Frank debate on race relations

Race relations in South Africa took centre stage at a book launch in Salt River last week.

Well-known academic and community development activist, Dr Mamphela Ramphele, led a panel discussion on transformation in higher education as well as general race relations, at the Cornerstone Institute on Tuesday 21 August.

Brugbouers (Bridgebuilders), a book authored by Dr Rudi Buys, the dean of Cornerstone Institute, was also launched at the event.

The newly published book revisits the process of reconciliation in South Africa following an incident of racial discrimination at the University of the Free State in 2008. The infamous Reitz video incident has been described as providing an opportunity to examine the complexities of transformation today and the need to re-imagine the future of our society, even though it is seen as offensive­.

Buys explored these issues in discussion with Ramphele and Professor Gertrude Fester of the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town, in a discussion also attended by members of the public, who were also afforded an opportunity to participate­.

Stan Henkerman, executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), chaired the discussion and opened engagement with the audience.

The discussion explored what lessons the traumas of the Reitz video incident offers in dealing with current challenges of race, prejudice and privilege, particularly as it relates to changes in higher education today.

The Reitz incident rocked South Africa to its foundations, says a statement from Cornerstone Institute.

In the video four white male students subject five black workers to so-called screening tests for placement in their campus residence. After video images surfaced of the workers having to eat food the students had seemingly urinated in, racial tensions flared on campus and protesting voices sounded worldwide.

The university appointed Buys as dean of students following the incident to mediate racial reconciliation and transformation on campus.

In its analysis of the incident, Buys’ book focuses on “in-betweenness” to make sense of the causes and more specifically the subsequent interventions for reconciliation and campus transformation.

Buys highlights the life stories of four student leaders, two black and two white, from that turbulent period.

The book first recounts the experiences of the student leaders prior to, during and after the incident, and develops a way to make sense of the events. In the second part of the book Buys reflects on his experiences prior to the incident and during the process of reconciliation in terms of the perspectives he gained from the students’ lives.

“For me the process at the University of the Free State was an opportunity to make sense of my Afrikaner heritage. The episode at the university illustrates that Afrikaners, in their pursuit to reconcile their past with a future in the country, have the potential to become true bridge-builders and co-authors of a non-racial future,” says Buys.

The discussion also engaged general racial issues facing the country currently, with Ramphele calling on citizens to practise the ideals mentioned in the country’s constitution.

This is the first book in Afrikaans about the Reitz video incident and its aftermath and offers valuable lessons to anyone who is committed to active citizenship and meaningful transformation, reads Cornerstone’s statement.