a bang as firecrackers were simultaneously tossed through the open windows of the four bedrooms of their bungalow. In the weeks that followed, they said, their windows were repeatedly broken as they slept. They have been subjected to verbal abuse.

"They were trying to scare us, make us leave," said Kulani Mngadi, 19.

But the black students made a pact to stick it out.

"We’re going to change this place," said Ruddy Banyini, a 19-year-old studying bio-informatics, using computer tools to search genetic databases. "We’ll prevent next year’s black first-years from feeling what we felt."

Many Afrikaners in white residences see what they call "forced integration" as a threat to the cultural identity of their embattled minority, descended from Dutch settlers.

Symbols of the apartheid-era past are still to be found in the Afrikaner hostels. The Hendrik Verwoerd residence, named at its opening in 1968 for the assassinated architect of apartheid, was given a new name, Armentum, two years ago. But a bust of the white supremacist remains in a meeting room, and his portrait and memorabilia line the walls of the senior social club.

The hostel leader, Van Aardt Cloete, 21, acknowledged the need to change the name because it "was sensitive for black people," but he also said Armentum would keep a room in the hostel as a museum to showcase the Verwoerd past.

Pieter Odendaal, 23, head of Reitz house, said, "There’s a fear, especially among young white South Africans, that there isn’t a future in this land anymore, that there’s all this black empowerment," adding, "We don’t have anything to do with apartheid. Why must they take away our job opportunities? Why must we give up our language?"

The Reitz student video was made last year as the integration debate raged.

"Once upon a time," one of the students says in the opening frames, "the Boers had fun living on Reitz Island up until a day when the previously disadvantaged found the word integration in the dictionary."

Frederick Fourie, the rector of the university – a cellist with the provincial symphony and a Harvard-trained economist – heard about the video on Feb. 26 and watched it that morning.

An Afrikaner whose father was a professor here, Fourie said he wept when he reached one scene. It showed a muscular white student starting a race by four hefty black cleaning women, set in slow motion to the theme music from "Chariots of Fire" – a scene Fourie felt humiliated goodhearted women who deserved better from students they had looked after. When he saw the urination scene, he knew he had a public relations disaster on his hands.

The next day, he met with the tearful cleaning women. "My heart was sore," he said. "They’d trusted these boys as their own sons. I apologized for what had happened to them at the university. I told them, ‘My heart is broken. I cry with you.’ "

Racist video roils South Africa – The New York Times


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