By Charné Mostert
In the lecture halls and classrooms of the University of Pretoria (UP), decorated with jacaranda flowers in the spring, one would think that meaningful diversity is embraced and celebrated, but on this campus there threatens a disturbing ideological battlefield characterized by double standards.
In the current context of racial tension and entrenched polarities on campus, two starkly contrasting incidents paint a clear picture of the university’s biased indulgence towards social and political ideological differences, leading to fruitless campus conflict.
In 2023, a white UP house committee member dared to give her opinion during a #BlackLivesMatter meeting and put “AllLivesMatter” on her WhatsApp status. Her worldview involved the concept of true equality for all, including equality for all people regardless of race, gender or creed. However, the committee member was then branded a racist on social media by a black fellow UP student, who harassed her by forcing her to change her opinion, as her view was considered “hate speech”.
The university responded to this incident by issuing a warning and banning the student from being re-elected as a house committee member. Note that she advocated real inclusiveness and non-racialism. However, this led to her forced resignation from a leadership position in the university.
An example of the double standards used by UP is a contrasting incident involving a registered student association known as the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command of the University of Pretoria (EFFSC UP).
The EFFSC UP follows a Marxist-Leninist ideology and preaches extremist views. The term “revolution” that they often use is seen as a method to bring about the society that they pursue in their radical ideology. EFFSC UP uses intimidation and coercion as tools to promote its agenda in student hostels.
This became clear from an incident where the management of student accommodation introduced regulations to ensure that men and women could enjoy privacy when using their bathroom facilities. This event was turned into a racial issue by blaming “racist white girls” for “criminalizing black men” living in the same building because these girls objected to using bathroom facilities with men.
After this incident, the university decided to react with silence. In 2023, there will once again be an increase in cases of EFF intimidation and the instigation of a climate of fear on the UP campus.
A climate of hesitation
The double standards between these two incidents simply cannot be ignored. The ideological warfare on campus shows the contradictions between two different scenarios of racial tension on campus. A student who campaigned for unity and non-racialism was swiftly punished, and a student association that promotes hatred and intimidates students becomes a dangerous carte blanche granted
The contradiction between the university’s stated commitment to promoting a diverse range of beliefs and the extent to which the institution upholds its stated principles in practice is worrying. While the university promotes free expression and an arena where students can participate in fruitful debates, it is worrying that the incitement of violence and intimidation is overlooked.
The suppression of voices, as evidenced by the #AllLivesMatter incident, is a sharp contradiction of the essential essence of higher education. Instead of cultivating an environment where ideas can be shared and refined, we cultivate a climate of fear in which students hesitate to express their beliefs, for fear of expulsion, intimidation or violence.
A culture of hesitation, fear and silence is established among students on campus. The lack of disciplinary action against the EFFSC UP’s unacceptable behavior creates a dangerous precedent. This implies that certain groups or ideological tendencies are exempt from the strict behavioral norms to which others are bound. This undermines the university’s credibility and encourages an atmosphere of reckless untouchability, in which students may feel encouraged to deliberately perpetuate hate speech and intimidation tactics.
UP needs to thoroughly rethink its position regarding ideological diversity and the extent to which it impinges on freedom of expression.
Equal distributed equality
The current ideological warfare on campus, characterized by appalling double standards, is an issue that deserves our urgent attention. Each student’s opinions must receive equal consideration, handling and response. This means that each student’s ideology and opinions are valid, but that these beliefs must not incite violence or intimidation in support of their validity.
South African universities should serve as fertile ground where ideas flourish rather than suffocating caged places where they wither away. Constructive conversation that has a significant effect on people’s thinking includes debating and discussing a variety of ideas, including ideas that may make some of us feel uncomfortable.
Rather than silencing dissenters, universities should promote open discourse with great zeal and provide students with the space to express their beliefs and participate in constructive discussion. What universities must not do, however, is confuse freedom of expression with the incitement of violence or the use of intimidation.
- Charné Mostert is a campaign officer at AfriForum. She has an honors degree (cum laude) in international politics and is currently working on her master’s degree in security studies at the University of Pretoria. Charné usually publishes contributions on X (formerly Twitter), LinkedIn and TikTok.