Thorne Godinho
Thorne Godinho

Transforming our (white) academic spaces

The ongoing saga at North West University (which I wrote about, here) is not the by-product of fun student traditions; it is as a result of the appropriation of a political salute (sieg heil) by students in residence greetings — despite the fact that this salute is problematic because of its link to Nazism. These traditions on the whole are a symptom of a culture of obedience, and a latent prejudice against difference — one which is built on the foundations of ethnic nationalism and white supremacy — in many former white university residences.

In this system first-year residence students are often forced to perform ridiculous dances for the leadership of the residence. The Nazi greeting that has everyone riled up forms part of one such song and dance. Although the salute itself represents something painful, it is merely part of a bigger problem: the existence of a strange system that honours authority, infantilises young adults, and forces a homogeneous culture (which is ignorant of our diversity) on students.

There has been great support shown by some for the students in Potchefstroom, and I think I know why: 1) This scandal taps into the vein of a much greater problem (university culture), and 2) when greater examination of the problem takes place, it’s likely that we’ll discover the spectre of white supremacy at many of our tertiary institutions too.

People are agitated about the scandal at North West University (NWU) because it places student culture and traditions in the spotlight. Some have said that NWU’s failure to address this system will lead to the state intervening. Others have called for the need to keep this internal (as if this system hasn’t been shrouded in enough secrecy). And organisations that rely on the existence of this secret system of obedience are up in arms too.

A lot of people are upset about the likely investigation into a problematic system — mostly because of their vested interest in the perpetuation of this system. Some are students who found comfort in the arms of this collectivisation. Others are worried about the fate of Afrikaans-language tertiary education.

Unfortunately, too few people are interested in the dark side of student culture and traditions. Too few people seem to care that for some a Nazi salute really could be hurtful — despite the motive.

Many former white universities allow residences* to create a hierarchical system of control and tradition. This system allows for the enforcement of rules that strip students of their individualism, and often, their self-worth too. There are simply too many examples that highlight this point.

There are silly rules that prevent female residence students from drinking from bottles or cans (because it’s not “ladylike”), for example. Uniforms are a must. Events with the explicit intention of allowing heterosexual male and female students to socialise are planned en masse, often excluding those who aren’t straight or single. And of course: there’s a devotion to hierarchy and control by residence leadership structures.

This system is devoid of any kind of appreciation for individualism or diversity. It doesn’t matter where you come from, or who you are. You will integrate on the terms decided by others. This often means that black students (among others) are faced with an endless line-up of sokkie events to attend, and no one to talk to about the culture shock they’re experiencing.

Some are afraid of the scandal at Potchefstroom because they know it will place transformation on the agenda at universities. This transformation will address the often cloistered white spaces that haven’t embraced a culture of inclusivity and cultural awareness. Instead of a policy of forced integration for those who are different, these spaces may now have to re-evaluate how they go about their business.

And this re-evaluation will no doubt affect the status of de facto white supremacy that has allowed for the creation of white spaces in our multicultural universities in the first place.

The spectre of racism is ever present at tertiary institutions across South Africa. It exists in the form of the “Reitz Four”, in the white men who aim their cars at black targets, in polarised student politics, and in the way student traditions operate.

Any challenge to a system that honours obedience and authority, unashamedly strips students of their individuality and aims to promote latent white supremacy will be met with disgust. It highlights the fear that these systems need to be in place to protect some from the rest.

Maybe we actually need to stop being afraid, and start to harness diversity as a tool to make our academic spaces more inclusive and excellent.

That’s what transformation at universities ought to be about.

*I know of many progressive residences too — ones that outlaw initiation, value individualism and work towards harnessing the excellence diversity creates. I wish I was writing a tribute to them instead, but we cannot celebrate progress when it remains so paltry in comparison to the problem.

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