The University of the Free State recently lifted the expulsion of two white students accused of using a bakkie to run over a black student. The young white men were acquitted of all charges in the Regional Court in Bloemfontein. The University management apologised to the students and their families and also issued a statement acknowledging the findings of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) that it was “unable to find any corroborating evidence to make a conclusive finding of racism and violation of human rights”… Now the Rector and Vice-Chancellor argues that we should stop reacting only to incidents but start dealing with racism as a systemic problem.

There is something curious about the way South Africans respond to a racial or racist incident on a university campus. First, there are expressions of shock and horror as if such terrible incidents could surely not happen within institutions. Then, there is the righteous indignation… “them, they” the whites, are the evil ones; “we”, of course, are innocent of all prejudice. What follows is an-ever-widening circle of condemnation all the way to the relevant heads of government. A Commission might follow and some wise heads in government would dish out all kinds of straightforward solutions like include history or racism in the university curriculum or instil patriotic thinking or just banish the perpetrators from higher education, all as furious messages from everywhere populate cyberspace. Where I reside all whites are innocent no matter what the incident reveals, from one side of the race divide, or all whites are irredeemably racist, no matter what the facts bring to light, on the other side of that divide.

If there is a horrific picture to go with it, the media would run the sickening image over and over again for its emotive value, sometimes conjuring up those photographs or video clips for months and sometimes years to come. There is one newspaper, in particular, catering for a largely black audience, that would on the slightest whisper of an accusation run a screaming headline long before the facts are in.

Mosa Leteane, the first black female SRC president at UFS.

Mosa Leteane, the first black female SRC president at UFS.

Unhelpful Frenzy

Our response to incident-based events provokes a frenzy that is not only bereft of any decent analysis, it is, quite frankly, unhelpful in dealing with racism as a systemic problem. By jumping around like mad hatters every time from one incident to the next, we solve nothing except to fan the flames of racial passion across the country. Instead of asking how we deal with the roots (radical, in other words) of the problem, we shout and scream at each other, each pretending to more righteous than the next.

Every institution in South Africa, by its very nature, carries within it the memories, traumas, habits and practices of racism. Where those institutions, like our former white universities, are more than a century old, those things are deeply embedded—from symbols to rituals to dispositions—in everyday life inside these powerful places of higher learning. A change of government does not automatically “cleanse” institutions from these afflictions; often, it makes things worse before they get any better as “the vanquished”, a white minority, struggles to settle into the reality of loss and change. The victims, on the other hand, count among their number those who openly carry the scars of racial oppression and the memories of humiliation which from time to time provoke the former oppressors, or their offspring, through harsh words or policies or even unfair accusation.

As I wrote in Knowledge in the Blood, students are decidedly not born-frees; whoever came up with this lazy term was not thinking. Children born after the 1990s carry the second-hand knowledge and emotions of their parents and grandparents, who did live through the crisis of apartheid either as perpetrators or victims, or as beneficiaries or the dispossessed. That inherited knowledge and emotions carry powerful consequences, such as in the child of a farmer who has to live in a residence with a black person as his equal; up to that point, from life on a rural farm, he knows black people only as servants to whom the master barks instructions and might even apply violence. On an integrated campus, the young white student is often confused and acts out everything he knows and feels through learned rituals of coercion and humiliation.

Learning To Live Together

Young black people who grew up in angry townships under harsh living conditions understand deeply how things became that way, and how their situation is not an accident but a consequence of an oppressive history. A student who finds constantly himself in angry black company that reduces every white person to nothing more than a racist has great difficulty integrating into campus life and on the slightest provocation, real or imagined, would fly off the handle sometimes resulting in direct, physical confrontation and attack. Yet the black and white student has to live and learn together with this indirect knowledge, as we called it, at play in almost every interracial interaction.

So what does the Nazi salute at the North West University mean or the Blackface episode at the University of Pretoria or the Reitz residence abuse at the University of the Free State? It means that university leaders, including student leaders, need to deal with expressions of racism systemically and not simply on an incident-by-incident basis. It means, sadly, that more racist incidents will occur for some time to come and yes, we should condemn such vile behaviour, but do much more to address root causes such as the anger and alienation of white and black students inside their institutions. It means addressing both symbols and substance of white supremacy in hiring practices, curriculum silences and the names of residences. A university that still carries in its buildings the name of DF Malan, the first apartheid Prime Minister, clearly has no moral conscience when it comes to the cultivation of a new country and is, quite frankly, insensitive to black students and their lives. A university that does little to recognise the cultures, languages, traditions and positive memories of white students, creates the very conditions for racial alienation, even conflict.

The leadership task, therefore, is demanding, even deadly, but it is our solemn duty to build campuses that address wrongs and recognise rights, repair the damage to black people but as it does so, reconcile with white people on campus. It means taking abuse from both sides but that leadership remains unwavering in pursuit of the long-term ambition for nation-building from the ruins of apartheid. Incidents are side-shows to be addressed as they emerge; but the more important question is whether we are laying the foundations for a just and reconciled future. And that is not easy.