BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa (AP) — The first black leader in the 106-year history of the University of the Free State started his tenure last year with a surprise.
In his inaugural speech, rector Jonathan Jansen declared that the university would drop its criminal case against four white students accused of making a video where four black janitors eat a stew apparently spiked with urine. Jansen also offered two of the students who had been expelled the chance to resume their studies — the other two had graduated.
Jansen's controversial move rippled across a country that is still struggling to unify, 16 years after Nelson Mandela won its first all-race elections. Some blacks were outraged, including the local head of the African National Congress Youth League, who accused Jansen of racism.
But Jansen said he was trying to start a conversation, and that racism cannot be resolved in the courts. Human rights lawyer Mothusi Lepheane, who has been advising the janitors, said he understood.
"Where should they go?" the lawyer said of the students. "We don't have a camp or university for racists. Bring them back, let them learn how to live with others."
And retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, often seen as South Africa's measured, moral voice, said Jansen was setting an example for the nation.
"Revenge and retribution are easy," Tutu said. "Forgiveness is not for sissies."
The furor points to the complexity of Jansen's mandate: To integrate a university in South Africa's conservative heartland, where blacks are still ushered to the back of restaurants. The university, virtually all white a generation ago, is now 60 percent black. But black and white students largely live and learn separately. And when Jansen took over, white students begged him, "Please don't force us to integrate."
He will. Jansen says preparing students for a future in a multiracial country means insisting: "If you want to study here, then you're going to have to learn to live together."
A University of the Free State residence is more than just a dormitory. What's known here as a "rez" is closer to a U.S. fraternity or sorority, but with even more influence. Students take rooms in the residences where their parents once lived. They follow initiation rites that have been passed down for generations.
One residence was named for Hendrick Verwoerd, South Africa's prime minister from 1958-1966, a period during which apartheid was entrenched and black rights decimated. The name was not changed until 2006, to Armentum, Latin for a herd of large animals such as elephants, the house's mascot.
Most of the white students come from the surrounding province. They were nurtured in all-white schools and all-white churches in isolated farming communities where everyone spoke Afrikaans, the language of the descendants of early Dutch settlers. For more than a century, what was once known as the Orange Free State was an independent Afrikaner republic.
Lawyer Lepheane said that in 2005, one of his first cases in Bloemfontein involved a liquor store with separate entrances for blacks and whites. Half a decade later, a black Bloemfontein car dealer brought Lepheane a case where white colleagues had replaced a picture of him in a newspaper ad with that of a monkey.
In 2006, the Free State administration before Jansen's bowed to pressure and called for residences to be integrated. That's when the now-infamous video was made. It ends with the janitors being invited to move into the residence, and then an Afrikaans phrase appears in supertitles: "This is what we really think of racial integration."
Jansen was brought in to try integration again. He announced that the new groups going into every residence would be half black and half white. But because those already living in the residences were not affected, the houses remain largely segregated.
Jansen has already stopped one residence from forcing first-year students to bow before the statue of a residence founder.
"There you have black students bowing to a white guy they have no connection to," he said. "There are traditions that are not shared and are offensive."
Jansen's work day often begins at 7 a.m. with an hour devoted to students who drop by his ground floor office with their concerns. Twice a month, Jansen sets up a few chairs on the campus lawns or hallways of a classroom building for more chats with students.
Colleagues say if they have a date to walk to a university event with him, they allow plenty of time to cross campus because of his habit of stopping to engage students.
It's a stroll through a segregated landscape. Here, a dozen black students go over class notes on the lawn. There, white students chat in the campus cafe.
The divide is also economic. While many of the white students drive their own cars to campus, the black students are alighting from buses.
At 53, Jansen grew up in a South Africa where racism reached levels of brutality unknown to most Free State students today.
As a teenager, Jansen would leave Cape Town to visit his grandparents in the rural Western Cape. On one visit, his grandmother sent him to buy a loaf of bread. As he walked to the store, he was clipped on the heel by a brick a white boy threw from a yard.
Jansen rushed at the boy, only to find the father, an off-duty police officer, was at home. Jansen was forced into a car, and beaten on the way to the police station. An aunt came to plead for him, and he eventually was released.
Jansen's family had property in that country town confiscated under apartheid laws around the time he was born.
"I think my grandfather went blind because they took his land away to give to white people," Jansen said.
Jansen himself was angry.
"I was angry with Mandela when he talked truth and reconciliation. Steve Biko made a lot more sense to me than Mandela for a long time," he said, referring to the black consciousness activist who was tortured to death by police in 1977.
Jansen said he learned to forgive when working with white students as dean of education at another Afrikaner bastion, the University of Pretoria. In the end, he came to embrace Mandela's argument that retribution would only lead to bloodshed and destroy the country.
In a country that is 80 percent black, simple demographics say South Africa's future leaders will be drawn from among Jansen's black students. He hopes to teach them that forgiveness and generosity aren't just personal choices, but a duty of black leaders in a fledgling democracy.
It is a message that could easily be drowned out in today's South Africa. A prominent member of the governing African National Congress recently led students at another university in a rendition of an anti-apartheid era song about killing whites. And Afrikaner media and rights group keep up a relentless chorus of their own about crime and corruption that has clear, if coded, racial overtones.
Whether Jansen is pushing fast and hard enough for change is a matter of debate on campus. As he sat with friends at a picnic table on campus, Nande Ngxwana, a 20-year-old black student in his second year at the university, said he understood the rector's impulse to reach out to whites.
"Can you blame a person for being racist?" he said. "I feel racism is something that was instilled in you. You grow up with it."
But his friend Lwandile Magoda, also 20, said whites shouldn't be excused for their racism.
"It gets to a point when you're, like, 18, you have to think for yourself."
Jansen said he understands that black Free State students are rankled by the lack of blacks in senior positions in a faculty that is a third white.
Jansen said one of his first acts as rector was to ask for a list of deans about to retire. There were 17, and he determined 15 would be replaced by women and blacks. But pushing whites out to make room for blacks more quickly would only repeat the mistakes of the past, when whites advanced at the expense of other groups, Jansen said.
Language is also a loaded issue: During apartheid, black students were forced to learn Afrikaans, the language of the white oppressor.
In his inaugural address, Jansen pledged to "open discussion on ways in which we can get every white student to learn Sesotho ... and every black student to learn Afrikaans, and all our students to learn to write and speak English competently."
Every course at the university is now offered in both Afrikaans and English. The result is that whites are isolated in the Afrikaans classes, and blacks in the English ones.
In her five years at Free State, Sune Geldenhuys, a 23-year-old white medical student, has rarely shared a class with a black student. But when students worked with patients in a black neighborhood this year, she had to turn to black students for translations. Geldenhuys said she could imagine returning to Free State to teach one day.
"The way things are going, I think it's going to be different," she said. "I hope in a good way."
Black law student Thopelo Chacha, also 23, has joined a relatively new group of black and white students training to give advice to other students about AIDS and safe sex. Chacha said he could even imagine counseling a white student about those sensitive topics.
"I have to be part of the transformation," Chacha said.
Jansen is invited by groups around the country to explain what he is doing at Free State, or to talk about his new book, "Knowledge in the Blood", about his experiences as dean of education at the University or Pretoria. He also writes a weekly column for a Johannesburg newspaper addressing race, politics and education.
Jansen says — and his staff attests — that he spends 12 hours a day on campus, and another six at off-campus activities, many of them involving mingling with students.
One of them, Marzanne Lombard, a 21-year-old white third-year marketing student, left a predominantly white residence this year to move into an all-black one. Jansen visits Welwitchia House often, once bringing flowers to the young women, Lombard said.
"When we walk out of here, we'll have so much more to be proud of than hanging on to old traditions," Lombard said.
TRENDING IN NEWS