Conflict Watch opinion

Has South Africa’s race conflict started?

Student protests turn ugly
Protests.jpg

It might be low-profile for now, but last week brought signs that a race conflict has started in South Africa, which has at least one cabinet minister worried.

Hours after we posted a warning on our website last week that a race conflict is brewing in the country, conflict with racial undertones broke out on two university campuses. And for the first time a senior cabinet minister in a statement “condemn(ed) the short-sighted anti-white chauvinism rearing its ugly head on some campuses …”

In the same statement the office of the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, said there were clearly “fringe elements (which)seem hell bent to exploit every problem as part of seeking to hijack legitimate student concerns for their narrow ends”.

It also called on “the management of universities to take decisive action against those elements that are bent on using any excuse to turn our institutions into sites of violence and vandalism.”

To what extent these “elements” have already succeeded to intimidate the management of universities, is clear from the timid reaction of Professor Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS) to the violence flowing from protesters illegally and provocatively invading a rugby field while a match between UFS and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) was in progress.

Prof Jansen headlined his statement afterwards with “Protesters rights trampled at UFS rugby match”.
“As a university leadership we condemn in the strongest terms possible the vicious attack on the protestors. Nobody, repeat nobody, has the right to take the law into their own hands. While the protests were illegal and disruptive, it did not harm the physical well-being of the spectators,” he further stated.

Ignoring the fact that the rugby match was indeed a public event under the auspices of the South African Rugby Union, he declared: “I cannot overemphasise our level of disgust and dismay at the behaviour of the spectators. It is NOT what the University of the Free State is about and we are working around the clock to gather evidence on the basis of which we will pursue both charges and, in the case of students, also disciplinary action on campus.” (Our emphasis)

Then in a much more tempered tone he added: “At the same time, the invasion of the pitch is also completely unacceptable and we will seek evidence on the basis of which we will act against those who decided to disrupt an official university event.” (Our emphasis.)

Only much further on in the statement does he mention that the situation actually started earlier in the day on the campus when, while negotiations about grievances were ongoing and “the vast majority of our 32 000 students were in classes and determined to get an education, a very small group led by the SRC President decided to protest”.

The protest actions included invasion of the library and computer centre from where they made their way to the rugby stadium and on their way were involved in confrontations with the police. University security staff and policemen were injured in the process.

No mention is made of claims that, prior to the invasion of the playing field, some spectators were assaulted, among them a female student who was hit over the head from behind with a megaphone by one of the protest leaders.

That the violence was indeed started by the protesters, has emerged from a video clip that became available on the net, showing a protester felling to the ground as they broken in to the stadium grounds, with a punch to her face.

He does, however, admit that he and his team “are also conscious of the fact that even as we speak, various political formations are vying for position inside the turmoil in this important election year. In fact, part of the difficulty of resolving competing demands is that they come from different political quarters, and change all the time.

Misreading wider mood

Professor Jansen’s timid reaction to the protestors’ actions, which were interfering with the rights and threatening the safety of those they target, amounts to a serious misreading of a wider mood in the country. As was illustrated by events, also last week, at the University of Pretoria when racial conflict erupted on and around its campuses.

As is always the case in situations like this, it is not possible to determine beyond doubt who threw the first stone or punch, but violence erupted when protestors at the court appearance of 27 people arrested the previous Friday in connection with the disruption of normal university activities, moved to the Hatfield campus.

When they attempted to move into the amphitheatre on the campus they were barricaded by a human chain formed by students, mainly Afrikaans speakers. Violent confrontations, including stone throwing, followed.

Tensions remained high on preceding days as protesters forced other students out of lectures.
With the presence of leaders of the white-dominated AfriForum among the students barricading the amphitheatre, it is clear that white students, especially Afrikaans speakers, have reached a stage that they feel compelled to defend themselves since no one else does.

Then, on Wednesday last week, AfriForum’s neighbourhood watches evacuated about 80 students from the campus of the University of the Free State when these students were trapped in various residences by protesters.

Students informed AfriForum Youth’s UFS branch that they had received threats from protesters outside the residences. One of these threats cautioned them: “Make sure that you do not leave the hostel on your own, as you will get hurt.”

This makes for a very dangerous situation in which a relatively small incident could trigger full-scale conflict.

Wider atmosphere

That the racial tensions and a feeling of being beleaguered among sections of the white community are not restricted to universities, is illustrated by a facebook message widely circulated earlier this month during public violent protest at Sabie in Mpumalanga.

A translation of the message from Afrikaans reads: “A request for prayers, please, for our small town of Sabie. Its whites are literally kept captive by blacks who make their town inexicible (sic). The town has been closed down. No one can get in or out. The hospital is without staff. People cannot buy food …”

Donwald Pressly, editor of the Cape Messenger, who grew up in a “struggle family,” recently, under the heading “Whites need to speak out and fight anti-white racism”, wrote: “South African whites are under siege. They are particularly under siege in Cape Town where the local English-language newspaper group is hostile to them”; and “… unfortunately we have done a U-turn in this country. We are racialising everything again. We are replacing black with white”.

This speaks of a dangerous and explosive atmosphere of racial tensions building in the country. Some holistic and imaginative intervention is needed to avoid the danger of a bloodbath.
A lone statement by the Ministry of Higher Education and lip service here and there to inclusive nation-building will not do the trick.

Also read: Municipal elections – the worst of times
                   Do whites have to start fearing for their safety?

 

by Piet Coetzer

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