Mandela slams `reverse racism'

March 24, 1995

Nelson Mandela has accused vice chancellors at historically white South African universities of "racism in reverse" for allowing unruly black students to disrupt campuses.

His comments came as a second blow to many university leaders whose hopes that institutions would be more peaceful this year have been smashed - in many cases literally - by destructive and violent campus protests around the country.

At a dinner in Johannesburg, President Mandela called on university authorities to take "strong disciplinary action" against students running amok. He said white rectors seemed to be "scared" of dealing with people causing chaos on campuses simply because they were black.

Their failure to clamp down on black students implied that blacks could not be expected to be sufficiently disciplined, he added, and constituted racism in reverse and an insult to black people.

Vice chancellors have little chance of taking advantage of President Mandela's call for a clampdown: students and some African National Congress leaders reacted against his comments and within days student action had intensified.

The most controversial protests have been at the Universities of the Wi****ersrand (Wits), Vista and the Western Cape, and at Free State Technikon in Bloemfontein.

Free State Technikon shut on March 16 after months of racial tension erupted into a bloody fight, injuring at least six black and one white student. Hundreds of students, split into white and black groups, attacked each other with stones. Police had to use a shock grenade and dogs to separate them. Five black and two white students were arrested and 22 charges were laid.

At Wits there have been marches, sleep-ins and trashing over the university's dismissal in January of 39 members of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union and nine students who smashed up the campus last August while protesting in favour of university transformation. Later, two senior administrators were taken hostage.

Last week, about 250 students marched on the ANC headquarters in Johannesburg protesting against President Mandela's remarks, and the university was trashed as the row between students, workers and university leaders over the dismissals and transformation deepened.

Vice chancellor Robert Charlton said Wits would not reinstate the 48 workers and students - although it has offered them the opportunity to air their grievances at a review board - and that it would lay criminal charges against the group of students who trashed the campus last. Wits has pledged to set up a special forum on transformation by the end of this month.

At the University of Vista, students at all seven campuses continued boycotting classes last week in protest against the suspension of one of the campus directors. Last Wednesday, more than 4,000 students marched to Vista head office in Pretoria to demand the immediate resignation of the council. Students ran amok and became embroiled in violent confrontations with security guards, and at least one shot was fired.

At the University of the Western Cape, chaos erupted and several officials were taken hostage during student protests which began over the issue of financial exclusions but deteriorated into racial tension between black and coloured students. Coloured students had refused to join the protests.

Students occupied lecture theatres, and harassed and chased out other students. Lectures resumed after the university agreed to register the financially excluded students.

There have also been disruptions at Technikon Natal in Pietermaritzburg and Durban, at the Cato Manor Technical College, the University of Zululand - where students are demanding the scrapping of nearly Pounds 4 million in owed fees - and at the University of Fort Hare, where students protesting over fees held some staff members hostage for several hours.

Writing in the national weekly Sunday Times last weekend, editor Ken Owen pointed to the irony of Queen Elizabeth II's visit to South Africa when the most prized institutions of English South Africans - their universities - were once again under fire.

At Wits the conflict had become quite simply a power struggle aimed at wresting authority from white hands and placing it in African hands, he wrote. Mr Mandela had tried to use his personal stature to restore authority on campuses, but had been undercut by members of his own party.

"Matters have now gone far beyond Professor Charlton's ability to control, and indeed beyond the reach of any white person, English or Afrikaans," wrote Owen. "It rests with the new elite, those who ride the longest tides of our history, to decide whether the innate needs of this continent require Eurocentric institutions like Wits to be swept away, or modified into some new, African form."

The uproar on campuses has flashed a warning, he wrote. "South Africa is not immune to the forces that have reduced so much of Africa to a pitiful ungovernability. As the old order collapses, a new order had better take its place."

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