In South Africa, a racist video's fallout

White students' film degrading black employees has dredged up unresolved postapartheid problems.

Themba Hadebe/AP
On tape: Black employees in the video attended a press conference in Bloemfontein, S. Africa, last week.

The video depicts white college students forcing elderly black housekeepers to crawl, drink beer, and eat food that – apparently – had been tainted with urine. Small wonder, then, that the video has caused an uproar in a society that thought it had left the harsher cruelties of racism behind.

As disciplinary hearings and even criminal investigations probe into the video and its makers, students and professors at the University of the Free State and throughout South Africa are struggling for answers on how to rebuild racial relations in an atmosphere that many describe as "poisoned."

"The video shows these young white males, according to them, seemingly playing games and poking fun with the weakest of the weak in our society: old black women," says Anton Fisher, spokesman for the University of Free State in Bloemfontein. "There's power, there's race, there's inequality, there's humiliation. This has certainly polarized certain members of the community who still think things are the way they were under apartheid."

It is hard to imagine a video more likely to roil South African society than the one put together by the four accused university students in Bloemfontein. The young men claim they were merely doing satire a la Borat, while making a statement on the serious issue of racial integration on college campuses. But others say the video speaks volumes about much of the unfinished business that South Africans must face about race.

"Many people will be tempted to say that what happened at Free State is an isolated case," says John Kane-Berman, chief executive of the liberal think tank, the South African Institute on Race Relations. "The point is, it's poisonous, because everybody knows about it. A wide range of people condemn it [the video], and yet I think it reinforces many black people's suspicions of the good faith of whites."

The underlying issue is racial integration, especially among college campuses. While the University of Free State first attempted to integrate campus housing in 1997, many whites resisted taking black housemates. After months of students' angry resistance and some bloodshed, the university dropped the issue.

For many whites, and particularly the larger community of whites who speak the Afrikaans language, integration is just one aspect of major social change since the beginning of black majority rule, which whites feel leaves them marginalized.

"The whole issue, and I'm not trying to defend these students, is the issue of transformation, that we have to mix the races," says Ernest Roets, a law student at University of Pretoria and leader with Solidarity Youth, a white labor union. "Some students weren't even around in the years of apartheid, and yet they are still told there are victims and perpetrators, and if you are a perpetrator, you have to pay the consequences."

"The policy of affirmative action encourages tensions," Mr. Roets adds, referring to governmental policies to benefit certain disadvantaged races for college seats and jobs.

Already, many white citizens feel their country is less welcoming, as employment in government, schools and universities, hospitals, and even business is steered toward black job applicants under Black Economic Empowerment programs of the current black-majority government. Now, Roets says, white Afrikaans speakers are seeing cultural programs chipped away as well, as universities phase out Afrikaans-language courses.

News of the video made such a splash on South African newspapers that government officials felt obliged to intervene, urging university officials to construct a policy to deal with the unfinished business of integration. Education Minister Naledi Pandor suggested that the men's dorm where the video was made, Reitz Hostel, be closed and reopened as a "centre for nonracism, peace and reconciliation."

"The question is how do we reconcile the community," says Mr. Fisher, the university spokesman. "We can turn this house into a site of healing and reconciliation. This crisis can be an opportunity as well as a challenge."

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