Strike exposes racism

2008-03-25 00:00

Here’s what the newspapers did not report — when the students from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) were shot on Tuesday morning, it was a racist attack by the police.

Before firing rubber bullets into the students who were protesting against UKZN’s accommodation crisis, the cops repeatedly shouted: “Let’s just shoot these kaffirs.”

This is not an allegation, it is a fact. It did happen. The cops were white. The students were black. This is the attitude of our police force in Pietermaritzburg. It’s disgraceful.

Students were arrested for marching on a public road — a road which students are obligated to use if they want to get from the main campus to the life sciences campus. How else were the students expected to move between the two campuses?

While arresting students for this technical crime, the cops continued to hurl their racist insults, telling students that “just because you’re in university doesn’t make you clever. You are still a kaffir.” This continued after a group of students were taken into custody and thrown into jail for the day. The few who were shot had to be taken to the hospital.

A member of the Student Representative Council (SRC) commented that if this were a group of white students on the road, nobody would have been shot.

There’s no denying that South Africa is a racist place in which to live. It’s an unfortunate fact of life. If these cops believe that blacks are inferior to whites, so be it. Entire generations of people are stuck in this way of thinking, a product of their apartheid-era upbringing. But, when that racist belief is used as an excuse to abuse a position of power, then a dangerous boundary has been crossed. We need ac-countability and these cops need to be reprimanded.

Another incident also needs attention. This time, black student protesters were being racist. Commerce students in an honours class were forced to leave their lecture venue by an angry, unruly mob of strikers, in a manner that justifies me calling them a mob. As a group of white women left their class, the protesters yelled “Go back to the Free State.” This is disappointing. It has no place at our university.

We are fortunate at UKZN to have a diverse mix of students. This is important because it gives us the opportunity for cross-cultural interaction, which will eventually affect our interactions beyond the university environment. One South African Student’s Congress (Sasco) leader was apologetic for the behaviour of his members, but this is not enough. The good name of Sasco is built on a tradition of non-racism and, I would assume, dignity. It must be maintained.

The strike is certainly not trivial — first year students don’t have beds to sleep on and this is a monumental blunder by the university. But the fact that strikers were almost entirely black students sends out a loud message about the nature of race relations on campus, and in society. Whites and Indians were merely curious onlookers as the black protesters voiced their grievances. Despite our multi-racial, generally friendly campus, when serious issues need to be fought, solidarity does not exist.

As one coloured guy said: “After class was cancelled I went for coffee with my friends. I’m not going to toyi-toyi for something that in no way affects me. They are making their issue everybody’s problem. It’s a selfish way of behaving. If others were interested in their cause, they would be there marching with them. ”

It’s a point well made. You cannot force people to believe in a cause. But you certainly should not assume they’re racist if they refuse to join a strike, no matter how important the issues may be.

The strike has exposed a lot. Firstly, racism is easily disguised when everything is okay, but when troubled times arise emotions get the better of people. Telling white students to voertsek just because they don’t want to stop their academic programme is an infringement on their rights. The right to strike comes with the right not to strike.

Secondly, the police are meant to protect all of us, equally and without bias.

Thirdly, these racist incidents must not trivialise the more important issue — accommodation. UKZN’s managerial incompetence is reaching new levels. Four hundred students are living in absurd conditions, sharing a single bed because their room was doubled booked by an incompetent person .

But it is clear that even when the strike is over, our university, our city, and our society have many other problems that need urgent attention. Racism, apathy, and incompetence must be addressed.

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