Video highlights racial tensions

Times Staff Writer

The camera focuses on a plate of food placed on a toilet lid. There is a dribble of liquid, which appears to be urine, into the food. A white South African university student heats the plate in a microwave oven, and then a group of white students exhorts several black cleaning workers to eat the food from plastic cups.

The video, filmed as a “joke” last year by four white students and splashed across the front pages of South African newspapers Thursday, sent shock waves across a country struggling to shed apartheid’s legacy, 14 years after white-minority rule ended and Nelson Mandela became the country’s first elected black leader.

A spokesman for the South African Human Rights Commission, Mothusi Lepheana, demanded that the students face criminal charges and be expelled from school. A lawyer for the students, Nico Naude, said the liquid was water and that the cleaning staff participated willingly in the “joke.”


Despite the optimism that followed South Africa’s democratic elections in 1994, the decades of segregation and oppression under apartheid have left a legacy of unease that continues to trigger high-profile clashes and, on occasion, violence over race. Recent public opinion surveys reveal a lack of trust and social integration between blacks and whites.

Just weeks ago, the country was shocked by killings in a poor squatter camp: A 17-year-old white boy allegedly drove to the camp, Skierlik, near Rustenburg in the North-West province, and shot and killed four people, including two children, all of them black.

South Africa has also been wrestling with racial controversy on its national cricket team. Coach Mickey Arthur was temporarily barred from selecting team members for Cricket South Africa after he put forward a 14-member squad with just four blacks.

There was more tension last week after white journalists were evicted from a news conference at which African National Congress President Jacob Zuma addressed an association of black journalists.

The university video, which surfaced this week, was made by four students at the University of the Free State, once a bastion for white Afrikaners. Two of the students have been suspended and the other two left the school last year.

The video lampooned the university’s plans to force racial integration of the dormitories, a policy that went ahead this year despite objections from many white students.

The video showed a parody of a student initiation ceremony, akin to rituals conducted at fraternities in the U.S. Several black female workers were “initiated” by “down down” (a beer drinking race), before throwing a rugby ball around and gagging over the allegedly contaminated food. The “winner” is awarded a bottle of whiskey amid smiles and laughter.

The incident is being investigated by authorities, and the video was strongly condemned by the ruling ANC and other political groups Thursday.

But Naude, the students’ lawyer, said, “There was definitely no urine in the food.” He said the students had good relations with the workers, whom they saw as mother figures or “compatriots.” He said the women were shown smiling and dancing and at other points laughing in a way that did not suggest humiliation.

Leader of the Student Representative Council, Ben Schoonwinkel, who is white, said he did not believe the video was intended to be nasty, but said it went too far.

Lepheana, of the Human Rights Commission, however, said the students tricked the women into participating.

He said the video proved that some people had been “left behind” as the country moved forward on race relations. He blamed the university, accusing it of other cases of discrimination, such as barring pregnant students from the student hostel. The university did not respond to a request for an interview.

The rash of recent incidents threatens to widen a public perception that race relations have deteriorated.

In a 2007 survey by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, nearly a quarter of respondents said they never had contact with other races in the course of their daily work, and nearly half said they never socialized with other races. About half of blacks said other races were untrustworthy, and 24% of whites did not trust other races.

Hannah Botsis of the South African Institute of Race Relations said the “rainbow nation” rhetoric embraced by the government in 1994 to symbolize racial harmony had glossed over the problems of transforming the country.

It made people feel temporarily good about the country but failed to put in place the structures needed to deal with the different expectations various race groups had of democracy, Botsis said. The resulting misunderstandings left many people feeling further apart than they were in 1994.

“The people that are being attacked are still the poorest and most vulnerable in our community. In terms of these blatant attacks that shock all South Africans, it’s still the poorest that are the victims,” Botsis said.