'Violent, racist and barbaric' - judge on Shimla Park brawl

Johannesburg - Professor Francis Petersen will have his hands full stamping out decades of institutionalised racism when he steps into the vice chancellor position at the University of the Free State.

He succeeds Jonathan Jansen, who stepped down at the end of August, 2016. Petersen will have to implement the recommendations of the commission established to probe allegations of racism that led to the violent clash during a rugby game in February last year.

Led by retired Constitutional Court Justice Johann van der Westhuizen, the panel was established after the events of February 22, 2016, when black protesters and rugby supporters clashed during a match at Shimla Park.

The commission also probed other allegations of racism against black student activists, staff and contract workers in the lead up to the clash.

The 87-page report entitled People not stones, which was released in November, summarises the testimonies of 43 witnesses.  

Van der Westhuizen said the conduct of white spectators who attacked the black protesters, leaving some of them unconscious, was violent, racist and barbaric.

"The protesters certainly exercised their constitutional right to demonstrate peacefully. This right should not have been denied by those who tried to end the protest with violence…" he said.

The judge said the violence would have been avoidable if police had prevented the protesters from reaching the park.

The tipping point

UFS has a stained history of racist incidents, including the 2007 Reitz Residence video 

The incident involved a video showing four white male students making the five black workers - four women and one man - down a bottle of beer, run a race, play rugby and then kneel and eat urine soaked meat.  

In the run up to the Shimla Park clash, UFS was already at a tipping point.

This was sparked by various incidents of racism, including intimidation of those who participated in the Fees Must Fall movement and the impact of the toppling of CR Swart's statue.

Van der Westhuizen said, while the pulling down of Swart’s statue and the dumping of it in a pool was technically criminal, it was a symbolic victory for protesters. 

"The question is raised whether it would have been for better for transformation, whether it would have prevented the violent destruction of property, if UFS removed the statue and renamed the law building before the protest. Or was the fall of Swart necessary within the context of the struggle playing itself out on the campus?" He said the dismantling of the statue was not simply just damage to property.

"Did anyone bother with criminal charges when the Berlin Wall or the statue of Saddam Hussain was brought down?"

Security staff and bystanders try to keep striking UFS workers and rugby supporters apart at Shimla Park. (Conrad Bornman, Netwerk24)

The aftermath

The panel found that those who witnessed the violence that erupted on the rugby field had been traumatised.

A 40-year-old worker who was knocked unconscious said he felt "ashamed", but continued to work at UFS because he needed a salary.

Meanwhile, the rugby team who were in the dressing room at the time were unaware of the violent brawl.

They won the match that day but played badly for the rest of the season.

A white student who testified before the panel cried hysterically when he described the violence and ongoing threats and racial insults, and a 21-year-old student who faced police that day suffered serious psychological damage and was close to a breakdown when he appeared before the panel.

Van der Westhuizen said the divide between rich white students and poor black students was inescapable.

"Marginalisation breeds resentment, anger and ultimately irrational aggressive conduct. This obviously applies to poor black students. It may also apply to white students who feel that they are not allowed to play a part in this country’s future; and are thus only interested to complete their studies as quickly as possible, so that they could find jobs elsewhere in the world," he said in the report.

"Yet every white student at UFS is not a racist. Many would perhaps like to contribute to the university and country," said Van der Westhuizen.

The judge said it was "very disappointing" that not a single one of the spectators had come forward to give evidence before the panel.

"The glimmer of light in the rather gloomy picture of racial conflict on the UFS campus is the fact that so many witnesses - especially students - came forward to tell their stories to the panel fully in an open hearing."

The recommendations

Among the 17 recommendations outlined, the panel said the report must be made public to students and staff.

It also stated that:
- Disciplinary steps must be taken against those who used the k-word;
- That overt or covert racism must be addressed immediately;
- Ongoing discussion on transformation is urgent;
- UFS must strive to create understanding of the frustration of white students and the anger of black students; 
- forces and individuals of ill-repute with possible racist agendas should not be allowed on campus.

UFS said in a statement that, at a meeting last month, it had drafted a transformation plan in partnership with the Student Representative Council (SRC).  

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