by Thokozani Dladla
It is well known that tertiary institutions are a big mix of students of different races, languages and cultures all together in one place. This brings up a question that many people have been asking a lot more in 2015: different as they are from one another in terms of their races, languages and cultures do they interact to such an extent where they all feel at home in this mixed space?
I spoke to three Rhodes University undergraduate students from different races, cultures and languages, namely Anelisa Sandi, Kimara Govender and Daniel, as well as one post graduate student, Mlamuli Hlatshwayo to find out whether they feel there is unity in diversity in their university “home”.
According to Sandi, the big dream of unity hasn’t quite been reached yet. “It has become natural for us to be divided. For example, in my Journalism and Media Studies tutorial white students sit next to one another and the same applies to us black students,” she said.
Some students consider this division in the campus as simply the culture of the institution. Surprisingly enough, it is not only race that is considered when students separate themselves from one another: they also consider language and culture.
“I don’t sit with other Indians in my dining hall because most of them are Muslims. When I sit with them they don’t talk to me; in fact they don’t hang around with people who are not Muslims. They don’t even interact with Hindus,” Govender stated. “I’m glad I’m a Christian. I interact with anyone; to me race and culture doesn’t matter,” she added.
So while it’s clear to everybody here that there is division among students of different races, it doesn’t just end there. From what Govender said we can deduce that within the Indian race there are religious divisions too, for example.
Hlatshwayo, a master’s student in Politics and International Studies at Rhodes University, outlined that he discovered recently in his research based on the theme ‘Rhodes as a home for all’ that when a black student is choosing a friend in tertiary institution, the main factor that the student considers is ‘language’. Many black students, particularly those from rural areas, face difficulties in expressing themselves in English. So they turn to overcome that difficulty by making friends with other students that can speak and understand their African language. This is one of reasons why we often see students who speak a certain African language always being together.
According to Raymond Suttner from the faculty of Humanities, who conducted a research at Rhodes University, most black students try to make themselves white students by changing their accent when speaking, making it similar to white people’s accent. Most of them do this because they were previously told in their communities that blackness represents poverty, intellectual bankruptcy, illiterate and slavery.
Suttner shared the roots of this culture of black people trying to make themselves part of the white people community in Rhodes University’s website:
“It is a controversial topic, with some prescribing that being African has specific and essentialist, unchanging characteristics, impervious to time and place. We can only understand this and other contentious issues if we locate them in their historical context. In South Africa, the liberation struggle de-emphasised ethnic identity in the interest of building a common identity. This was in opposition to both the colonial and Apartheid governments’ efforts to divide black and white and separate African people into ‘tribal’ groups,” Suttner said.
Those who don’t try to “become white” in this way often find they can’t see Rhodes as a home. Hlatshwayo said he was once hurt and made not to feel at home in his first year. He was stopped by the Campus Protection Unit officer (CPU) who demanded his student card for positive identification.
“I don’t know why they did that, I believe it was because of what I was wearing then they suspected that I am not a Rhodes student,” he said.
He added, “Wearing Kasi clothes makes one to be seen as a thief or someone not worthy to be a Rhodes University student, therefore I don’t feel the sense of belonging because they (Rhodes University community) do not accept people the way they are.”
However, some students have described Rhodes as the best place they have ever seen in their entire lives. Govender and fellow student Daniel, who is an Afrikaner, are living evidence of this.
“I feel as if there is unity in diversity here at Rhodes University which also aids us to interact to such an extent where one feels at home,” Daniel explained. “Back at home my grandparents were racist; they use to tell me how bad black people are and reasons why I should not interact with them.”
“I uses to interact with people of different races only on Sundays when I’m at church but now that happens on daily,” Daniel claimed.
From Daniel’s testimony we can deduce that some white students do not initiate racial division in the campus because they naturally dislike people of other races but it is simply because they were told to not interact with people of different races where they come from.
Sandi believes that it is the mindsets of people that prohibit them from interacting to such an extent where one feels at home. She further said if we want to defeat division that prohibits us from interacting fully we must liberate these minds.
Hlatshwayo believes the only way to bring unity in diversity is for one to interact with others to such an extent where one feels at home is to start open conversation, talk about racism, language barriers and tolerate one another so that we can understanding each other better.
Thokozani Dladla is currently studying Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. Follow him on Twitter for future stories.