Why the Students at One South African University Chose to Resegregate

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 24 2013 5:30 AM

A House Divided

Why the students at one prominent South African university, once a model of racial harmony, chose to resegregate.

Students at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein.
Andricia Hinckemann, Abel Jordaan, Emme-Lancia Faro and Phiwe Mathe at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa

Photo by Sonia Small/Kaleidoscope Studios

BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa—Billyboy Ramahlele heard the riot before he saw it. It was a February evening in 1996, autumn in South Africa, when cooling breezes from the Cape of Good Hope push north and turn the hot days of the country’s agricultural heartland into sweet nights, when the city of Bloemfontein’s moonlit trees and cornfields rustle sultrily beneath a vast sky glittering with stars. The 32-year-old dormitory manager at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein was relaxing in front of a wildlife program on the TV with his door open.

Suddenly, he became aware of a new noise. Could it be the trees, rustling in a gust? No, it was heavier, more like trampling. Could it be his TV? He switched it off. The noise grew louder.

Ramahlele got up and poked his head out the door. There he saw the students of the dorm he managed, which housed about 100 black males, some of the first blacks to attend the historically white university since it had integrated four years earlier. And he immediately saw the source of the noise: His boys were stampeding out of the dorm entryway and running toward central campus. Some of them were singing militant songs from an earlier era, when blacks fought against apartheid rule, including one that went Kill the Boer, a nickname for white Afrikaners. Many were holding sticks or cricket bats.

They said they wanted to confront the white boys on campus. The whites, they claimed, refused to treat them as they should be treated in South Africa’s new democracy, and they wanted to put an end to their insolence once and for all. More than one boy opened up his jacket to show Ramahlele a gun tucked inside.

Racing alongside the group, Ramahlele wasn’t truly worried until he rounded the corner and saw, under the starlight, a line of white boys at least as long as his line of black students, standing shoulder-to-shoulder. “It looked like an army flank,” he remembered. The whites were also holding cricket bats, cocked on their shoulders like rifles. Unlike his students, they were eerily silent—until, all as one, they opened their mouths and began to sing. The song was Die Stem, the old apartheid-era national anthem.

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Ramahlele’s heart sank. He felt as though he might cry. “The history,” he explained, “is if they’re singing that, somebody is going to die.”

* * *

I first set foot on the University of the Free State (UFS) campus in February of 2010 to study Afrikaans. On paper, the school was integrated: 70 percent of the student body was black. But 15 years after the end of apartheid—the infamous system of racial separation and black oppression that lasted from 1948 until the coming of democracy in 1994—it felt as though apartheid had never ended. The white and black students still seemed to operate in totally different worlds. There were classes in Afrikaans for the whites and classes in English for the blacks, and separate choirs and church services for both. I almost never saw a mixed-race group of students. And they didn’t live together—there were all-white dorms and all-black dorms.

UFS is in the heart of the Free State, the traditional center of Afrikaner power, settled in the mid-19th century by Dutch settlers who trekked inland in covered wagons from the Dutch East India Company’s colony at the Cape of Good Hope 600 miles southwest. They believed they had been sent to Africa by God to become a new people, the Afrikaners (“Africans” in Dutch), to tame the desert—like the Israelites in Canaan—and turn it into a garden. They plowed the region into a fertile grain belt, setting up a republic and naming a capital, pronounced “BLOOM-fun-tayn,” meaning “fountain of blossoms.” The city became a laboratory for the formation of Afrikaner identity. The Afrikaner National Party, the political party that designed apartheid, was established there in 1912. UFS, founded at the same time, was the first South African university to conduct classes in Afrikaans, the Dutch dialect the Afrikaners proudly formalized as part of their new Africa-based ethnicity.

I assumed that old-line attitudes demanding racial separation had never budged in this Afrikaner redoubt. But one day my Afrikaans teacher, Matilda, a warm, arty woman with flowing brown hair, told me there was a much more complicated and disturbing story behind the campus’s racial divide. “Once, this place was the model of integration,” she lamented over coffee at the campus cafe. Leaning forward conspiratorially over her cup, she gave me a clue. “Go to a dorm called Karee,” she said, “and look at a set of photos hanging in the front hall. There, you’ll begin to understand what really happened.”

I went. Karee—named for a drought-resistant tree found in the South African desert—had been built in 1978, as apartheid rule was consolidating and Afrikaans-language universities were expanding. The photos my teacher had mentioned were class photographs. The first dozen or so showed only white boys arranged on the dorm stoop, mugging for the camera. Then, in 1992, a few blacks appeared. There was one looking proud in a mauve suit, and another in a yellow shirt, his hip popped out in a jaunty contrapposto, his lips stretched wide in an enigmatic smile. 1993, 1994, 1995: Every year there were more black students, intermingled with the whites.

And then, in 1997, one year after the riot Billyboy Ramahlele witnessed, something new appeared in the photo: two flags from the age of white supremacy in South Africa—one from the old Afrikaner republic and one from the apartheid state that followed it. They were jarring to see, held high by two white boys in the last row right over the head of a black boy in a wide-brimmed hat. Over the following years, the flags remained, but the black students in the photos disappeared. By 1999, the class photo was all white again, and it stayed that way until 2008, the last year for which there was a picture.

Those images became a consuming mystery for me. UFS hadn’t remained segregated after apartheid’s end—it had integrated and then resegregated later. I wanted to know why the white students raised those ancient flags, and why the black students had left Karee. I uncovered a tale of mutual exhilaration at racial integration giving way to suspicion, anger and even physical violence. It seemed to hold powerful implications well beyond South Africa, about the very nature of social change itself. In our post–civil rights struggle era, we tend to assume progress toward less prejudice and more social tolerance is inevitable—the only variable is speed.

But in Bloemfontein, social progress surged forward. Then it turned back.

* * *

Karee is one of about 20 dorms at UFS that house a few hundred students each. The large brick buildings are situated around the edges of the stately, tree-lined campus, like guardians of tradition, which is what they once were. They had legacy admission. If your mother or father had been in a certain dorm, you’d be in that one, too. In one dorm, freshmen wore striped coats. In another, everybody but the seniors walked in through the back door.

In the early 1990s, South Africa’s universities, all public institutions, were required to integrate as part of the country’s transition to multiracial democracy. Then-UFS President Francois Retief, who was tasked with incorporating black students into an all-white campus, worried about the dorms, he explained in the drawing room of his house in an old-age village on the edge of Bloemfontein. Retief seriously considered housing blacks separately from the whites. “Our dorms were historically more like your fraternities,” he said. “They had a lot of in-house culture. We called them die huise [the houses] and their culture was die tradisies [the traditions].”

These traditions were arbitrary, but they distinguished one dorm from another and fostered a sense of group pride and belonging. Retief feared that his white students might be reluctant to let blacks partake in their long-standing dorm culture. In 1990, he polled the student body to ask their views. To his great surprise, 86 percent welcomed the idea of housing the new black students in the white dorms. So, starting in 1992, he did just that. And it was a “roaring success,” he recounted. The first black students “fit in exactly!”

1992 Class photo.
UFS 1992 Class photo.

Lebohang Mathibela was the boy in the mauve suit in the 1992 class photo on the wall in Karee and one of the first eight black students to live in a UFS dorm. Integration “was beautiful,” he raved when we met at the main campus café. Dressed in a cheerful red T-shirt, Mathibela, now 42, hardly looked older than the 21-year-old in the photo, with cheeks as round as a cherub’s and a pealing laugh. Mathibela has had an accomplished career as a linguist, speaking all 11 official South African languages.

UFS wasn’t a natural choice for a black boy from Johannesburg, his hometown. There were two kinds of historically white colleges in South Africa: those that taught in English and those that taught in Afrikaans. (There were also historically black colleges, but they have generally been of lower academic quality.) The English universities cultivated a liberal, multicultural, anti-apartheid identity; they started admitting black students in the 1980s, when it was still technically illegal to do so. The Afrikaans colleges were reputed to be everything the “English” ones weren’t: conservative, mono-cultural, isolationist. UFS was the most daunting because it was marooned in the grain belt. For most aspirational black college applicants in the 1990s, venturing to UFS would be like choosing Mordor to study.

But UFS was also known for nurturing Afrikaans as a poetic language. That’s what drew Mathibela. In elementary school, he had developed a deep affection for Afrikaans, which was a mandatory school subject under apartheid. It was a mystery to his friends and relatives. “I decided to come to UFS because of my love of Afrikaans,” he said. “My mom was so angry. She said to me, ‘Other children are going to Wits [the University of the Witwatersrand],’ ” Johannesburg’s premier English university. “She says to me, ‘You are not my son anymore!’ ”

After he was placed into Karee, he proceeded to fall in love with UFS’s dorm culture. His favorite ritual was freshman initiation. He laughed as he described it to me, because he recognized that it seemed an unlikely memory to cherish. “We queued blindfolded and half-naked,” he recounted. Seniors painted the freshmen’s bodies in red and yellow stripes to resemble the dorm mascot, a bee. Then they made each initiate drink tomato juice from a toilet bowl. “It looked like vomit! It was horrible! Guys were really getting sick!” Finally, the freshmen were led to a “huge drum filled with water, cow dung and grass.” A senior shouted at them to dyk—dive! “Then you get out. You’re dripping, smelling like cow dung.”

After the cow-dung dip, the black and white freshmen were instructed to go back to their rooms, shower, change into a jacket and tie, and head to the dorm courtyard, where smiling seniors were waiting to hand them a plate of barbecued meat and a beer. “You are a member now,” they informed Mathibela. “Color doesn’t count.”

“I felt proud,” he remembered.

* * *

Like Mathibela, most of the first black students to brave UFS were gung-ho about the dorm culture. UFS had been closed to them, and it was thrilling to be let in and to belong. Another former black student who lived in a mostly white dorm in the early 1990s told me he felt like he was “ascending.”

Their enthusiasm made the white students feel as if they had something worth sharing, bolstering their sense of pride. Mathibela recalls that a white student named Coenraad Jonker pulled him aside. “Where did you learn to speak such beautiful Afrikaans?” he marveled. “You are definitely going to make it here.” White students even bent some of the dorm rules to make it easier on the black students.

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