Nzimande shocked by Jansen's decision on Reitz Four

Minister says UFS's withdrawal of complaint is grossly insensitive

Statement by the Ministry of Higher Education and Training on the University of the Free State 's planned withdrawal of a complaint against the "Reitz Four"

The Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr Blade Nzimande had on Saturday requested a report from the University of the Free State regarding its rector Professor Jonathan Jansen's announced intention to withdraw the university's complaint against the four former students who humiliated and abused workers in a mock initiation (see here).

The Ministry expected to obtain the report by the end of business on Monday but has not yet received it. We had hoped that the report would explain the circumstances and processes which led to the announcement. Contrary to public assertions by Professor Jansen, neither the Minister nor any member of his staff was consulted nor informed of this decision prior to the announcement last Friday.

When we visited this university early last month in the wake of the appointment of the first black Vice Chancellor and election of the first black SRC president, we were inspired by the vision of Professor Jansen, particularly his plans for transforming the institution. We welcome and support elements of his vision, particularly the integration of the residences and introduction of African languages for white students.  

However the Minister wishes to express his strong disapproval and shock at the decision by the university to withdraw its complaint against the former students and intention to readmit them. This decision is grossly insensitive in that it fails to unite the university and broader South African society in dealing with racism and other forms of discrimination. Instead it has caused further divisions and opened wounds which are still very fresh.

During the visit to UFS, Minister Nzimande met with the workers who featured in the demeaning video produced by the four former residents of the Reitz hostel in their effort to ridicule transformation. The workers are profoundly scarred by the incident and have clearly not recovered from it. Asked what could be done to aid their healing, the workers made simple requests including changing of their uniforms, which they said was a constant reminder of the incident, and to be redeployed out of the residences as they were still being taunted by some of the white students. The Ministry channeled these requests to the university management.

We have not yet received a response as to whether these issues have been addressed by the university and they were not mentioned during last Friday's announcement. There was mention of some form of compensation for the workers, over which there has also been no consultation.

National reconciliation is not an act of an individual's personal crusade or something which can be imposed. In the first instance, the process should involve all those affected. Neither the victims nor key university stakeholders were consulted or meaningfully engaged in the lead up to this decision. Inherent also in the process of reconciliation is the expression of remorse which none of the perpetrators have ever demonstrated or expressed for their shameful actions.

The view of the Department of Higher Education and Training is that we cannot allow victims of racism to be unconditional unilateral forgivers. We fear that on one hand Professor Jansen has taken it upon himself to absolve the perpetrators on behalf of the victims and compensate the victims on behalf of the perpetrators. This would constitute a superficial trade off which further impugns the dignity of the victims and is unfortunately an apology for the perpetrators of racism. 

It is time now for our country to come to terms with the fact that there can never be perpetual reconciliation without taking action against those who betray the letter and spirit of the Constitution. To equate this to retributive justice is to undermine all we have fought for in the struggle for freedom and democracy, as well as the process of reconciliation.

Human dignity, especially given our history, is a fundamental necessity to deepen and consolidate our democracy and a non-racial society, and must always be upheld and respected.

We therefore call on the university to convene an urgent meeting of all stakeholders in the university community to discuss this matter, and to seek a common and better way forward. We call for the suspension of the decision to withdraw the complaint and readmit the students, pending the outcome of a process of institution-wide, meaningful consultation, and that the Minister be advised on any consequent action that might need to be taken. Our call is informed by the fact that our Constitution and the values it embodies are above any individual institution and should be strictly adhered to and promoted.

Following this incident at the Reitz hostel, our government commissioned a full investigation into racism in higher education. The findings pointed to the fact that racism and other forms of discrimination are rife at institutions of higher learning.

Therefore how we deal with this particular incident does not only affect UFS, but is a matter for the higher education sector and society as a whole. The minister is concerned that the decision to withdraw the complaint threatens to undermine all our efforts to root out racism and all forms of discrimination in higher education. Hence it is imperative that a process is undertaken which will result in real reconciliation and also to deal decisively with any other threats to our constitutional order.

Statement issued by Ranjeni Munusamy, head of media and communications, ministry of higher education and training, October 21 2009

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter