SAHRC: Spike in racism-related incidents in SA

Johannesburg - There has been a spike in racism-related incidents in South Africa, particularly at universities, with over 500 cases being reported to the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) in the past year.

"These cases were not only in universities," SAHRC chairperson Lawrence Mushwana told reporters in Johannesburg on Thursday.

He was leading a series of hearings into transformation at universities, which began on Thursday.

"The SAHRC remains deeply concerned about the lack of transformation taking place in South African society 20 years into its democratic dispensation," he said.

In the 2013/14 financial year, 45% of the commission's complaints were race-related.

Panel commissioner Lindiwe Mokate said black students were targeted in most of the cases.

"There had been an increase in the 'k' word [being used] where there is not sufficient respect for each other among students."

The commission said it was aware of interventions relating to initiation practices and racial discrimination being implemented at universities, but with varying degrees of success.

"The SAHRC is interested to learn what lessons can be learnt from a sample of universities around the country as to the steps that have been taken... to deal with complaints of discrimination, in its various forms," the commission said.

"The scope of this hearing will address challenges, progress and best practices of transformation at the levels of academic, non-academic staff and student bodies."

The hearings scheduled for Thursday and Friday were the first of many to gather information and data from a number of experts.

The findings and recommendations would be compiled in a report and sent to Parliament to help improve government and institutional frameworks, and ensure that transformation impediments were addressed.

"Due to its constitutional mandate, the SAHRC is in a position to monitor the effective incorporation of its recommendations in future policies," it said.

Death at NWU

The hearing was spurred by a complaint received in 2012 from the Higher Education Transformation Network (HETN) about the death of a student, Thabang Mokhoang, at an orientation programme at the North West University. He drowned in a campus swimming pool. The commission was asked to determine what role discrimination had played in Mokhoang's death.

An independent investigation into his death by advocates Vusi Pikoli and Lourens de Koning found it was an accident, and did not constitute an initiation ceremony. It found the event formed part of the reception and introduction programme at the campus.

HETN later argued that the treatment of Mokhoang during the orientation was discriminatory and that it was illustrative of racist practices at the university.

"While the commission has elected to allow other bodies seized with the criminal and civil aspects of this incident to complete their work, the commission has seen the need to review more broadly the underlying and systematic factors that enable discrimination to persist in universities around the country," it said.

The SAHRC said there was a difference between initiation practices and orientation programmes, with "dignity" being the differentiating factor in introducing a student to campus life.

In 2001, the SAHRC released a report into initiation practices at universities in South Africa, responding to a request by then minister Kadar Asmal. The report came after the death of a student at Stellenbosch University in an initiation programme.

The report found that initiation practices violated the rights of students to dignity and equality and subjected them to cruel and inhumane punishment. It recommended that intiation programmes be banned, and that orientation programmes be carried out in a dignified way.

Another report in 2008 by the ministerial committee on transformation in higher education institutions also recommended that initiation practices be banned.

Mushwana said the hearings would examine why previous recommendations had not been implemented and why racism still persisted.

In the latest incident in February this year, it is alleged that two white students drove over a black student at the University of the Free State (UFS). The matter is currently being heard in the Bloemfontein Regional Court.

In another incident in 2008, several cleaners were humiliated in a mock initiation ceremony at the UFS by four residents of the Reitz men's hostel.