The riots that broke out in South Africa in protest of racial abuse on Wednesday, almost 16 years to the day that Nelson Mandela walked free from prison, have revealed just how distant the former president's dream of a Rainbow Nation remains from reality. The protests came in response to a video distributed on the Internet showing four white university students abusing black campus service staff by forcing them to perform a series of degrading acts, including eating food mixed with urine.
The video itself appears to have been posted as a twisted protest by racist students against plans to integrate university dorms. It opens with a voiceover in Afrikaans that says: "Once upon a time the Boers lived happily here on Reitz island, until the day the less advantaged discovered the word 'integration' in the dictionary."
The 10-minute film then moves on to a series of scenes in which black cleaners four women and a man are shown drinking bottles of beer in a race that the commentary describes as "down-downs," then taking part in a running race. In a final scene, what appears to be pet food is shown being mixed with garlic in a bowl. One of the four students then takes the bowl to a toilet, and is filmed urinating in it. The bowl is then heated in a microwave, divided into five plastic cups and handed to the cleaners, who are kneeling on the floor. The students shout at the cleaners to eat it. Two immediately spit it out; the three that eat it are then presented with a bottle of whisky. The video ends with an on screen message, also in Afrikaans, which translates as: "That, in the end, is what we think of integration."
The University of the Free State, where the scenes were filmed, said two of those shown in the video are still enrolled at the university, while two others had completed their studies. A spokesman said the university authorities were preparing to file a criminal complaint with the police.
Tensions have been simmering on campus over an integration policy introduced this year that aims to make black and white students mix more in university hostels. At present, according to a university policy document, "on the main campus, in effect we have 'two campuses one white and one black separated in the classrooms and the residences." Riots erupted over the issue last week, and on Wednesday police used a stun grenade to disperse a mixed crowd of black and white students and staff who held a combined protest against racism on the campus.
Political parties and human rights organizations reacted with outrage to the video. The Youth League of the ruling African National Congress said: "This barbaric act does not only denigrate and dehumanize those workers, but is a tip of the iceberg of what workers experience daily at the hands of racists who can't differentiate between a dog, baboon and a human being."
That incidents such as those depicted in the video remain possible in the post-apartheid era and that they are brought to light by the boasting perpetrators rather than by the victims underscores the distance South Africa has yet to travel on its road away from racism.