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Cape Town - Racism is prevalent at universities, but there is hesitancy about discussing it, students and staff said at a colloquium, Anti-Racism Network in Higher Education, held on Wednesday at Stellenbosch University as part of its week-long Diversity Celebrations.
“We do have quite a lot of experience, in terms of racism, on our campus,” said Buyile Matiwane, a member of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology student representative council.
He mentioned an incident last year in which a student posted a status comment on Facebook that described black students as being “brain-dead monkeys”.
Matiwane had organised a debate on campus so the incident could be discussed, but only five students turned up.
“Everyone should be talking, everyone should be wanting to hear, get it out in the open. A lot of students, especially when it comes to the issue of race, are complacent.” There was often a feeling of “us and them”.
“Racial undertones on campus are very much alive, but we are ignorant towards this and we act as if it’s something that should not be spoken about. Only through opening up and talking about it will we resolve issues.”
Stellenbosch University’s student representative council chairman, Clinton du Preez, said it was heart-warming to see changes in attitude on campus, but racism persisted.
“Racism is something that happens at all institutions.”
Du Preez wished to help students on campus understand that diversity was something that should be embraced, and sought to have more discussions.
Norman Duncan, dean of the humanities faculty at the University of Pretoria, used as an example a case that rocked the campus in August.
A philosophy lecturer resigned after it emerged she had made racist comments on Afrikaner language rights website Praag.co.za.
Duncan said he mentioned this, not because the University of Pretoria was a special case, but because other universities faced similar situations, and transformation was needed.
“Racism, Islamophobia, homophobia are issues people don’t want to discuss. It takes gumption to keep placing these issues on the agenda.”
Russel Botman, rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University, said a number of born-frees had realised the great responsibility they carried. Stellenbosch enrolled its first born-frees this year.
“They thought they were just young people coming to university… Now they realise they have a social responsibility for the kind of society we will be.”
Botman said he had been asked whether it was unfair to treat born-frees differently.
“It should not have happened. But now we have it, it is a historical thing. And now we must support them.”
Stellenbosch was working to increase its numbers of black and first-generation students, Botman said.