Talk on transformation and reconciliation

Left: Dr Mamphela Ramphele

Dr Mamphela Ramphele and author Dr Rudi Buys discussed the issue of transformation in higher education at the launch of his new book on race and reconciliation in South Africa.

Brugbouers (Bridge Builders), by Dr Buys, looks at the process of reconciliation following the infamous Reitz-video incident at the University of the Free State in 2008.

In the video, four white male students subject five black workers to so-called screening tests for placement in their campus residence. The video shows the workers having to eat food the students had seemingly urinated in. After it surfaced, racial tensions flared on campus; there was national outrage and protesting voices sounded worldwide.

Dr Ramphele and Dr Buys held a question and answer session at the Cornerstone Institute in Salt River on Tuesday August 21 to discuss the book and how far the country has come in terms of the reconciliation process.

In Brugbouers, Dr Buys highlights the life stories of four student leaders, two black and two white, from that turbulent period.

The book first recounts the experiences of the student leaders prior to, during and after the incident, and develops a way to make sense of the events.

In the second part of the book, Dr Buys reflects on his experiences prior to the incident and during the process of reconciliation.

“For me, the process at the University of Free State was an opportunity to make sense of my Afrikaner-heritage. The episode at the university illustrates that Afrikaners, in their pursuit to reconcile their past with a future in the country, have the potential to become true bridge builders and co-authors of a non-racial future,” he said.

The discussion explored how lessons from the Reitz-video incident can be used to confront issues of race, prejudice and privilege, particularly in higher education, today.

When asked by Dr Ramphele, why he decided to break the “conspiracy of silence” which was not unique to the country, Dr Buys said it felt right and good to do so, in particular the silences in his own life.

Dr Ramphele said it was significant that the book was set at a university — a place where one would think the students were at the forefront of breaking the silence.

“You would think that’s where thinking people are who have the knowledge and capacity to tell and analyse these stories,” she said.

Dr Buys said he had wanted to make sense of how the Reitz incident had happened at a university, which, at the time, had been seen as a case study of successful racial integration.

“What had happened at the time, is that part of the solution for racial conflict was to create two worlds; to allow racially based residences to develop rather than push integrated placements for instance,” he said.

The university had allowed for English and Afrikaans classes, with white students attending the Dutch Reformed Church and black students heading into town to attend churches, he said. Students had also socialised along racial lines.

“While they may have had good intentions, there had been two worlds on campus — which could essentially be described as apartheid on campus.

“When looking at all this, you can ask, how can something like the Reitz incident not happen,” he said.

Dr Buys said the title of his book referred more to building bridges between the two worlds than to peace building.

“If you look at the term peace building, in terms of the university, it did not bring the change one had hoped for and it may not be the end we are looking for, hence building bridges more so than peace,” he said.

Dr Ramphele said the average South African family didn’t talk enough about the sort of issues the Reitz incident had exposed.

“As a nation, we are also in between, in between where we come from, which we don’t talk about, and in between where we want to go to,” she said.

UCTprofessor Getrude Fester called Brugbouers a brave book, both educational and shocking at the same time.

“I didn’t realise the depths of the patriarchy — the power of men and the power of Afrikaner men in these initiation ceremonies,” she said.

To order the book, email richardj@cornerstone.ac.za There is a limited first print run now available for R250.