South Africa: Should white students who made racist video be reinstated?

The video, filmed by white South African students who fed black workers food apparently laced with urine, caused the students to be expelled. But now a black university official says they should be reinstated.

It's not easy to peddle reconciliation in South Africa these days.

Two weeks ago, the new vice chancellor of the University of Free State called for the school to reinstate four white students who were kicked out after making a racist video in which they forced black staffers to eat food that was apparently laced with urine. Criminal charges against the four students remain, but Vice Chancellor Jonathan Jansen – himself a black South African – said that the University of Free State as an institution was as much to blame for these students' behavior as the individual students were themselves, and needed to transform itself into an institution that encouraged understanding.

"To dismiss the video as a product of four bad apples is too easy an explanation. This video-recording was preceded by a long series of racial incidents protesting racial integration, especially in the residences of the university," Professor Jansen said in a speech at the University of Free State in Bloemfontein. (See full speech here.) "I have spent many nights in tears regretting what we – yes, we – did to the five black workers of the University of Free State. This institution begs your forgiveness."

Many white South Africans welcomed Mr. Jansen's speech as a sign of reconciliation, in the mold of Nobel peace prize laureates President Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu. Many blacks – and much of the leadership of the ruling African National Congress party – attacked the speech as naive and not tough enough on the racism that persists even 15 years after the fall of the white-dominated apartheid government. All of this raises troubling questions about how much has actually changed in racial attitudes in South Africa, and what it will take to bring both reconciliation and social change to segments of society that, seemingly, are not quite ready to change.

Pressure for vice chancellor

"It's quite possible that [Jansen] needed a tradeoff, since he is a black vice chancellor operating in a racist environment," says Aubrey Matshiqi, a political analyst at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. "He has to give the environment something so that the environment will give him space to carry out reforms."

"But I'm not persuaded by his logic, that the four students are products of their environment," Mr. Matshiqi adds. "If you take that logic to its conclusion, then there are many criminals who should not be in jail, because they are victims of their environment."

That the video taken at Reitz Men's residence caused such an uproar is not surprising. To have four relatively comfortable white college boys humiliating five black house cleaners and have it called humor served as a reminder that many white South Africans simply haven't changed their attitudes toward their black fellow citizens, who make up 80 percent of the country's population. Under apartheid, such attitudes of racial superiority were used as a justification to impose white rule on the country – and to impose it with force.

When the video first broadcast, the four university students defended their video as a form of harmless satire, and political commentary on what they saw as the forced integration of their university. But the video caused an uproar, far beyond the Free State. The five black cleaning staffers soon became causes célèbres of the vast South African underclass which has benefited little from 15 years of political freedom.

Jansen speech renews old debate

Now, Professor Jansen's speech – an attempt to make peace on his campus – has reignited the debate.

"The view of the department of higher education and training is that we cannot allow victims of racism to be unconditional unilateral forgivers," said Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande. "This would constitute a superficial trade off which further impugns the dignity of the victims and is unfortunately an apology for the perpetrators of racism."

The cleaning staffers, too, say they oppose the decision to readmit the four white men. "We are pained by the dropping of the charges," four of the five cleaning staffers said in a statement. "We are totally not satisfied by what Jansen said, because he took decisions without consulting us."

But the social transformation of South African society, from a racist white-dominated one to a racially plural and tolerant one, "is much bigger than Jansen," says Mr. Matshiqi. "It will continue as slowly as it is going now, and it will continue [to be] as difficult as it is, so I'm not concerned about what happens with Jansen or the University of Free State."

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