Race policy, or glorified foot-bath?

By Ricardo Pillay and Monique Senekal

“Many white students have come to Rhodes University with the hope of getting a white education and the university allows for that,” says Beata Mtyingizara, a sociology lecturer. Consequently, “this is a place where they [white students] can exercise their whiteness freely”.

A small group of Sociology 1 students recently accused a lecturer on the grounds of alleged racism and incompetence. The students lodged a formal complaint citing the lecturer’s alleged racist behaviour and her constant references to Apartheid as offensive and unhelpful. The lecturer, who does not yet wish to be named, has received emails containing strong and prejudicial language since the incident began. Though an inquiry has been initiated to investigate, the incident has caused the position of the university’s policy on racism to be questioned.

A sociology student, who wishes to remain anonymous, said “I don’t have a problem with her as a person; she is just a useless lecturer. I never really know what’s going on.” 

Mtyingizara acknowledges that there have been racial problems in the department. She says these problems are being addressed but the situation is too sensitive for open public discussion.

She commented that “it’s not about punishment of students with racist views,” but rather about “opening such issues to debate as this would be helpful to students who hold these outdated views.”

When asked about her experiences as one of few black lecturers at the university, she said that it is “extremely difficult being black here,” adding that students and even colleagues at the university view “blackness” as “secondary and inferior.”

For students the issue is whether Rhodes University is doing enough within its various faculties to tackle the topic of racism amongst students and lecturers. Furthermore, should such sensitive and specific cases be made public? In many cases students seem unaware of any racial tension on campus. 

The recent case of Adriaan Vlok, Security Minister in the late 1980s, who turned to a bowl of water as redemption for his past atrocities, can be seen as an analogy to the University’s inadequate attempts of handling racism.  According to Reverend Frank Chikane former head of the South African Council of Churches and a direct victim of Vlok, “…he [Vlok] picked up a glass of water, opened his bag, pulled out a bowl, put the water in the bowl, took out the towel, said ‘you must allow me to do this’ and washed my feet in my office.”

Just as opinions are divided on the university’s racial policy, the sincerity of Vlok’s gestures has also received a mixed report. President Thabo Mbeki described the action as the gesture of a committed Christian “who said that if Jesus Christ could do it, he could also.” The former minister has also acquired the praise of the South African Council of Churches. 

Former activist Shirley Gunn, who was detained with her baby son for more than two months during the apartheid era, described the foot-washing gesture as “provocative and insensitive.”

 “I still haven’t got the truth out of him [Vlok] about what happened to me,” Gunn said. “He can’t just wash Frank Chikane’s feet and think that is the end of it.”

Similarly, Rhodes University cannot simply wash away the effects of racism. Mtyingizara said that these problems have gained outside media interest and attention from the Education department.

The incident has stirred much confusion within sociology classes.  Arnzette du Plessis, a Sociology 1 student, felt that the perpetrators are “ridiculous, over reactive and childish.” Another student, who asked not to be named, commented that the lecturer “is not racist” and that “the only people who are racist are the white students.” The majority of students are left in the dark created by the department’s silence around the incident. 

Unfortunately, the students who lodged the complaint were unavailable for comment.

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