According to state prosecutor Nathan Johnson, there have been at least 10 race-related cases in the Cape Town courts over the past year. In at least two, the perpetrators have been students enrolled at the University of Cape Town. This prompted the university's vice chancellor, Max Price, to write a letter to the students' representative council explaining that the university's management is investigating and will, if deemed necessary, take action against the students after following due process.
But in the letter, Price makes the same mistake other vice chancellors at South African universities have in response to racial incidents on their campuses or involving their students.
He is at pains to write off the two students – Djavan Arrigone, who allegedly urinated on and hurled racist abuse at a black taxi driver, and another student involved in a racially motivated attack on Delia Adonis and another unnamed man – as exceptions to the normal way of being for UCT students and staff.
Some of your best friends are black?
“By far the greatest majority of our students and staff, across all demographics, act in a decent manner and play an active role on a daily basis to break down stereotypes, to work against racism and sexism, to reject any form of violence,” Price writes.
His evidence for this is witnessing students in interracial relationships on campus and working in racially integrated societies like Shawco, doing good deeds in Khayelitsha, Manenberg, Nyanga and other poor, black communities. It's akin saying “I'm not racist. I have black friends” when accused of having done or said something racist. Or claiming that previous good acts towards black people somehow have made you incapable of being party to any future racist acts.
This is of course preposterous. Even black people are capable of actions that in effect perpetuate and enable anti-black racism, as deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa demonstrated in Marikana. In his role as Lonmin Plc's messenger to the government, Ramaphosa acted as a catalyst for government-sponsored violence that, by historical design, was borne by the bodies of black people only.
Thus having black friends, or having been nice to black people once upon a time, is no guarantee that you're incapable of racism.
Oppression is systemic
Further betraying a poor understanding of what racism really is, Price goes as far as to suggest that saying that the actions of the two students are manifestations of ways of being shared by UCT's student body is in itself racist. But this is exactly my argument. It was Price's, too, earlier in the letter.
Earlier, he appears to recognise that because this is a country built on white supremacy and anti-blackness, racism in its various permutations victimises black people and pervades UCT, as it does the rest of South African society. But Price doesn't follow this earlier reasoning through to the end logically. He instead portrays the egregious instances of alleged racism by the two students as exceptions instead of extremes on a continuum of the norm, which his reasoning earlier in the letter would present them to be.
Indeed this is how most people respond to similarly egregious instances of racism, sexism, classism and other oppressions: defensively.
We credit ourselves, those we know and our institutions with being “not like them [the perpetrators]” without having done the hard work of mentally and materially disinvesting from oppression. Those who've done the hard work know that responding to these instances of alleged racism by UCT students by saying “not all UCT students and staff are like that”, as Price effectively does, is a waste of time. Such a response ignores the systemic and multifarious way oppression manifests and positions speaking out against it as a problem when the real problem is the oppression itself.
Life orientation's a start
Price's response mirrors how Jonathan Jansen at University of Free State and Cheryl de la Rey at University of Pretoria responded over the past year to allegations of egregious racial incidents at their universities. They both responded as though these incidents were exceptions. This is a grave error.
Institutions like schools and university campuses can and should be places where there exist compulsory formal programmes for the entire cohort of students and staff to grapple with the racism, sexism, classism and other prejudices embedded deeply in our past and present. Leopoldt van Huyssteen, Stellenbosch University's acting vice chancellor, appeared to acknowledge this after two students dressed in blackface earlier this year. He suggested that the incident was a learning opportunity for the rest of the university but stopped short of suggesting a formal programme's necessary.
Jansen in particular has in the past insisted that the kinds of things taught in such programmes should not be taught at schools (and presumably not a universities either). He said they should be taught at home, by parents. This was in reference to life orientation, a subject taught only in schools. The basic education department defines the subject as “the study of the self in relation to others and to society”.
We can disagree on whether what is currently being taught in life orientation is relevant and whether how it's being taught is effective. But I cannot see how, given this country's history, anyone could disagree that we could all do with a formal, structured and guided study of ourselves, our histories and personal positions in relation to others and society. And even that is only a start of a longer, much more involved process.
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