‘Lost their moral compass’

2010-08-01 11:09

Of the 22 886 Free State University students on campus in 2007, there were no blacks “available to participate” in Schalk van der Merwe, Johan Roberts, Roelof Malherbe and Daniel Grobler’s mock initiation video.

They opted to recruit five middle-aged cleaning staff from their hostel to dance to sakkie-sakkie music, sprint unsteadily down a racetrack and pretend to eat garlic-laced ­porridge – all the while being goaded by four white men in their twenties calling them “difebe” (sluts).

But the young men the media have christened the Reitz Four maintained throughout their trial that they never meant to humiliate the cleaners.

On the contrary, “a very good relationship existed between them”.

This week, Bloemfontein magistrate Mziwonke Hinxa was having none of it.

The men, he said, had “lost their moral compass” and should pay the price.

The price was a R20 000 fine, or 12 months’ imprisonment – one of the highest amounts ever awarded by the courts for crimen injuria.

The Reitz Four sat impassively in the dock, one of them chewing gum.

Three rows behind them sat the five cleaners, who in court papers and ­media interviews said they had treated the boys like their own children while working at Reitz hostel.

Flanked by two journalists, a white couple sat stony-faced, the woman clutching her husband’s arm, as the magistrate explained that the fine was designed to punish the accused, and not their parents.

“The sentences,” said the magistrate, should take the men’s personal circumstances, such as their ages, ­into account and “must be tempered with a measure of mercy”.

Although there was “no doubt” the incident was motivated by racism, the court had to take into account the hardships the four had suffered since the video ­surfaced three years ago.

Several black students interviewed on campus the night before the sentencing said they knew the true extent of hardship that came with studying on a campus where they were “the ­majority, but still a minority”.

A poster of a beaming Professor Jonathan Jansen, the first black rector of the university, greets visitors to the sprawling campus.

Jansen courted controversy in 2008 when he ­announced that the university would not expel the offending students.

Dineo Motsapi, a 21-year-old BCom student, has lived in Bloemfontein her entire life and, given her age, has never experienced apartheid.

But she is waiting to graduate so she can move on “to better places”.

The men, she predicts, will get a slap on the wrist and campus life – and racism – will go on.

Race remains the dominant prism through which students interact.

Malefu Matabane* is a third-year medical student.

She thinks the men should “not be made to get away with it”.

But she is adamant that the ­incident is isolated.

Both women say the men should have been ostracised by the university when the incident first came to light.

“Things should have played out without interference, especially since Jansen wasn’t even here when it ­happened,” Motsapi says.

The Reitz Four say they made the video at an emotionally trying time, when the university’s administration was forcibly integrating the hostels.

Quotas would be introduced – “even for the rugby”.

The university’s residence placement policy aims for a “diversity ­ratio” with first-year students and calls for a 50-50 system in an attempt to integrate student housing.

Richard Gqiba, a first-year BA ­student from Queenstown, lives off campus because he wasn’t accepted at one of the men’s hostels, Kyalami.

“Ja, they said ‘not admitted’,” his friend chips in.

Gqiba and his friends don’t socialise much with white students.

Neo Mamoole (24) is a first-year student from Lesotho.

He says racism on campus is isolated and “nothing to write home about”.

He has two white friends.

“But there is that fine line. Once or twice, they may cross it, but not always,” he adds.

The Reitz building stands half­empty, enclosed by white palisades.

From an adjacent building, laughter, the roar of a distant car engine and the strains of pop music punctuate the night air.

The infamous hostel was closed two years ago and will be turned into a ­centre for reconciliation studies.

A student saunters to the fence. “Yes, this is Reitz,” he says. “But it’s got some long funny name now.”

He isn’t interested in talking about the case.

But other students say it is ­indicative of the daily erosion of their self-esteem as black students.

“Even though we pretend we don’t care, it lives in our hearts that we are in a white university,” says Gqiba.

* Real name withheld 

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