Guest Column: Sean Jacobs. When I read the reports a couple of days ago about a bunch of racist white students at a university in South Africa torturing black service staff members and then posting a video of their exploits on the internet as a warning against integrating the residences, and you wonder why Jacob Zuma fans still sing old songs about machine guns. After all the abuse that black people have had to swallow from white racists in South Africa, and then have to find it in their hearts to forgive and move on, and then to still be confronted with this savagery from a bunch of white thugs who seem to have been so confident of their impunity that they posted the evidence themselves… it’s pretty sickening. What would Gandhi do? I don’t know. But I was glad that Rootless Cosmopolitan occasional guest columnist Sean Jacobs had something to say on the matter. (He first published this in the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog.)
South Africa’s Ugly Present
By Sean Jacobs
It will be interesting to see over the next few days how western (and
South African) media (including South Africa’s racially skewed
blogosphere) will report on the racist incident on a university campus
in South Africa’s Free State (sic) province.
If you have not seen or heard about it yet, a group of white students
forced black staff to eat food that had been urinated on.
If the BBC’s tone is anything to go by, get ready for some apologetic
The BBC used scare quotes to describe the incident. As a friend
reminded me, why, in reporting an appalling recent incidence of abuse
of blacks by whites in South Africa, did the BBC opt to use quotes? The
headline reads “Outcry in SA over ‘racist’ video”. So which is it – is
it racist? Or is it merely “racist”?
I hope I am proven wrong, but I doubt we will see a serious discussion
and reportage about how racial apartheid lives on in South Africa’s
rural provinces, its small city campuses (like the University of the
Free State) and schools, as well as its small towns and farming
districts where things have not changed much.
Last June, I visited the district in Small Karoo (Klein Karoo in
Afrikaans) where my mother was born. She’s the daughter of farm workers
who moved to Cape Town as a young woman in the 1960s to do domestic
work for whites. We witnessed the still-feudal labour and living
conditions that still exist there, and are very similar, she reminded
me, to when she was a child.
I am also reminded of a trip I took with three other friends (two black
and one white American) to the Oppikoppi music festival in the North
West Province a few years back (this was after 2000). We were settling
in at the camp ground when a car with the flag of the 19th century
white Afrikaner republic drove past our camping spot and the occupants,
looking in our direction, gestured: “Wat maak die kaffers hier?”
(Literally translated: “What are the niggers doing here?”)
We also now learn that the racist students at the Free State University
were not just a few bad apples. The case highlights a greater,
institutional culture at the university that tolerated this kind of
behaviour. That black people had been complaining for a while about
racist incidents. These included “… an advert on the university
intranet system requesting a roommate who ‘should not be black and
should be Christian’, dehumanising initiation practices and lecturers
making fun of a student with an albinism condition.”
Watch over the next few days as the victims get blamed. For being the
“collateral damage” of “racial tensions” on the campus, or the result
of too much integration of the university’s residences by “pushy” black
students. And the protests already under way will be scrutinised; the
behaviour of protesters and protest leaders will be judged in terms of
how “responsible” they are in keeping black “anger” in check. There
will be calls for the situation to calm down so we can get things back
Some will also hope, like the “liberal” South African Institute for
Race Relations has already done, that this mess will go away, as it
bedevils “race relations” and South Africa’s “reputation”.
What they mean is that the current set-up, by which South Africa is the
most unequal country in the world along racial lines, will be
threatened. As if the current set-up is the best thing South Africa can
afford. My wife has a phrase to describe white liberal sensibilities in
South Africa: “Freedom is [the] freedom to get in line behind us.”
Already in some quarters (the “racial tensions” framers like the leader
of the “opposition” Democratic Alliance) there are attempts to give
equal weight to the University of the Free State incident and the
recent murder of four black people by a young white man in the
country’s northwest on the one hand, and on the other the frivolous
charge by white journalists that they were denied entrance to a meeting
by the private Forum of Black Journalists. (On the latter issue, there
is nothing wrong in principle with a black journalists’ forum, given
the history of that profession in South Africa. That is not the same as
having an opinion about the people currently running it.)
The larger context is, of course, that it has become an article of
faith inside and outside South Africa (and in some quarters within the
country, especially among white liberals), as well as among those with
an interest in developments there (including foreign journalists),
• Overt racism is a thing of the past.
• That the changes from white minority control to a more equitable
society are moving too fast.
• That blacks expect too much.
• That the changes since 1994 are all “reverse racism”.
• That the current state of affairs should be laid at the door of the
Yes, it is true that every day in South Africa, black people are not
forced to eat food laced with urine by whites, dragged behind trucks,
fed to lions or murdered for no other reason than they are not white.
It is also true that not all whites act like this.
And it is certainly the case that since 1994 South Africa has been
governed by a democratic government. The faces of the national
government, and the majority of provincial and city governments today,
are black faces, be they Thabo Mbeki at national level, Beatrice
Marshoff at provincial level in the Free State or Gertrude Mothupi,
mayor of Bloemfontein, the city where the University of the Free State
Since 1994 the size and relative wealth of Africans, and blacks in
general, as a class have grown considerably, whether personified by the
success of communications magnate Cyril Ramaphosa or mining
entrepreneur Patrice Motsepe. As the Guardian reported in 2004:
“A decade later, according to the department of trade and industry,
black people have moved from zero to 10% of company ownership and
occupy 15% of skilled positions. The richest black people’s incomes
have risen 30% and you see them spending it in air-conditioned shopping
malls and pricey restaurants.”
This is encouraging, but note, however, that blacks comprise about
80-85% of the population.
So while it is true that blacks and whites at the top are integrated
(and the Forum for Black Journalists “dispute” reflects the kind of
politics of this “new” non-racial elite), outside of this small
stratum, the worlds of whites and black South Africans are, to a great
extent, still separate ones.
The rate of intermarriage is negligible; integrated neighbourhoods like
those in soap operas are, with a few urban exceptions, quite literally
a fiction. Working together in an office does not qualify as
Today, 61% of blacks are considered poor, as compared to 1% of whites.
According to government statistics, about one in ten African adults
suffers from malnourishment and at least one in four African children
suffer from stunted growth. Only 17% of “coloured” households and 10%
of African households earn incomes to put them in into the top income
quintile. By contrast, 65% of white households are in the top quintile.
And while crime is rampant, and does not discriminate on the basis of
race, the majority of victims of crime are black.
The University of the Free State and this state of affairs are the real
racism(s) in South Africa.