White students claim race bias

October 20, 2006

White students in Pretoria painted themselves black and wrote to Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa, asking to be reclassified as "African" in a protest against what they see as discriminatory racial policies that deprive them of jobs and identity.

"(The) Government has, during the past few years, equated African identity to being black," the students wrote.

As part of a protest organised by AfriForum, a civil rights group that represents the interests of conservative whites, 11 students from the University of Pretoria and Tshwane University of Technology also completed Department of Labour forms in which they classified themselves as "African".

Under new regulations in the Employment Equity Act, which is aimed at redressing apartheid inequalities through affirmative action in the workplace, South Africans have to classify themselves as African, Indian, coloured or white.

"I was nine years old in 1994," said Ernst Roets, one of the protesters and a Pretoria student leader. "All I hear about is how bad the past was and how only race mattered, but that's exactly what we see today."

The students oppose affirmative action in its current form, arguing that it denies white graduates jobs and fuels what the Johannesburg-based Institute for Race Relations revealed was the exodus of a million whites from South Africa since 1994.

But Mr Roets admitted that unemployment was almost non-existent among white graduates. "We know that inequalities in South Africa must be eradicated, but our point is that affirmative action must not solely be about race - it must be about socioeconomic status."

Mr Roets said the 11 student protesters had had bad experience of affirmative action.

Last year, Pretoria, which imposed race quotas on student representation, refused to recognise the student council because it was too "white".

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