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We're sorry, UFS students say

2008-02-29 11:17

Bloemfontein - Two students behind an alleged racist video in which five black university workers appear to be duped into eating food apparently tainted with urine have apologised and said they acted without malice.

Roelof Malherbe and Schalk van der Merwe, who have been banned from the campus of the University of the Free State, said on Friday that although it appeared as if the food had been urinated on, a "harmless" liquid had been squirted from a bottle.

The video, which showed four middle-aged women and one man on their knees eating the food, has been seen around the world, exposing deep racial tensions in the country, more than a decade after racist white rule ended.

The two students said they had been "crucified as racists" and regretted making the film, meant as a "satirical slant" on the issue of racial integration at the university hostels.

Malherbe and Van der Merwe are "not racists and, most certainly, had no intention of humiliating or degrading the employees concerned or black people in general or of detrimentally affecting their dignity", the statement said.

However, it said, the students "now regret having participated in the making of the film" and "apologise for any embarrassment which they may, unintentionally, have caused to any person or group of persons, including their parents".

'We feel pain'

Authorities at the university have launched a criminal probe into the making of the video. Two former students from the Reitz men's residence, Danie Grobler and Johnny Roberts, were also involved in the incident.

On Thursday the four female university workers expressed their hurt at the video and said they had not been aware of what they were participating in, believing they were taking part in a competition.

"We feel pain," said Emma Koko, 40, who has been working for the university for 20 years and whose son attends classes there. "It's something we were not expecting. We regard them (the students) as our children."

The video depicts a mock initiation ceremony into a campus residence, with the middle-aged black cleaners portraying students. The workers seem to know and trust the students in the video, laughing as they try to eat the food while on their knees. But according to the video footage, one of the students urinated on the food beforehand, unknown to the cleaners.

Commentary on the video in Afrikaans included sarcastic reference to the university's policy of integrating the campus dorms - being phased in only this year, 14 years after the end of apartheid.

'Brew not contaminated'

The university in Bloemfontein, is regarded as a bastion for Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch settlers who are often most closely linked with white apartheid rule.

In the statement, the two students said that the four women workers were "loyal friends" and took part voluntarily in the making of the film and "as is evident clearly enjoyed it".

The students said the workers knew the film was being made, what its purpose was and that the "brew was not contaminated".

The statement went on to say that it was "suspected that the film was published with malicious intent at a time when it would - and apparently did - purport to serve the purpose of demonstrating racism on the campus and within the particular hostel."

On Wednesday police had to use a stun grenade to disperse stone-throwing students protesting the video, and classes were cancelled. On Thursday calm had returned to the rambling campus with its neat lawns.

However, as the university swarmed with local and international journalists on Thursday, talk on radio shows and coffee shops in Bloemfontein was about the shocking betrayal of the relationship between the women and the students.

University rector Frederick Fourie said he had been reduced to tears by the incident and the students' duplicity.

"Their actions were despicable. The packaging (of the footage) was humiliating. That was not unplanned," he said.

Struggle with integration

Fourie acknowledged integration at the school was "not perfect" and "not sufficient".

The university, known for its good science departments, is one of a handful of tertiary institutions set up for the Afrikaans elite across the country. They all have high academic standards but are seen as conservative and have struggled with racial integration since opening their doors to black students in the early 1990s.

Black students make up 60% of the Free State university's 25 000-strong student body. Most of the support staff are black but more than 80% of teaching staff are still white.

Students say racial tension on the campus is high and that the residence where the video was made has a particularly bad reputation.

Black commerce student Mpho Mothibi, 24, said she had dogs set on her by Reitz residents during an inter-dorm event three years ago. "This is not the first time there has been an incident with the residence," she said.