Questions have been raised about the prevalence of racism at UP after two white female students living in a university residence posted a photograph of themselves with their skin painted brown, wearing doeks and with exaggerated behinds. The incident, which has come to be known as Blackface, has resulted in the two girls being temporarily suspended from residence, pending investigation. They will also face disciplinary action from UP.

The incident has questioned underlying racism in residences at UP. UP’s residence policy reserves 50% of the places allocated to first years in residences for black students, based on the current campus demographics. However, black students say that having a room in a residence does not necessarily make them feel at home in residence.

An anonymous second year BCom student in Madelief says that she was asked to move out of her room just a week after settling in. “The HKs didn’t explain to me why but they made an excuse that the girl moving into my room had already chosen my room the previous year, but the girl was already staying in another room in the same flat. She was white,” the student said. “I was told by the housekeeper that the girl who was moving into my room said she couldn’t have a black girl living with her in the same room.”

When asked about racial integration in residences at UP, Marga Zeelie, head of Placement Management and Guest Accommodation at TuksRes said that there have been cases where students of different races requested to not share rooms. However, Zeelie says that these requests were most often based on cultural and religious differences rather than race issues.

Zeelie says that while TuksRes tries to accommodate everyone’s preferences, they encourage students of different races, cultures and religions to live together. Students that feel discriminated against are encouraged to speak to their HK, house parents or directly to TuksRes. “Our doors are open to everyone,” Zeelie said.

Many students have expressed outrage over the incident, saying the photograph is demeaning towards black women. Ntuthuko Makhombothi, president of the SA Student Congress (Sasco), said that the students’ portrayal of black women is insulting to “our black parents in a manner reminiscent of the oppression of Saartjie Baartman”.

Saartjie Baartman was a Khoikhoi woman who was taken from South Africa to Europe, in the early 1800s where she was examined by anatomy professors and exhibited to the public.

Prof. Jonathan Jansen, rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, wrote in an article for The Times on 14 August that the incident can be blamed on white and black middle class youth being “mis-educated”. Prof. Jansen also shared his thoughts, some of which appear in the article for The Times, with Perdeby.

Prof. Jansen said that the incident did not take into account the historical suffering of black women and that it does not display an awareness of the fact “the black body was for centuries the subject of ridicule and humiliation at the hands of white people”. He says that, during apartheid, black women had to endure degradation such as having to line up naked and be hosed down and beaten by white authorities after a pass law raid. He also made mention of Saartjie Baartman. Today, Prof. Jansen says, many black domestic workers have to endure verbal abuse and discrimination.

Prof. Jansen points out that the incident shows total disrespect towards black women. “That the very people who are being ridiculed are the ones who serve as domestics in white homes,” he says, adding that these women often act as “co-mothers” in raising white children.He added that exaggerating the physical features of any person for the purpose of “fun” is the worst kind of racial insult.

Finally, the incident shows no form of self-reflection, Prof. Jansen says. “You cannot insult adults like that. But of course for these white students, the word tannie applies to whites and black adults are called by their first names,” he said.

According to Prof. Jansen, first years should be taught about different races and cultures so that they can embrace diversity and address racism. “I believe a core curriculum for all first years at university that includes such a critical history of ‘the past as present’, and taught by open-minded professors, could address these concerns.” With additional reporting by Naisargi Patel.


Photo: Kirsty Mackay

Website | view posts