A House Divided

By | May 01, 2013

When I described the integration and re-segregation at UFS to Edwin Smith, a leading black education theorist and administrator at the University of Pretoria, the main university in South Africa’s capital, he wasn’t surprised. All South African universities, he said, have struggled with race relations in their dorms, even the English ones with a liberal reputation. I asked him which of South Africa’s 15-odd major universities were thoroughly integrated nearly 20 years after apartheid’s end. “There aren’t any!” he answered, chuckling with resignation.

The phenomenon is not unique to South Africa, either. In certain ways, it mirrors dynamics that occurred on American campuses as they began to integrate during the 1960s and 1970s. john a. powell, a nationally renowned civil rights lawyer and education expert who prefers to present his name in the lower case, recalled entering Stanford in 1965 as one of 28 black students in a thousand-strong freshman class. Like the white students who welcomed Lebohang Mathibela in their dormitory, most of the whites at Stanford were “friendly,” powell said. “But they expected us to do things”—like rushing fraternities—“on their terms.” The expectation was that the blacks would assimilate to white norms, not that the institution itself would have to change to accommodate them. Stanford even hired a psychologist to help the black students assimilate, inviting them to meet her at a lawn party featuring the Jim Crow-era stereotype of black people’s favorite food, watermelon.

In race theory, “we speak of a ‘tipping point,’” powell explained, “a point at which a minority reaches a critical mass and the racial dynamics suddenly change.” The minority starts chafing against institutional traditions, and the majority experiences anxiety that almost every familiar feature of their lives could become imperiled. In America, though, few historically white universities have reached a 30 percent tipping point—yet. In this way, transformation at UFS is not behind but ahead of American transformation, not an echo but an augury for our country, where last year non-white births outpaced white births for the first time.

The UFS story suggests how dangerous it is to let polarization take hold. Like many institutions facing a demographic shift, UFS initially failed to take an active enough role in managing the change. “Typically, management doesn’t track what’s happening, because they think change will happen organically,” reflected powell. “They may also be afraid to confront the implications of change.” At UFS, given the demographics of the Free State, the implications were that eventually, somewhere down the line, the character of the university would change enormously. An administration composed mostly of older white Afrikaners, well-disposed toward modest change as they were, didn’t adequately face that stark reality. They failed to encourage the formation of a new, joint identity and allowed prejudices to deepen—making it exponentially harder to bring the two sides together again.


But not impossible. In 2009, a charismatic Stanford Ph.D., who quotes Shrek and Edward Said in the same breath, arrived at UFS to undermine the status quo. Brought onto troubled campus after troubled campus to heal them,  Jonathan Jansen is South Africa’s most prominent university leader. He’s also the first black president UFS had ever appointed. Four years into his tenure, he has made dramatic inroads toward reintegrating many of the dorms, winning praise from black and white students alike.

On a December afternoon, underneath a steely gray sky brewing a thunderstorm, I took a walk with Jansen across the UFS campus. At first, “I was scared to death,” he admitted, while overlooking the campus’s main quad. The first time he walked on campus, “you’d stand here and you’d see a patch of black kids, a patch of white kids. That exists at all South African universities, but it was so absolute here.” He despaired anything could be done. “It’s the way the country was wired.”

But he decided if the students had no practice making bridges between black and white, he would lead by being the bridge himself. He began with a Nelson Mandela-like gesture: In his inauguration speech, he announced the university would forgive the four Afrikaner students who filmed the video humiliating their janitors and accept its own institutional responsibility for the event. “They are my students,” he declared in the speech. “I cannot deny them any more than I can deny my own children.” He followed up by deepening his engagement with the community, penning a regular column in the local Afrikaans paper and becoming a constant, nearly ubiquitous presence in student spaces. Sometimes he drags his desk outside the administration building and sets it up under a tree to encourage students to hang out.

“I use Twitter,” he said. “Facebook. I just walk and talk.” As well as being approachable, Jansen has also been somewhat autocratic. He has shown that pairing these two traits can be extraordinarily effective in a chaotic milieu like UFS. Jansen always made his end goal perfectly clear: full reintegration of the dorms, even though three-quarters of Afrikaner students had openly admitted in a 2007 campus poll that they preferred segregated living. In his first year, he demanded that every dorm integrate its freshman class 50-50, no migrations allowed, and unilaterally banned most of the dorm customs that had been lightning rods. He also instituted mandatory dorm conversations on race. “It’s extremely important to make the vision explicit,” he explained. “All we do is talk every single day in every single meeting about … the human project” of integration.

Sitting down with me in a dorm called Khyalami, which means “our home” in Zulu, a handful of current students and recent graduates spoke about the change Jansen had wrought. Phiwe Mathe, a soft-spoken political science major in a blue polo shirt and neatly pressed jeans, said he had at first been “outraged” by Jansen’s decision to forgive the four video-makers. “But now I praise him for taking that action,” he said. “He came into an environment full of tension, and he became the neutral figure.”

Emme-Lancia Faro, a sportily dressed woman of mixed racial heritage who was recently elected head of a formerly all-white girls’ dorm, pointed to the emotionally charged meetings that Jansen demanded. In them, students are encouraged to let fly with all the prejudices they have about the other race group. Initially she felt “shocked” to hear some whites suggest blacks were lazy or didn’t like to shower. But then she realized that she too harbored negative stereotypes about whites she had never consciously articulated—like that all of them are rich. At Jansen’s so-called cultural renewal evenings, “I was changed,” Faro recalled.

The students acknowledge there remains one nut left to crack: white men. Today, the UFS women’s dorms are demographically integrated, and male dorms that had been all white during the segregated decade are getting there, too. But male dorms that went “black” during the re-segregation of the 1990s are still mostly black. When white boys hear that they’ve been placed in a historically black dorm, they usually choose to move off campus instead. The two dorms with black-sounding names—Khyalami and Tswelopele, which means “progress”—are having an especially hard time attracting white men.

Abel Jordaan is one of nine white men living in the 179-bed Khyalami. He loves it, and he laments the difficulty of retaining other whites. “They look at the name,” he said. “For Afrikaner students coming here, because of the history, we’re still struggling with stereotypes.”

One of the places white male students have fled to be out of Jansen’s reach is a private dormitory named Heimat, a German word for homeland that is a common name of dorms at Afrikaans universities. In it, the old UFS dorm traditions are front and center. In its first year, 2009, the year Jansen showed up to campus, Heimat welcomed 40 UFS boys, then 70, then 100.

Over the course of an afternoon, I met some 30 Heimat residents. One or two didn’t hesitate to state that a sense of white superiority had led them to choose Heimat, but most suggested they’d chosen the dorm not from a surfeit of confidence but out of fear—fear over what permanent place the white man will have in black-ruled South Africa. Over the past few years, the country’s most prominent black youth politician, Julius Malema, has suggested that President Jacob Zuma’s government should stop developing white residential areas and expropriate white-owned mines, and the government itself has declared its intent to transfer 30 percent of white-owned farms—the birthplaces of many of the Heimat boys—to blacks by 2025. Afrikaans-language educational spaces have already dwindled tremendously, with more than 90 percent of formerly Afrikaans schools closed or made bilingual since 1990. “I’m in love with my country, but does she still love me?” goes the anxious refrain of a popular Afrikaans country-and-western song played often on the radio. Many of the students mentioned the example of Zimbabwe next door, where Robert Mugabe’s government first preached racial reconciliation but later expropriated white farms and violently expelled those who resisted.

Amid this pervasive sense of vulnerability, Heimat feels like a safe space. Hewing religiously to the dorm traditions, however random they might seem to be, allows the Heimat boys to feel they still have a legitimate culture—a culture that might protect them in a time of need.

A freshman named Piet Le Roux took me to his bedroom to show me the exacting way the dorm manager makes freshmen arrange their clothes and toiletries for morning inspection. Shirts stacked from light to dark. Toothbrush, toothpaste, shaver, shaving cream and Bible, lined up in that order on the bed. Mix it up and you have to do push-ups.

Did such customs ever feel arbitrary? I asked. Le Roux shook his head no. “It makes you big for the future.”

It’s not only young white men who are resisting Jansen’s vision. Black critics, especially those outside the university community, point to the overwhelmingly black demographics of the Free State and the nation’s persistent dearth of opportunities for blacks. They question why a fragile racial reconciliation should be permanently sustained by fastidiously maintaining integration between whites and blacks. Edwin Smith, the black education theorist, told me he respects Jansen enormously, but “this is an African country,” he pointed out. “Until our institutions are dominated by black people, you are still going to have a lopsided culture” that favors whites.

To those living on campus, though, the university has become a comforting manifestation in miniature of the dreamed-for post-racial South Africa. Billyboy Ramahlele, now in charge of a university outreach program to primary and secondary schools, remains worried about South Africa’s future. But haunted as he still is by the riot and the collapse of integration in the 1990s, the changes Jansen has wrought have given him hope once more. “The atmosphere has changed,” he said, his voice brightening. “We are moving toward students realizing the realities of society, of interacting with each other. Students are learning about other belief systems. So many things have changed.”

5 thoughts on “A House Divided

  1. Wendy Leibowitz says:

    What an inspiring article. I hope we can see similar integration and discussion at campuses in the US, UK and Australia.

  2. aaron says:

    Its encouraging to see that we as a people and a nation are still capable of learning. The pioneering efforts of leaders such as Jansen become even more indispensible as South Africa strives to heal from the scars of a segregated legacy and one can only hope other nations such as the Americans, who are on the verge of an explosion of the rise in the precent of people of colours in the populations, can learn from the South African experience and hopefully handle the subsequent ‘labour pains’ better.

  3. Claire says:

    Amazing piece about the difficulties around integration – and how it’s an uphill battle that has to be deliberately fought, rather than just allowed to run. Sweden, the UK, France and the US could learn a lot from the South African experience.

  4. Brett Petzer says:

    A magisterial article – down to the merest detail of South African language and culture. I will look for more by Eve Fairbanks.

  5. Davida Brown says:

    Thank you for the excellent article and the sentiments therein. It was mentioned that racism might be inherent. I believe it is also known as part of the sin nature. We can be sure that it will never be “eradicated,” anymore than poverty, which the Bible tells us “will be with us always.” Not too many people are aware of God’s viewpoint on racism in the Torah. In Numbers, Chapter 12, verse 1, there is a description of an argument against Moses involving his brother, Aaron and sister, Miriam, regarding their “racist” attitude towards Moses’s black wife (described as a Cushite or Ethiopian.) The LORD was angry and punished Miriam at this time. Not much has changed in all these centuries. God hates racism still and we can do what we can to rectify the situation, as with poverty, but need to understand the root cause…sin. That leads us to introspection…it all begins in the heart . Let’s first look in the mirror…the Bible does a good job acting as a mirror. Read it and “get the picture”. It’s the truth; believe it!

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