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By Console Tleane | Oct 28, 2009 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

FOR many people, the announcement by University of Free State rector Professor Jonathan Jansen that more consultation will be open to all may signal a change of mind, and heart, on the side of UFS.

The about-turn has surely been brought about by the criticism and pressure that has been mounting on Jansen.

Overall, the points raised by those criticising UFS strike all the right chords and indicate that many have not forgotten where we come from as a country, and remember the path we should adopt in order that we may realise ouraspirations.

The consultation process announced by Jansen should not simply be aimed at ensuring that there is superficial consensus. The consultation should go to the crux of this debacle.

There is a need to go deeper into issues of race, class and gender that the university seems to have ignored, or is blind to. First, the move to withdraw charges betrayed a disturbing obliviousness to the interplay of these three intertwined social categories.

UFS should be sensitive to the racial connotations that the earlier decision of withdrawing charges against the students imply. On a number of cases involving the ill-treatment of black people by certain white people, the unavoidable conclusion reached has always been that black life continues to be treated with contempt.

This is often exacerbated by the fact that in some of these cases, arbitration structures such as the courts have at times found in favour of the perpetrators of racist acts.

For many, such instances suggest that black people cannot even have recourse to institutions that are supposed to protect them. It is either that the perpetrators escape with light sentences or they succeed to appeal cases in the higher courts and are thereafter set free.

At the heart of the decision by UFS to drop the charges is the perpetuation of white power over continuing black suffering.

As Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande correctly argued in a radio interview, had the students been black and a decision to drop the charges were mooted, there would be accusations of a big cover-up.

For the liberal folk who argue that the dropping of charges was a "correct step towards reconciliation" there does not seem to be anything odd with the fact that the students violated Section 10 of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, which guarantees citizens "inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected andprotected".

UFS's decision seemed to have been concerned only with forgiving the perpetrators, and the need for them to complete their studies.

What about the thousands of black students who are made to drop out from their studies for reasons such as inability to pay fees, while universities have millions of rands in reserves?

There was little concern for the restoration of dignity to the victims, and to send out a strong message that racism will not be tolerated. In a way, UFS's move threatened to take us many years back, when the conquerors knew that the vanquished could do little but endure the oppression meted out to them.

If blatant acts of racism can be tolerated, then we have to ask why we fought apartheid at all?

The second element that the decision betrayed is the class dimension to the whole matter. By rushing to pardon the students and curtailing the due process that was put in place, UFS may have unwittingly succumbed to the whims of the rich and powerful against the working class.

Instead of sending a powerful message that a university is a place where perceived prejudices and exercise of power by the elite are questioned, the leadership confirmed that the rich can do as they wish against the working class, and may get away with it.

The image of the five black workers being made to perform humiliating acts in front of those young men from rich backgrounds reminds one of the spectacles that were held by the ruling classes during the era of the Roman Empire or the 17th century French elite.

They were the modern-day black gladiators, or our grandmother Sarah Baartman, feeding the backward instincts of the ruling class to humiliate the poor in public and turn them into nothing but performing sub-humans.

It is this understanding that those who have criticised the workers for allowing themselves to be humiliated by students young enough to be their own sons must take into consideration; that what was at play was not so much a display of black inferiority complex. Instead, it was mainly a confluence of race and class power in their most barbaric form.

The images in the video tape reminds one of the early American slave masters who would marvel at the "wonderful performances" by African slaves.

Indeed, the young men were effectively being told that it was okay to have played out in public the exploits of rich children and how they humiliate domestic workers on a daily basis, behind the high walls of the rich suburbs.

The last dimension of this sad episode is how racially motivated sexist trappings are being tolerated, and unwittingly defended.

In the era when many agree that we need to shed our deep-seated chauvinistic thoughts and practices, the university seemed not to have given enough thought to the fact that letting those boys off the hook can be interpreted to mean that it is "okay" to ill-treat women (not to discount the presence of the man as the fifth victim) and humiliate them in the manner contained in those dirty videos.

And black women activists would be correct to ask: would the decision to let the young men off the hook been taken if the victims were white men? Not that such a thing would even happen.

UFS claims that the incident will be used to build bridges between different races , and that the four students have been punished enough. They are wrong.

And what about the pain of the black workers?

For all intents and purposes, the message that UFS was sending, and may still send unless the earlier decision is completely revoked, is that your dignity is worth trampling on if you are a black working class person, more so a black woman. That can't be progress. It is called retrogression, is dangerous and must therefore be opposed.

As a centre of enlightenment, a university must naturally be a place where archaic and backward thoughts and tendencies are fought (against).

For Jansen, he has unfortunately almost destroyed in one stroke the reputation of a critical academic that he had built over many years.

He now has a chance to reverse that by making sure that the consultation that he is talking about means only one thing - that the charges against the students are reinstated and the law is allowed to take its course.

lTleane works for the Tshwane municipality. He writes in his personal capacity.


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