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02 March 2008

The University of the Free State is a ticking racial time bomb.

This week the first warning sign was the release of a racist video protesting against an integration policy, in which four members of the university's Reitz hostel degrade five black cleaners.

The five down beer, run a race, play touch rugby before being forced to eat food reportedly laced in urine.

On Friday, in little black or white groupings all over campus, the Reitz video was the only topic of conversation.

Although some calm had returned after widespread rioting, the situation was tense.

Reitz hostel students received death threats this week.

Hostel head student Pieter Odendaal confirmed students had been threatened with death and that the hostel would be burned down.

"They said they will rape our girlfriends and our sisters and that they would not stop before the hostel closes, is set on fire or when they see a Reitz student lying in his own pool of blood," Odendaal said.

He said tension was running extremely high, "especially during the evenings", and the students' studies were suffering as a result of it.

"The Reitz House Committee distances themselves from all incidents of racism and regrets the fact that the current residents at Reitz are now being targeted and perceived as racists," Odendaal said.

He said it was unfair to judge the entire Reitz hostel by the actions of a few.

The president of the UFS Students' Representative Council Ben Schoonwinkel said racial incidents had exploded all over campus.

"It's not just Reitz. And it's back and forth between black and white."

He is one of the 15 white members of the 18-strong SRC on a campus where 61 percent of the students are black.

He blames the university's integration policy both for the video and the subsequent uproar.

He said there had been undue pressure, particularly on white hostels, to bring about transformation with increased placement of black students at white hostels. This, he said, had forced some of the white students to sleep in communal areas after being forced out of their rooms.

Even though preparations like security services and translators were agreed to in the initial planning of integrating hostels, this had not been done.

"White people on the campus are not that bad," Schoonwinkel said.

Prior to the widespread distribution of the Reitz video, the hostel had already been identified as a hotbed of racist behaviour.

In 2004, as per the university tradition, female hostels put on a show in front of the male residences. Black female hostel dwellers from Akasia who attempted to put on their show at the hostel were chased away with dogs. Following a complaint with the university, the ladies from Akasia received flowers by way of apology.

The following year a black female student was punched in the stomach, apparently for walking on the pavement in front of the Reitz residence. She went to a nearby black male hostel whose members physically confronted the Reitz hostel dwellers.

Last year Villa Bravado, an adjoining black hostel, had a party. Members of Reitz decided to sit in the road dividing the two residences, blocking traffic from proceeding to the party.

Agitated residents of Villa Bravado asked campus security to intervene. They replied that the black hostel dwellers should not cause trouble.

SRC vice-president Tom Thabane was one of five arrested after he had tried to talk down the angry protesters at Reitz hostel.

He backed the call for the closure of Reitz residence "because of its cult mentality".

"People come in and out there but the mentality remains," said Thabane.

He blamed the racism on the campus on a prevalent mindset which was not challenged, especially by black students. He also condemned the lack of action on the part of the university, which failed to follow through on prosecuting perpetrators even when a formal complain had been laid.

By Beauregard Tromp, Botho Molosankwe and Nadine Visagie

This article was originally published on page 3 of Cape Argus on March 01, 2008

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