A litmus test today of whether or not people would have supported apartheid South Africa today would be where they stand on Palestine, the writer says. Picture: ALAA BADARNEH/EPA-EFE
A litmus test today of whether or not people would have supported apartheid South Africa today would be where they stand on Palestine, the writer says. Picture: ALAA BADARNEH/EPA-EFE

University of the Free State fails litmus test in agreeing to work with Israeli varsity

By Opinion Time of article published Oct 14, 2020

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by Muhammad Khalid Sayed

It is difficult today to find individuals or institutions who supported apartheid South Africa. Yet the system remained in place for over four decades and people still benefit from its legacy.

A litmus test today, of whether or not people would have supported apartheid South Africa today, would be where they stand on Palestine, and the latest to show its true colours is the University of the Free State (UFS).

On an invitation to a webinar-based conference “to mark the co-operation agreement between The University of Haifa, Israel, and University of the Free State, South Africa”, it is noted that “in April 2018 a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for co-operation" was signed between the University of Haifa, Israel and the University of the Free State, South Africa”.

In 1953 and seven years before the Sharpeville massacre, Ariel Sharon led “Operation Shoshana”, which led Israeli defence force troops into the West Bank village of Qibya.

As at Sharpeville, remembered every year in South Africa on March 21, the Qibya massacre, as it has come to be known, would claim the lives of 69 innocent Palestinian villagers, 46 of them women and children.

Unlike Sharpeville, where the number of casualties would rise in the days after the shooting by police, the massacre at Qibya also involved the destruction of homes, schools and places of worship.

As with Sharpeville, the international community, led by the UN Security Council, condemned the actions of the Israeli government.

So sharp was the reaction by Israel's number one ally, the US, that it used the occasion to announce publicly that it had indeed blocked aid to Israel for other transgressions.

The UFS, situated a mere 350km away from Sharpeville, chooses October 14, the day of the Qibya massacre, to co-host a conference with a university of the transgressor. We must not be surprised.

As one of the bastions of apartheid thought, the UFS has proven since the dawn of democracy to be a breeding ground for those who wish not to pursue transformation in our country. We should not be shocked that the same university, which let the Reitz Four off the hook a decade ago, signs an MoU with a bastion of apartheid Israel.

Yet three years after the “reconciliation process” between the Reitz Four and the cleaners, facilitated by the university, the cleaners accused the university of not fulfilling the promises it made to them.

While the Reitz Four were eventually slapped on the wrist with a fine of R20 000 each, UFS could allow the Reitz Four to walk away freely because of what Dr Crain Soudien, in his article in the South African Journal of Science, describes “as articulated by Professor Jonathan Jansen, Rector of the University of the Free State, is that the problem is not simply the guilt of the Reitz Four themselves.

"It is, rather, that there are wide layers of institutional complicity in understanding who should take responsibility for the event.

“To illustrate the point,” Soudien continues “he (Jansen) argues that the video made by the Reitz Four had received an award at the residence for its content.”

Sixty-seven years after Qibya, and 13 after the making of the Reitz video, the co-hosting of a conference between UFS and the University of Haifa illustrates, as Jansen then put it, the “wide layers of institutional complicity” in discrimination, injustice and oppression at UFS.

One shudders to think what the lecturers, especially those participating in the conference, teach our future leaders at this South African university as they turn a blind eye to Israeli brutality and occupation.

Yet those of us who are familiar with institutional culture could well understand that if the university could ignore the brutality and the oppression of the South African apartheid state, then with this same institutional culture at the university they can easily ignore the brutality and oppression of the Israeli state in the Occupied Territories.

This is exactly what Jansen understands when he speaks of the “wide layers of institutional complicity”, though this time the university does not recognise the video with an award but rather recognise the deeds of the Israelis, today and in Qibya, with a video conference.

The staff and students at the UFS have the right to reach agreements of co-operation with any university in the world.

If only they would consider the dead who paid with their lives for such an agreement and the rights of the oppressed peoples of the world, especially Palestinian university staff and students.

* Muhammad Khalid Sayed is the Deputy Chief Whip of the ANC in the Western Cape Provincial Legislature and chairperson of the ANC Youth League in the Western Cape. He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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