Bitter knowledge and black violence

2008-03-29 00:00

Two cancers eating away at South Africa have been unexpectedly exposed. The first is the perniciously stubborn nature of white racism; the second is a casual black recourse to violence as a calculated, intimidatory tool to achieve political compliance.

It is now weeks since a video surfaced of white, male Afrikaner students at the University of the Free State (UFS) demeaning black cleaners. Made in order to protest the integration of their residence, the video has a scene where a student secretly urinates on food that the cleaners are forced to eat.

The video sparked a storm of anger and dismay, both nationally and internationally, including special reports on CNN and the BBC, and South African government fury. It justifiably has been seen as evidence of pervasive, covert white racism in universities in particular and wider society in general.

Equally depressing is the unrepentant attitude of the students involved and the insouciance of their supporters, who would shrug off the incident as student japes. In fact, the video is not a silly joke gone wrong but a chilling revelation of the übermensch assumptions of these white bucks, as well as the casual cruelty of their racism.

Jonathan Jansen, the black former dean of education at the University of Pretoria, another historically white, Afrikaner university, has a compelling explanation for why such youngsters — who grew up in a post-apartheid society and were not brutalised by security force service during the border war and states of emergency — hold such outdated, rigid and self-destructive views.

Writing this week in a special issue on race and South African universities published online by University World News, Jansen calls it “knowledge in the blood”. Such “bitter knowledge”, both spoken and unspoken, is transferred to Afrikaner children mainly by their parents, the generation that supported and benefited directly from white domination in the decades before they were born. It results in a skewed world-view that is reinforced by the messages they get at church, at school, through cultural associations and from their peer group.

Jansen stresses that these children are not innately bad, wild-eyed racists. They are “decent, idealistic and committed to their country and are capable of change” but [we] as teachers and leaders in schools and universities, have failed white youth by not interrupting their troubled knowledge.”

The still reverberating UFS incident, however, is only part of the problem facing South African higher education. There is another, even darker side, to which the media and the government wilfully close their eyes.

Around the same time as the UFS incident, the South African Students’ Congress (Sasco) bused students to a protest meeting in Pretoria. Afterwards a University of Limpopo (UL) student, Nkosinathi Mhlongo, boarded the bus reserved for members of the Students Christian Organisation (SCO), one of the organisations that participated in the protest.

Instead of taking the bus reserved for Sasco, three Sasco members boarded the SCO bus. During the journey, according to the Sowetan, the three objected to the SCO students singing religious songs, and instead demanded that they sing “struggle” songs.

When the SCO students demurred, the three young men assaulted them. Mhlongo bore the brunt of the attack and was systematically beaten to death and his body then thrown out of the back window on to the road. Tellingly, the story caused barely a ripple in the South African media and internationally none at all.

As University World News notes, there appears to be two strands of human rights violations — “racism by whites against black people prompts disgust, as it should, but not the killing of a black student by other black students”. Indeed, while the chancellor of UL has waxed eloquently on the UFS incident, he has made no public reference to the murder on the SCO bus.

White racism, especially by the youth, the next generation of leaders, is an unacceptable though slow cancer. But political intolerance that manifests itself in violence — also seen in the largely unpunished country-wide murder of more than 90 security guard strike-breakers two years ago — will destroy South Africa’s democracy as surely and far more rapidly, if not addressed.

• The Race and SA Universities special report can be found at

• The unedited UFS video can be viewed on YouTube at

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