Posted on March 30, 2010

Black Rector Stirs Once-White S. African School

Donna Bryson, Google News, March 28, 2010

The first black leader in the 106-year history of the University of the Free State started his tenure last year with a surprise.

In his inaugural speech, rector Jonathan Jansen declared that the university would drop its criminal case against four white students accused of making a video where four black janitors eat a stew apparently spiked with urine. Jansen also offered two of the students who had been expelled the chance to resume their studies–the other two had graduated.

{snip} Some blacks were outraged, including the local head of the African National Congress Youth League, who accused Jansen of racism.

But Jansen said he was trying to start a conversation, and that racism cannot be resolved in the courts. {snip}


The furor points to the complexity of Jansen’s mandate: To integrate a university in South Africa’s conservative heartland, where blacks are still ushered to the back of restaurants. The university, virtually all white a generation ago, is now 60 percent black. But black and white students largely live and learn separately. And when Jansen took over, white students begged him, “Please don’t force us to integrate.”

He will. Jansen says preparing students for a future in a multiracial country means insisting: “If you want to study here, then you’re going to have to learn to live together.”


A University of the Free State residence is more than just a dormitory. What’s known here as a “rez” is closer to a U.S. fraternity or sorority, but with even more influence. Students take rooms in the residences where their parents once lived. They follow initiation rites that have been passed down for generations.

One residence was named for Hendrick Verwoerd, South Africa’s prime minister from 1958-1966, a period during which apartheid was entrenched and black rights decimated. The name was not changed until 2006, to Armentum, Latin for a herd of large animals such as elephants, the house’s mascot.

Most of the white students come from the surrounding province. They were nurtured in all-white schools and all-white churches in isolated farming communities where everyone spoke Afrikaans, the language of the descendants of early Dutch settlers. For more than a century, what was once known as the Orange Free State was an independent Afrikaner republic.


In 2006, the Free State administration before Jansen’s bowed to pressure and called for residences to be integrated. That’s when the now-infamous video was made. It ends with the janitors being invited to move into the residence, and then an Afrikaans phrase appears in supertitles: “This is what we really think of racial integration.”

Jansen was brought in to try integration again. He announced that the new groups going into every residence would be half black and half white. But because those already living in the residences were not affected, the houses remain largely segregated.

Jansen has already stopped one residence from forcing first-year students to bow before the statue of a residence founder.

“There you have black students bowing to a white guy they have no connection to,” he said. “There are traditions that are not shared and are offensive.”


Whether Jansen is pushing fast and hard enough for change is a matter of debate on campus. As he sat with friends at a picnic table on campus, Nande Ngxwana, a 20-year-old black student in his second year at the university, said he understood the rector’s impulse to reach out to whites.

“Can you blame a person for being racist?” he said. “I feel racism is something that was instilled in you. You grow up with it.”

But his friend Lwandile Magoda, also 20, said whites shouldn’t be excused for their racism.

“It gets to a point when you’re, like, 18, you have to think for yourself.”

Jansen said he understands that black Free State students are rankled by the lack of blacks in senior positions in a faculty that is a third white.

Jansen said one of his first acts as rector was to ask for a list of deans about to retire. There were 17, and he determined 15 would be replaced by women and blacks. But pushing whites out to make room for blacks more quickly would only repeat the mistakes of the past, when whites advanced at the expense of other groups, Jansen said.

Language is also a loaded issue: During apartheid, black students were forced to learn Afrikaans, the language of the white oppressor.

In his inaugural address, Jansen pledged to “open discussion on ways in which we can get every white student to learn Sesotho . . . and every black student to learn Afrikaans, and all our students to learn to write and speak English competently.”

Every course at the university is now offered in both Afrikaans and English. The result is that whites are isolated in the Afrikaans classes, and blacks in the English ones.

In her five years at Free State, Sune Geldenhuys, a 23-year-old white medical student, has rarely shared a class with a black student. But when students worked with patients in a black neighborhood this year, she had to turn to black students for translations. Geldenhuys said she could imagine returning to Free State to teach one day.