The Freestate Four – Race and Racism in the Press

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This update represents the findings of the research done into the coverage of the racist incident that took place at the University of the Free State recently and the controversial relaunch of the Forum of Black Journalists.

Racism at the University of the Free State (UFS) made headlines when a video in which four students who fed five Black workers food which apparently had been urinated into. As an organisation interested in race and racism as a central Human Rights concern in South Africa, MMP monitored newspapers1 from the 27th February to the 8th March, to discover how the stories were covered.

Racism at UFS

Context was provided to the events by the newspapers, through looking at the university and South African society more generally.

From when the story first broke, the different newspapers explored the reasons why the four White students made the video, such as socialisation and resistance to racial integration amongst residents in the Whites-only hostel in which they stayed. Examples of this can be found it Sowetan and The Star.  In an article headlined “Outcry over racist video” (Sowetan, 28/02/2008, p. 4)”, a descriptive analysis of the students’ motivation to produce the video is given. The Star’s “Hostel of Hate” article (The Star, 29/02/2008, p. 1) also explained why these students produced the video. These articles, among many, explained that racism at the University did not just happen out of the blue, but was motivated by resistance to integrate the residences.

However, a few articles neglected to give basic context to the events, by not explaining the reasons why the four students produced the video. This overshadowed the good work by the newspapers mentioned above. For an example, in the article “Living in the world of racism” (Sunday Sun, 09/03/2008, p. 35) no explanation is given. The whole article is difficult to understand, with no clear angle on racism except a lot of anger.

Free State Video: A symptom of racism in South Africa

The implication of the video, and another story happening at the time – the re-forming of the Forum of Black Journalists (FBJ), is that racism is still a concern in South Africa.  This was reflected in debates about continuing racial imbalance and separation in the democratic South Africa.

The newspapers were quick to encourage South Africans to work towards establishing a non-racist society. In the article “UFS video made by all South Africans” (The Weekender, 8-9/03/2008, p. 4) it is noted that “as long as young South Africans are given the impression that races and cultures are unavoidable facts of nature, and that people can only be understood as bearers of the identities, we will continue to be shocked by episodes such as the one at UFS”. Justice Malala’s article “Blame those boys’ parents” (The Times, 03/03/2008, p. 4) states that “the reason those kids abused those black man and women is simple. Their parents never took them to schools, or neighbours, or friend, or restaurants, where they walked in and saw black people as equals”.

In fulfilling their duty to educate the society which they serve, the media deserve to be congratulated for their efforts to educate citizens about the implications of racism, that as long as we live in a racist society we will always be backward.

Events necessary for debate?

Race and racism (as well as xenophobia) are phenomena that are often not visible except by events of the UFS and FBJ nature, but they are a lived reality for everyone everyday. South Africa, in particular has reasons to explore and debate these issues openly. So, whereas it is great that these events got such response from newspapers, it would be best practice to have highlighted the separation of hostels by race at UFS and other racial incidents before the cleaning staff were abused in this way.

—-Callies Matlala

1Beeld; Daily Sun; Mail & Guardian; Saturday Star; Sowetan; Sunday Times; The Citizen; The Star; The Times; and the Weekender.

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