Sello S Alcock
Sello S Alcock

Race relations: It’s about human rights, silly!

It was in his 2000 State of the Nation address that President Thabo Mbeki — after reading an email by a white engineer that had at the core of its message the many ways black South African rulers had messed up the country, presumably for the previously advantaged minority — quoted Bertold Brecht, mainly, to warn ominously: “The bitch is in heat again.”

At the time, I had just entered the working world after having just concluded my studies at the then Rand Afrikaanse Universiteit and was full of hope for this country. That speech shook my foundation, but I could understand why some South Africans still felt the need to show their true colours, as it had only been at the early stages of South Africa’s young democracy.

That engineer’s behaviour, though totally unacceptable, I felt was just the fallout from a negotiated settlement that some quarters of South African society had not accepted.

I could not, however, help feeling even then that our new democracy was characterised by what I can only describe as suffocation. It’s the feeling that most South Africans get as a result of keeping up the “rainbow nation” facade.

The suffocation, I felt, took hold when all South Africans in their own everyday realities failed to speak up about prejudices that were still visible in a society that was meant to be the model for racial reconciliation. I always felt that the whites pretentiously smiled at work and went back to their homes to tell their children that they should work harder because the blacks had been given the liberty to pounce on their jobs. The blacks, on the other hand, I thought, grew quieter and cursed privately about how the whites would never change.

I was reminded of this reality (or its effects at least) again in recent times as most headline-grabbing stories have had to do with race relations in this country.

Now, when I first heard about the University of the Free State saga, I shrugged it off. I do not know why, but I just shrugged it off; however, the story refused to go away, forcing me to deal with my own experiences at the hands of a system similar to the one at the UFS.

As I reflected more on what could have led mothers and fathers in that video to find it, at least in part, acceptable to engage in a degrading “initiation” or “competition”, I realised that therein lies the tragedy of the new South Africa: that the workers involved did not fully realise that the actions they carried out at the behest of their white “children” amounted to an abuse of their human rights.

It struck me then that everything on which I have pinned my hopes for this country — the Bill of Rights, as embodied in the Constitution — has not yet begun to scratch the surface in terms of penetrating the consciousness of ordinary South Africans. I kept on thinking that the workers surely should have known (or at least intuitively felt) that those boys were abusing their basic rights to dignity.

And then, this past Friday, it all became clear to me when I read Pearlie Joubert’s piece in the Mail & Guardian, which forced me to revisit my time at an RAU “koshuis” and in the process interrogate some of the factors that might have led to those parents in the video thinking that what they went through was all part and parcel of what they had to do to be part of the Reitz community.

Reitz, after all, it would seem, was possibly one of the few places in South Africa where Afrikaner boys felt they were masters. It was, after all, their world where they did not have to contend or even compete with blacks who were rendering them powerless because of that thing called affirmative action. So it would seem, then, that there at Reitz the boys would decide the rules for acceptance into their world and they would dehumanise in order to vent their frustration.

I have to say, the last time I had that painfully numbing feeling was a few years ago after walking out of the Apartheid Museum when my Big Boss then, Wendy Lucas-Bull, had decided to hold her strategy session at the venue.

My RAU experience began initially as a day scholar and I think there must have been a handful of African students at the time. In our group we had the likes of SuperSport presenter Thomas Mlambo, who for the most part seemed unaffected, and CNN Journalism Award winner Mpho Moagi, who I remember as being as militant as they come.

In my second year, I moved into a koshuis just off campus and what I found there was a handful of black students living on the periphery of what was an Afrikaner boys’ club, which chose largely to pretend the black students did not exist.

Most black students, and I could count them all on my one hand, were happy to be left alone and assumed a status called “jingo”, which allowed them to stay outside the initiation and rank system within the residence.

When I came into the residence, I was somewhat frustrated because I felt that the residence needed to be more accommodating to black students, since we were all living in a “rainbow nation”.

I soon found out that my ability to influence events depended very much on the army-like culture of the residence. You see, I was not properly initiated into the residence, meaning that I did not go through the months of demeaning behaviour that required one to defer to senior members of the residence, and especially the “huiskomitee”.

I also did not run around the residence like an idiot greeting a statue of a bird called Aquila. My attempts to get the members of the Roman Empire (my residence had Roman culture or heritage) to see things my way fell on mostly indifferent and uninterested ears.

Never having being one to know my place, I decided to stand for the residence committee in my second year. The system for election into the committee, I have to say, was a rather robust one: all the candidates had to stand in front of the house and give reasons why they deserved to be elected and then, a little bit later, the members of the residence voted. The results were announced on the same night and initiation for the new leaders took place that very same night.

I bravely stood in front of the house and emotionally reminded them that they did not live in a volkstaat. Needless to say, I did not get voted on to the committee but was threatened with a good beating. I remained defiant.

My white housefather — who also in the past had taught me, believe it or not, Sepedi — took me aside and told me that race had nothing to do with anything at the residence. “You just need to prove to them that you are loyal to the residence first,” Doc (as he was affectionately known) said.

That made sense to me, so I applied to be a “voog”, or mentor, for first-year students.

I was accepted and promptly prioritised the mentoring of a group of African boys. I deliberately set myself the mandate of helping them adjust in the residence and ensuring that some of them go on to stand for leadership positions within the residence.

The following year I stood again for the residence committee, and this time, after being made to address the house in Afrikaans — some sort of demonstration that I was loyal to the volk — I got elected as one of two Africans on the committee.

The very same night our leadership team got their own “Kamp Staaldraad”. We were all stripped to our underwear and blindfolded, and our bodies were painted: black paint for the whites and white paint for the blacks. We were then searched to make sure we were not hiding any cellphones or money. In the early hours of the morning we were dropped, still blindfolded, in the middle of Kempton Park somewhere. We were then expected to find our own way to Auckland Park.

To this day I will never forget the way one of the black policemen who picked us up looked at me as if I was crazy for knowingly putting myself through such humiliation.

The policemen picked us up in the street and took us to the police station, and my white fellow students called some of their friends to come and collect us.

It was after this that I started to reflect on whether such team-building and supposedly innocent practices could not be used for racist intentions. I remember being in the shower trying to get the paint off my body just before my stats class.

I started thinking that was a small price to pay for the opportunity to lead, the opportunity to influence and play a role in the integration of our residence. I have to say that whatever discomfort I felt for the humiliating nature of the initiation was quickly overtaken by the feeling that I would not be on the periphery of the residence system any more.

This feeling, however, was quickly replaced by one I wish those parents should have had when that video was being made, at minimum discomfort.

I soon learnt that our leadership team was going to defy the system and continue with initiations. This made me very uncomfortable because I could sense that the black first-years were already uncomfortable, given where South Africa had come from, to have the white seniors barking orders at them and calling them names. And, of course, some of them came to me, voiced their concerns and decided rather to be marginalised by dropping out of the system.

The act of dropping out was viewed very much, I suppose, in the same way as a Sotho or Xhosa man would view another man who refused to go through the rite of passage tradition of “lebollo” (for Sothos): with disdain, to say the least!

In the end my discomfort, thankfully, got the better of me as I decided out of principle not to participate in the final initiation ceremony, which involved bonfires, pillow cases, huge amounts of alcohol and terror.

Needless to say, my leadership role at my residence stopped right then and there. I attempted to get re-elected for a higher position of “prim”, or head of house, was predictably grilled about my loyalty to the house and was right back on the periphery. I have no regrets, though; given another chance, I would not change anything.

And the whole point of all of this banter?

It is simply that we need to eradicate any systems or institutions (however minor) in our society that stand against the society envisaged by our Constitution, and secondly that we need to inculcate the values found in the Constitution into especially the lives of ordinary South Africans, including those who feel powerless, so that they will think twice before dehumanising fellow South Africans.