On the 13th of March this year a series of posters were put up on the campus of Rhodes University depicting various scenes amongst others of deceased people from a Semitic background either hanged publicly or with bloodied bodies. The captions accompanying these images made statements about the persecution of homosexuals in a select number of countries in a geographical region of the world (the “Middle-East”).
Some of these posters carried the stamp of the Students' Representative Council. We have attached photographs of some of the most offensive posters. As members of the Rhodes University community, we view these posters to be racist and xenophobic. All the posters, including the ones enclosed in this open letter, were submitted to the University Prosecutors and a complaint was made by a member of the academic staff who found the posters to be racist and thus not acceptable for display at Rhodes University. It was indicated to the complainant at this time that the likely course of action would be to present all of the posters submitted to the prosecutors, including the ones depicting scenes of deceased individuals, before a Fairness Forum which was, in due course, done. We are disturbed that the outcome of the Fairness Forum deliberation of these submitted posters suggests that the Fairness Forum deemed their display acceptable in an institution of higher education. We are also deeply concerned that the public display of these posters – both on campus and at Pick 'n Pay (Pepper Grove Mall) – has been defended by the Fairness Forum on the basis of free speech. The indisputable right to free speech is, however, necessarily balanced and limited where appropriate and when in competition with other constitutional rights; something we are not convinced the Fairness Forum applied its mind to.
We think that the decision by the Fairness Forum with regard to the public display of these posters is not a well-considered one. We also dispute the finding that the display of the posters can be defended within the bounds of free speech. It is our view that the sanctioning of these posters for public display establishes a dangerous precedent at Rhodes University that opens a pathway to condoning the public dissemination of racist and xenophobic ideas and practices on the basis of the right to free speech. We view this as a clear violation of Rhodes University's own policies on racism.
It needs to be spelt out why we consider these posters racist and xenophobic.
1. The violent images are racist and xenophobic in the form in which they depict deceased people of Semitic origin. The dignity of deceased persons is not respected. This links to the demeaning representation of marginalised peoples and their bodies as “the other”. For example the images are analogous to images of lynching in the Southern states in the United States of America during the segregation era dominated by “Jim Crow” legislation.
2. In addition the images are used to suggest mob fury against gays when there is no evidence provided to suggest that the pictures in fact represent the killing of gay people. In other words we are asked to take these images completely at face value. This is not reasoned academic discourse but rather a crude form of propaganda and what can also be described as part of the “pornography of violence”.
3. In the selective choice of countries referred to, the posters target entire national groups and by implication their religion in an accusatory fashion. Persecution of gays occurs all over the world, including in countries such as South Africa, where their rights are protected constitutionally, and has been rightly condemned where ever it occurs. So why are these particular countries singled out in the poster in a manner that implies gay persecution is only restricted to countries of Islamic background?
4. The posters do not distinguish a state’s law from the view of its citizens – therefore suggesting that all people in the Islamic countries are willing to kill, harm or violate the rights of gay people. These generalisations about the attitudes towards gay people of an entire society are crudely xenophobic and racist. Certain cartoon images, similarly, blatantly convey the message that Islam, Muslims and terrorists are one and the same.
It is our view that these posters clearly violate the university’s policy on the eradication of unfair discrimination and harassment. This policy is based on chapter 9 of the second section of the Bill of Rights which declares that:
No person may unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on any grounds including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.
The policy includes harassment as a form of unfair discrimination. It defines harassment as:
unwelcome behaviour, hate speech, name calling, graffiti, ridicule, ‘put down’ jokes, pushing, shoving, bullying, and offensive, abusive or suggestive communications. The standard for determining whether conduct constitutes harassment is whether a reasonable person in the same or similar circumstances would find such conduct intimidating, hostile or abusive. A reasonable person’s standard includes consideration of the perspective of persons of the alleged complainant’s race, colour, religion, gender, national origin, age, disability, and so on.
A number of people, including signatories to this letter, have reported that they have experienced these posters as racially abusive, de-meaning and hurtful.
Racism is fundamentally unethical and, while it is never acceptable anywhere, it carries a particular historical weight in South Africa which is still coming to terms with the racism and violence not only of the apartheid era but also those of segregation and colonialism. The primary issue here is the fact that these posters were placed on public display on the university campus and have caused offense to the undersigned members of the university community. The undersigned deem the posters to be racist and xenophobic and therefore unbecoming of an academic institution. The question for us is what is the university to do about these posters that are deemed racist and xenophobic and how is it reconciled with the university’s policy on racism and xenophobia? It is this primary issue which we the undersigned are concerned about and which we recommend be the subject of a public university-wide forum using the posters as illustration.
The secondary issue is the determination by the Fairness Forum that these posters are acceptable for public display. The individual members of the Fairness Forum are of course at complete liberty to hold whichever private views that they have on the posters. However, the determination of the Fairness Forum as an official committee of the university has ramifications for the whole university community. In the determination that these posters are acceptable for public display it worryingly suggests that no shared understanding exists on what constitutes racism and xenophobia on our campus or on the seriousness of allowing the open expression of racism and xenophobia.
The university policy commits it to “eradicating” prejudice and requires that “executive and senior management vociferously, consistently and publicly reject any forms of …. prejudice.” It defines prejudice as “beliefs (isolated or systematic).... which are biased against those groups (or perceived members of those groups) listed above” and explains that “Examples of prejudice would include stereotyping and the tendency to form and hold, in the absence of sufficient evidence, false and negative beliefs about these
In our view these posters are a gross example of prejudice rooted in negative stereotypes.
We are of the view that the university is an institution of public inquiry where diverse, dissenting and alternative views can be presented, defended and contested in public with the proviso that it is done on the basis of mutual respect and tolerance. We find these posters to be neither respectful nor tolerant.
It is thus our recommendation that the posters should be the subject of a public university-wide forum adjudicated by the office of the Vice-Chancellor where the posters can be placed on public view and those who feel that it is acceptable to display these posters in public can present and defend their views in public. Similarly those of us who feel these posters are racist and xenophobic can present the reasons why we
hold the view that it is not becoming of a university institution to encourage the display of such images and posters. While we are aware that there are external Constitutional avenues to raise our concerns such as the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Court we would in the first instance, want to resolve this issue within the university community via a process of open and democratic debate.
As is stands the formal determination of the university Fairness Forum, were it to be left unchallenged, makes us feel as if we the undersigned are complicit in the propagation of the racist and xenophobic views we feel underpin these posters. We therefore respectfully but unreservedly dissociate ourselves from the decision of the Fairness Forum to permit the display of these posters on campus.
In addition to calling a university wide forum on the subject of racism and xenophobia we also recommend that the university leadership through the office of the Vice-Chancellor subject both the modus operandi and findings of the Fairness Forum to review and report back to the university community. We also call on the university to make transparent the process by which racism and xenophobia are identified as such (or not) and what steps are to be taken against the open expression of racist and xenophobic ideas and, moreover, what steps will be taken in the future in light of this open letter. This would be consistent with the requirement of university policy on racism that the “executive and senior management vociferously, consistently and publicly reject any forms of …. prejudice.”
As it currently stands the position of the university on racism and xenophobia and what is to be done about it is not self-evident to those of us in the Rhodes University community comprising academic staff, administrative staff, students and associations who feel compelled as an urgent matter of conscience to sign this open letter.
List of Signatories for Open Letter
1. National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (NEHAWU)
2. South African Students Congress (SASCO)
3. Rhodes University Muslim Students Association (MSA)
4. Rhodes University Palestinian Solidarity Forum (RUPSF )
5. Dr. Enocent Msindo (Senior Lecturer in History, Rhodes University)
6. Dr. Vashna Jagarnath (Lecturer in History, Rhodes University)
7. Prof. Larry Strelitz (Head of School Media Studies, Rhodes University)
8. Ms. Siphokazi Magadla (Lecturer, Department of Political and International Studies,
9. Prof Fred Hendricks (Dean of Humanities, Rhodes University)
10. Mr. Lebogang Hashatse (Director of Marketing and Communications, Rhodes
11. Ms. Natalie Donaldson (Lecturer in Psychology, Rhodes University)
12. Prof. Robert Van Niekerk (Director of the Institute of Social Economic Research (ISER))
13. Ms. Chantelle Malan (Student, Rhodes University)
14. Prof. Vishnu Padayachee (Professor Extraordinaire (ISER) Rhodes University)
15. Prof. Pedro Tabensky (Associate Professor in Philosophy, Rhodes University)
16. Ms. Ulandi du Plessis (ISER, Rhodes University)
17. Dr Yusuf Sayed (Senior Research Associate, ISER)
18. Mr. Richard Pithouse (Lecturer, Department of Political and International Studies,
19. Prof. Rose Boswell (Head of Department Anthropology & Deputy Dean of Humanities,
20. Ms. Georgina Barrett (Lecturer, Department of Political and International Studies,
21. Prof. Janice Limson (Head of Biotechnology, Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology
22. Ms. Jaine Roberts (Director of Research, Rhodes University)
23. Prof. Greg Ruiters (Professor of Governance and Public Policy, University of the
Western Cape, ISER senior research associate)
24. Ms Nomusa Mahubu (Lecturer, Department of Fine Arts)
25. Mr. Benjamin Fogel (Rhodes University Alumnus, Assistant Editor Amandla Magazine)
26. Dr. Sally Matthews (Senior Lecturer, Department of Political and International Studies,
27. Prof Michael Noble (Professor of Social Policy, University of Oxford and ISER senior
28. Ms. Alexander Sutherland (Senior Lecturer in Drama, Rhodes University)
29. Dr. Irene Callis (Visiting Lecturer in Politics, Rhodes University)
30. Prof. Andrew Buckland (Head of Department Drama, Rhodes University)
31. Ms. Bridget Hannah (Student, Rhodes University)
32. Mr. Nick Hamer (Jongaphambili Sinethemba Project, Rhodes University)
33. Dr. Jacqueline Marx (Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Rhodes University)
34. Ms. Nina Butler (Student, Rhodes University)
35. Mr. John Rose (Visiting Lecturer in Politics, Rhodes University)
36. Prof. Tally Palmer (Director, Unilever Centre for Environmental Water Quality Institute
for Water Research, Rhodes University)
37. Mr. Savvas Christodoulou (Student, Rhodes University)
38. Mr. Jon Stein (Student, Rhodes University)
39. Mr. Tyler Bairstow (Student, Rhodes University)
40. Ms. Victoria Johnson (Student, Rhodes University)
41. Dr. Nicole Ulrich (Postdoctoral Fellow in History, Rhodes University)
42. Prof. Charles Young (Associate Professor in Psychology, Rhodes University)
43. Mr. Suliman. J. M. Abdalla (Student, Rhodes University)
44. Ms. Sarah Bruchhausen (Student, Rhodes University)
45. Prof. Kirk Helliker (Head of the Department Sociology, Rhodes University)
46. Ms. Mathe V.K. Maema (Student, Rhodes University)
47. Ms. Corinne Knowles (Extended Studies Unit Lecturer, Rhodes University)
48. Ms. Ndapwa Alweendo (Student, Rhodes University)
49. Ms. Camalita Naicker (Student, Rhodes University)
50. Ms. Amanda Xulu (Student, Rhodes University
51. Fezi Mthanti (Student, Rhodes University)
52. Mr. David van Schoor (Lecturer Classical Studies, Rhodes University)
53. Ms. Estelle Prinsloo (Rhodes University Alumnus, Research Assistant, University of
54. Ms. Claire Waterhouse (Rhodes University Alumnus, Rhodes University)
55. Ms. Ines Schumacher (Rhodes University Alumnus, Rhodes University) ]
56. Ms. Jennifer Rust (Student, Rhodes University)
57. Ms. Carol Anne Stanton (Student, Rhodes University)
58. Ms Nosipho Mngomezulu (Student, Rhodes University)
59. Prof. Nigel Gibson (Emerson College USA, Honorary Fellow UKZN, Thinking Africa
Fellow Rhodes University)
60. Mr. Paul Wessels (Research Associate, Institute for the Study of English in Africa Rhodes
61. Prof. Jacques Depelchin (Visiting Lecturer in Politics, Rhodes University, 2012)
62. Ms. Mbali Baduza (Student, Rhodes University)
63. Ms. Heike Gehring (Lecturer in Drama Department, Rhodes Univeristy)
64. Ms. Jane Berg (Student, Rhodes Univeristy)
65. Mr. Paddy Donnelly (TV Production Manager, School of Journalism & Media Studies,
66. Ms. Gemma Barkhuizen (Student, Rhodes University)
67. Dr Sam Naidu (Senior Lecturer in English, Rhodes University)
68. Ms. Sooraya Shah (Student, Rhodes University)
69. Mr. John Reynolds (Head of the Labour Market Research Unit (ISER) Rhodes
70. Ms. Lindsay Wills (Rhodes University Alumnus)
71. Ms. Victoria Nyawara (Student, Rhodes University)
72. Dr. Lynn Quinn (Head of Department CHERTL, Rhodes University)
73. Mr. Damien Femi Johnson (Student, Rhodes University)
74. Prof. Michael Neocosmos (Visiting Lecturer in Sociology 2011 & 2012, Rhodes
75. Mr. Iyad Issa (Student, Rhodes University)
76. Ms. Alice Crosbie (Rhodes University Alumnus)
77. Mr. David Fryer (Senior Lecturer in Economics, Rhodes University)
78. Prof. Herman Wasserman (Deputy Head of School, in Media Studies, Rhodes
79. Ms. Joslyn Goodale (Student, Rhodes University)
80. Dr. Christopher McMichael (Rhodes University Alumnus, Post-Doctoral Wits School of
Architecture and Urban Planning)
81. Mr. Chika Mba (AHP Fellow in Philosophy, Rhodes University)
82. Ms. Kirsten Lee Harris (Student, Rhodes University)
83. Ms. Julie-Anne Lothian (Community Engagement office, & Student Rhodes University)
84. Ms. Michelle Morgan (Student, Rhodes University)
85. Ms. Deane Lindhorst (Student, Rhodes University)
86. Mr. Phumlani Majavu (Student, Rhodes University)
87. Ms. Chelsea Nelson (Rhodes University Alumnus)
88. Ms. Cindy Harris (Rhodes University Alumnus and former staff member, Rhodes
89. Dr. Carla Tsampiras (Lecturer, Department of History, Rhodes University)
90. Ms. Lihle Mancoba (Student, Rhodes University)
91. Ms. Rachel Baasch (Student, Rhodes University)
92. Mr. Dalli Weyers (Rhodes University Alumni)
93. Mr. Hussein Badat (Student, Rhodes University)
94. Ms. Katherine Robinson (Rhodes University Alumnus, Editor and Communications
Manager at Genderlinks)
95. Dr. Deborah Seddon (Senior Lecturer, English Department, Rhodes University)
96. Ms. Tarryn Alexander (Lecturer, Department of Sociology)
97. Ms Hannah Barry (Rhodes University Alumnus)