It was in 2004 when I and eighteen others were arrested for public violence after leading a protest against a learning environment that was skewed in favour of white students and the subjugation of black students at the University of Free State (UFS).
Having spent some of my young adult years in that institution, I was not surprised when I saw images of black students standing up against what has been a festering sore for every generation of students that walked through the gates of UFS since it started accepting black students in the early 1990s.
Likewise, I was no less surprised to see the assault that white students and their parents meted out on black students who dared to speak on behalf of their exploited parents by invading the university’s rugby pitch.
Although a majority on campus, under the guise of parallel language instruction, black students were compelled to attend classes that started only in the late afternoon with the latest class ending as late as ten o’clock at night. Throughout my years at UFS, there was a menacing acquaintance between being black and exclusion from the institution which was supposed to mould us to assume greater roles in society – the workplace and the economy.
Throngs of black students who hailed from the former Bantustan territories of Thaba Nchu and Botshabelo, located over sixty kilometres from Bloemfontein, had to take the first bus out of these areas and make their way to a university which was simply reluctant to accommodate their plight, only to journey back home late at night. Among these students, a night at the taxi rank or bus stations became too common an experience and so was walking long kilometres through the streets of Bloemfontein to the townships and the inner city that many of us came to know as home after missing the last taxi on the day. Understanding that the colour of our skin was a distinguishing mark of subjugation and exclusion, we soldiered on. All of this happened while white students, whose homes were only a stone’s throw away from campus and enjoyed the luxury of driving, occupied most of the bed space on campus.
Adding insult to injury, the dual language policy permitted the university to structure classes such that Afrikaans classes were scheduled during the day and ended around lunchtime. There are no prizes for guessing in whose benefit this system worked. For many of us, getting through university meant that we had to strike networks of solidarity based primarily on survival. Our coloured friends served as intermediaries who would attend the Afrikaans classes and brief us about the specific sections of the course that we would be examined on. This was essential because in the black-dominated English classes, lecturers made it a habit to tell us to “study everything” as “everything is important”.
The exclusion of black students extended to the cultural realm. Intervarsity catered only for the white students in Afrikaans universities such as University of Pretoria (Tukkies) and today’s North West University (Potshefstroom). Challenging this culture was always met with a hostile response. “This is Kovsie culture”, we were told.
More than a decade later, black students at UFS are still facing the same racism that Professor Jonathan Jansen has tried so hard to sweep under the carpet with his colour-blind language. Interestingly, students at the forefront of these protests were not born into apartheid. Many hail from former white schools and until now, have had no exposure to a learning environment that is unapologetic about its systematic nurturing and promotion of white supremacy.
The UFS case is a clear demonstration of what happens when you impose pseudo-reconciliation at the expense of the other. The tensions on that campus have been long simmering and have now reached boiling point. Black students and workers refuse to surrender to the racism they are subjected to on a daily basis by their white counterparts.
At the centre of grievances of the black students is the deeply rooted racism entrenched in the university system that robs them of their dignity. The conversation on race relations in post-apartheid South Africa can no longer evade the radar of our public discourse. By invading that rugby pitch and disrupting the game, the students placed South Africa’s racial polecat into the national spotlight. One can only hope that its stench will awaken those lulled by a non-racialism that renders black people invisible and allows white privilege to exist without interruption. DM
Felicity Kunene was the Secretary of the SRC at the University of the Free State between 2005 and 2006. She was also a leader of the South African Student Congress (SASCO) during the same period.
Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.