Change the world


This article appeared in The Conversation of 14 March 2016, written by NMMU academic, Joleen Steyn Kotze

A university rugby match degenerated into on-field brawls between black and white students. White Afrikaans-speaking students and black students traded blows over the University of Pretoria’s language policy.

Some people are astonished that this is happening nearly 22 years after the end of formal apartheid and that such clashes often involve the so-called “born frees” – young South Africans who were born after apartheid ended in 1994. But the country is undergoing a massive transformation. Race lies at the heart of this process, just as it lay at the heart of the apartheid state.

Between 2013 and 2015 a group of colleagues from various universities and I conducted research about students’ views on political culture, values and voting; their perceptions of government policy and quality of life; and their impressions of race relations. All were “born frees”.

Our key finding was that university students often fall into the “single story” trap: they tend to ignore the experiences of other individuals or groups when constructing an understanding of the country’s political realities.

Political realities are, by their nature, constructed. In understanding the political discourse of race, then, the “single story” becomes salient. People construct their political knowledge based on their experiences and ideas about individuals and groups. This in turn structures group thinking – or single stories – around specific political issues and actions. On campuses, this would include language policy in higher education or the idea that universities must be decolonised.

Our research shows that students’ realities are built on single stories of “the racist”, continued exclusion and stereotypes. Their sense of nationhood, of being one, is very fragile. Their political reality is full of contradictions: integrated, yet separated; united, yet unreconciled; free, yet oppressed; equal, yet unequal.

Constructing political realities

The data was gathered from about 1,500 students across faculties and disciplines at six universities. Some are historically white institutions, one catered exclusively for black students during the apartheid era and others were created during a merger process in the early 2000s. Participants were all given a survey featuring both closed-ended and open-ended questions. On some campuses, these surveys were supplemented with focus groups.

So what are the “single stories” that university students tell themselves about race?

Students place a high value on democratic values like freedom, inclusion, equal rights and equal treatment. Concomitantly, there are also high levels of intolerance across racial lines based on students’ perceptions of other race groups’ access to wealth, better education, jobs and greater privilege.

Across the racial board, participants told a “single story” of exclusion as their lived political reality. White participants said they felt excluded by the country’s affirmative action policies and measures of redress. They feel they are being excluded from the job market. They talked about “reverse apartheid” being directed at white South Africans.

Black students talked about the country’s racialised patterns of poverty and inequality, which they view as a continuation of apartheid oppression. Their political reality was one of oppression as seen through the slow pace of substantive transformation and a lack of access to quality health care, education and basic services.

These “single stories” of exclusion and access exacerbate racial tensions.

Getting along?

When it came to relationships with people of different races, many students said they took hope from their own cross-racial friendships and the number of interracial romantic couples they know. They believe that non-racialism is based on the idea of tolerance. But many said that improving relationships across races would be a generational fight, as they believe that post-apartheid South Africa is built on a racist culture.

Stereotypes, an unwillingness to interact and continued discrimination fuel racial intolerance.

Moving beyond the ‘single story’

As long as the “single story” of exclusion is the main narrative describing post-apartheid citizenship, the racial dividing line that separates South Africans will persist. A divide created by apartheid will remain at the heart of South African citizenship.

Contact information
Prof. Joleen Steyn-Kotze
Associate Professor: Political Science
Tel: 041 504 2123