Campus race wars: Why we fight each other

English and Afrikaans students on the main campus of the University of Pretoria during a clash over the university’s medium of instruction. Picture: Deaan Vivier
English and Afrikaans students on the main campus of the University of Pretoria during a clash over the university’s medium of instruction. Picture: Deaan Vivier

University battles have highlighted the brittle nature of nonracialism in post-apartheid SA. Kallie Kriel, Vuyani Pambo and Gabrie Jansen offer their thoughts on why the campuses flared into chaos and what can be done to contain the flames of fury fed by 'otherness'


The attack on protesting black students at the University of the Free State (UFS) does not come as a surprise, given the history of universities in South Africa. Black students inherently have a nervous relationship with the university. It stems from the reality that they can be removed as and when the university wishes, and thus black students are fungible. Students navigate campus with a sense of copious gratitude and an attitude of “I am fortunate to be here, let me make the most of it”.

The university space convinces us that the deficiency lies in us as opposed to the university itself. We do think that there is something wrong with this place that alienates us, makes us and the history of our people seem trivial and unnecessary.

It presents itself as an expert, all-knowing, even on subjects that pertain to the lived experience of the black people, without inviting them to engage with it and to allow the space for the rejection of the conclusions that it has drawn. The knowledge repository is full, and those who dare to question are labelled rebels when they destroy artefacts that preserve a history they cannot be proud of.

In particular, under the leadership of Professor Jonathan Jansen as vice-chancellor, racists have found refuge at UFS. Student relations have always been fractured. The fracturing exists in how residences are allocated and which students get sent where.

The fracturing is evident in the institutional culture of the university, the names of the buildings, and who is celebrated and who remains forgotten. Fees are an exclusionary measure.

They are not a common issue for all. If this were the case, we would have seen a greater turnout of students who aren’t black at the picket lines supporting the free education movement. But this was not the case. Black students were the soldiers at the forefront and had to face police brutality, tear gas and rubber bullets for the benefit of ALL, as the campaign suggested: Free Education for All.

At universities such as Free State we’ve seen black workers being made to drink urine. However, the perpetrators faced minimal consequences under the support of Jansen, the master coon. Not too far behind, at the University of Pretoria, we witnessed the denigration of the black female body using black face paint at parties. This behaviour demonstrates to us whites’ natural disposition towards blacks.

#FeesMustFall is a movement that has caused a rupture in the false unity that has been imposed on us.

“We will remember our enemies by our scars.” But even still, fees must fall.

There has always been a race war – a cold race war – on our campuses. All that is happening now is black students are saying “we cannot take it any more”.

Students are not just speaking out. They are putting their bodies on the line and insisting that the university cannot continue to operate as usual while black children are excluded and, when they are included, be expected to adhere to white norms and forms of being. No one can determine how far this beautiful and disgusting moment will last, and that is fine. Black students have not retaliated to the violence they suffer.

The reaction by the students is not proportionate to the damage that is done to black students daily in universities. Blacks are being emptied of themselves and to fill the void they are left to look up to whiteness as a way out. But what is clear is that the South African university will never be the same and shouldn’t be. As students we are determined to decolonise these universities and at the heart of our struggle is imagination. Right now our struggle has no limit; its limit is imagination.

It’s not a coincidence that this year is the 40th anniversary of the Soweto uprising, June 16 1976, and students across campuses are rising and shouting NO to Afrikaans, NO to fees. The spirits of Biko, Tiro, Sobukwe are leading us.

Pambo is a student leader


The campus of the University of Pretoria closed after student protests and clashes between groups of students.

The issue has been framed as Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) students demanding the complete removal of Afrikaans from campus, forcefully opposed by AfriForum students.

Max du Preez, for Netwerk24, wrote an open letter to Afrikaans students calling on them to imagine the personal reality of those they are opposing and to then ask, listen and communicate.

The suggested dialogue is the only sensible approach and it is reasonable to ask Afrikaans students to reach out.

As for University of Pretoria management, they’ve been asleep for years, as shown by their failure to engineer open dialogue between the various and diverse groups.

The result is an emotional showdown between feeling excluded and feeling a threat to identity; feedback that spotlights differences in skin colour.

Focusing on own negative feeling obscures the ability to see the legitimate pain and/or fear of the other – hence the dire need for communication.

Commentators and the media concluded that the issue was language (not unreasonably so, from the EFF memorandum).

However, the language demands are only the perceived solution to the underlying problem of exclusion.

This fundamental issue at University of Pretoria is created by the culture inside residences, as identified by the EFF clause that states: Residence and day house cultures are ... biggest perpetrators [of prejudice].

It appears there was little, if any, change from the early 1990s when I was a student in an Afrikaans residence (not at University of Pretoria, but rugby and the Dutch Reformed Church were universal).

The valid negative experience of this culture, at its root, was identified as synonymous with Afrikaans. This led to the demands being expanded so as to make it easy to wrongly conclude that the fundamental issue was a language.

The culture inside these residences is authoritarian and forcibly homogenous, even if not overtly or covertly racist. There exists definitive intolerance of diversity of any kind, even if only through the selfish advancement of own world-views.

Otherisation follows and causes alienation. The tension between groups feeds on the groups being ignorant of each other’s world-views and experiences. There is a lack of comprehension of humanity of the other. This can only be addressed through sincere communication and it does not matter who reaches out first.

Leadership at various levels of the institution and student body, but not the “uncles of AfriForum” (Max du Preez’s warning) or any other similar (or not-so-similar group), need to get student-level conversations going to fight otherisation.

General points can easily be made applicable to at least some other campuses (don’t read “Afrikaans” into that). Furthermore, the lack of sincere and equal communication extends to our society in general (we work together and even attend work functions together, but we don’t visit each other at home).

The lack of knowing the other and the avoidance of anything unfamiliar manifest in the growing tension in South Africa that appears as differences in skin colour.

This is only millimetres away from distinctions such as nationality, gender and sexual orientation. South Africans can realise their potential to set a global example of inclusive diversity.

Emotions are at a level that creates a real obstacle, but this can be overcome.

I challenge the university and all its students: get to know the other. Ditto South Africa.

Jansen is a freelance writer


The disturbing scenes of violence on South African university campuses may, at first glance, create the impression that a race war is raging on these campuses. Fortunately for all of us, this is not the case.

The majority of students, black and white, including members affiliated to AfriForum Youth, would like to continue their studies peacefully in a campus environment where relations are characterised by mutual recognition and respect.

What we see on campuses is the work of a small group of Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) aggressors. They stir up unrest with their violent, provocative and disruptive behaviour. These aggressors are, in many cases, prompted by a few extreme left (mostly white) lecturers.

The protests on campuses began last year with a fair claim that fees should be more affordable. This was actively supported by a large number of students from different communities. But the EFF has opportunistically jumped on the bandwagon, hijacked the protests and turned them into a destructive movement.

The formula used by the EFF is simple: disrupt classes, commit vandalism, use violence and victimise the non-participating students to ensure that they, the majority who want to carry on with their studies, keep quiet and do nothing.

Pusillanimous university managements then ignore the interests of the majority of students and try to appease EFF aggressors by not acting firmly against them, and by giving in to their demands without resistance. What the university managements apparently do not realise is that the EFF squad cannot be appeased.

It is in the interest of everyone in the country and the country’s economy that campus disruptors should no longer be allowed to get away with their illegal actions. They have every right to protest peacefully, but they definitely do not have the right to use violence and disruption to the detriment of other students. The sad events at the University of Pretoria last week started with a small group of EFF supporters who disrupted Afrikaans classes, assaulted Afrikaans students and made anti-Afrikaans, racist comments.

Again the university management tried to pacify the EFF instead of acting firmly.

In the absence of action by the authorities, the students who have been targeted by the EFF decided, for understandable reasons, to show their opposition peacefully by forming human chains to prevent further disruption and attacks. This group of students defended themselves only after the EFF members hit them with bottles and other objects.

This was not a racial battle; it was a group of EFF aggressors, who are a small minority on campus, who confronted the Afrikaans student community.

The repetition of this kind of incident should be prevented.

AfriForum, therefore, insists that university managements, in cooperation with their security services, follow a zero-tolerance policy regarding any group of students that disrupts classes, vandalises campuses, perpetrates violence and utters racist hate speech. If this happens, peaceful students will not have to protect themselves.

Secondly, the majority of students, black and white, must act as a united front against those causing trouble and unrest.

This will send a clear message to the EFF that the majority of students want to study and that they are not happy with the EFF’s efforts to promote polarisation and violence.

AfriForum is negotiating with a variety of stakeholders to ensure that black and white together take a stand against this disruption.

Conflict resolution forums are to be established so students and student organisations can peacefully discuss their grievances.

AfriForum holds out a hand of peace and cooperation to everyone who wants to ensure that education on our campuses continues peacefully. Cooperation in this regard, despite our differences, is in our mutual interest.

Kriel is CEO of AfriForum


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