Bloem campus holds up a mirror to South Africa’s transformation
Having lived for two years in the UK and for four years in crowded South Korea, I’ve returned to South Africa a different person. While I left embittered and angry, I returned feeling a love and relief to be home.
I found the life of a foreigner exciting and enriching, but also lonely, finally becoming monotonous.
My awareness that things are different in South Africa began on the flight home - I sat beside a black couple, young students who had been holidaying in Thailand. Back on home soil, I found the economy booming: almost 5% GDP, the highest in 20 years, inflation at its lowest in a decade, the exchange rate almost impossibly strong.
On the surface, there’s a pleasant racial harmony in the shopping malls where blacks and whites graze together like sheep in their contemporaneous efforts at consumption.
It’s a sharp contrast from the homogeneous dullness of England and especially Korea. Here is an energetic diversity, especially in the youth.
I’m now back in Bloemfontein, a student city in the centre of the country, where I grew up under Apartheid when the city was a mostly Afrikaans, Christian conservative city.
It’s a lot less conservative now, and a lot more cosmopolitan.
A lot of student housing in the suburbs is filled with international students, from as far away as China, but mostly from African states like Nigeria, Namibia and Lesotho.
Our next door neighbour is a black doctor. The girls around here are stunning. Both whites and blacks take care of their appearance; many wear eye-popping blouses and skirts.Big hair, for the boys, appears to be in. And Bloemfontein has become officially cool, now that local boy, Ryk Neethling, the Olympic swimmer, has become South Africa’s favourite celebrity.In February, I took part in a local 100km bicycle race. At least 4 of the cyclists in our bunch were from Lesotho, and another half dozen black cyclists were locals. I’ve cycled for a few years, but being in a bunch with black cyclists was new for me, and I soon found out, also for them.
The school I attended in Bloemfontein did not permit blacks to attend. Even when I was a student at Free State University in 1991, there was just a trickle of black students.
In my 7 years at university, I remember how shy, lost and cliquey the African students were, as well as the tension and antagonism in the white hostels when the black students moved in.
Six years have passed and I’m back on campus. I’ve signed up for a post-graduate course at the University of the Free State. I’m one of 26,000 students.A third-year student of Social Sciences “jokes” that a very cute black guy “thinks he’s white” because he has a white girlfriend. She adds: “He can do so much better”. Everyone in the group laughs. It’s casual now, on campus, but there are occasional incidents. I’m told that an Afrikaans guy from the Reitz hostel beat up a black girl from Zimbabwe last year.
I’m inspired and thrilled by the new youth, the vigour and turns of colour, but is it all just a meretricious guise?
In search of an answer, I interviewed my Drama lecturer, an Italian lady by the name of Manuella Lovisa. She says students come from as far afield as Uganda and Eritrea, many from neighbouring Lesotho, and believes that both local and international students are beginning to feel more at home on campus. “You get a sense of it in the classroom. They’re more oriented now, and showing greater confidence,” she says.
Two years ago, there was unrest at the university. Ms Lovisa says there were rallies (she points outside her window), “out there”, in the road below, calling for cheaper university fees. All appears to have been resolved; there have been no rallies since.In fact, the Free State University now has a reputation for leading the transformation process, becoming a truly multicultural village. These transformations and language policies have been endorsed by Nelson Mandela.
I approached a number of students for their views.
They told me “there are too few black lecturers at the university”. One girl from Namibia, studying medicine, commented: “My lecturer told me, in front of the class, that he didn’t think I’d make it to my final year”. She felt insulted.
She says the white lecturers are difficult to approach, and offer tips on tests to white students but not to black students.
Her friends agreed, saying blacks aren’t given enough opportunities. I argued that, because of affirmative action, when they leave university, doors are opened for them, and not for white students. Lebo says they’re shut out of the intervarsity, and important functions have a few token blacks.
Again I argued that it might just be a case of preparation, like an athlete making ready for a race, and it takes time to integrate into a new environment. But I surrendered when they cited a number of disheartening anecdotes.
The medical student is explicitly angry at whites, saying: “I don’t like whites”. She tells me that at the time of the (recent) rugby match between the Bulls and the Cheetahs, she was walking on campus and someone called out: “Hey kaffir”. It wasn’t the first time.
The girls tell me that on the surface, the appearance is pleasant, but under the cover is a lot of resentment.
Blacks blame whites for a lack of opportunity, and 10 minutes later, sitting down to dinner with my Afrikaans girlfriend, her brother and others say the same thing: they blame black people for the lack of opportunities.
I pondered: “Maybe both sides are blaming the other, when neither is to blame. Maybe, for example, trying to get a job is just difficult. But each side is in the habit of heaping blame on the other side. Maybe our focus should be on doing what’s possible, instead of blacks blaming whites and whites blaming blacks for every thing that seems unfair. Life is unfair”.
This started a lively debate. The Free State, and Bloemfontein, has one of the lowest rates of employment in the country. Local success stories like Ryk Neethling did not wait for opportunity. They worked hard and seized their chances. Isn’t that a law of nature?
Isn’t our racism just an excuse?
South Africa has been called “The World in One Country”. It is. It has beauty and diversity in its countryside, its flora and fauna, and its people.
In the old South Africa, the mantra under the emblem read, Unity is Strength. We did not believe it, not enough to live it. But I do believe that, slowly, South Africa - the country with 25% of the wealth of the African continent - is starting to heal. The country, at times, has the appearance of Eenheid. I believe we are finding our way, although there’s a long way yet ahead of us all.
NVDL: I wrote this last year when I was a student at UFS.