REVIEW: It’s a black/white thing

It's a blackwhite thingIt’s a Black White Thing 

Donna Bryson                             

Tafelberg

ISBN: 9780624065180

REVIEW: Sue Townsend

Donna Bryson has written a thought-provoking book. Given our obsession with race (and that’s what this book is all about), it should be mentioned that Bryson is an African American journalist who has lived in South Africa – in the late 1990s and again from 2008 – 2012. She brings her own experiences to the table as well as many interviews with students, academics and administrators at the University of the Free State.

Using the infamous Reitz video as her peg, she explores the attitudes (both changing and unchanging) at that University; extrapolating her findings to discuss the racial tensions; the attempts to diffuse them and the strategies employed by UFS in the last five years to achieve genuine integration – both in the lecture halls and the residences.

Professor Jonathan Jansen, the Rector of UFS, is a well-known figure to most thinking South Africans. In 2010 he instigated a programme in which dozens of first year UFS students travel abroad to experience university life in another country.   Bryson followed a number of these students to Texas A&M University and has held extensive interviews with them, as well as with the students and staff with whom they interacted. Contextualising all her discussion within the history of segregation and enforced integration in the USA in the 1960s and drawing on the similarities in post-Apartheid South Africa, she skilfully uses this as a microcosm for South African society today.

Having taught in South African schools that defied the Nationalist Government and opened their doors to children of all races as long ago as 1976, I was particularly dismayed to realise just how verkramp the UFS was when it was forced to accept students who were not white or Afrikaners when South Africa was liberated in 1994 – and how this history still haunts its corridors. But then, as Bryson quotes Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu: ‘Forgiveness is not for sissies”. It takes hard work and much determination on the part of leaders to move towards genuine integration. Bryson has also interviewed the Rectors that preceded Jansen, both of whom took great strain as they paved the way for his inspired determination to turn UFS into a beacon of enlightenment in this troubled land.

An interesting snippet, in the light of the ongoing debate around our own University of Cape Town’s admissions policy, in 2008 a white student sued Texas A&M, claiming that she had been discriminated against on racial grounds. The USA Supreme Court ruled that any university should have substantial leeway ‘both in the definition of the compelling interest in diversity’s benefits and in deciding whether its specific plan was narrowly tailored to achieve its stated goal.’

Jonathan Jansen deserves the final word: ‘I absolutely enjoy being here’ he says. ‘I’m completely at ease with the whole of myself.’ And he predicts that UFS will not see a race crisis like the Reitz video ever again. I hope he is right; the struggle is far from over, not for UFS, not for Bloemfontein and not for the country.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times

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