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Offensive graffiti on campus

- Wits University

Senior Executive Team statement at 14:30:

It has come to our attention that a small group of students are deliberately spraying offensive graffiti on walls on Wits’ campuses and on T-shirts. The offensive graffiti has been removed from our campus walls.     

The group claims to be mobilising on behalf of an individual who will apparently be appearing before the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) on Wednesday for wearing a T-shirt that had the words “Fuck White People” painted on the back.  We are not sure who laid the complaint with the SAHRC. 

However, the individual wearing the T-shirt has been associated with a number of illegal activities on Wits’ campuses in recent weeks, which we are investigating, in line with the University’s policies and procedures. 

Management’s response to the offensive messages 

As the Senior Executive Team of Wits University, we strongly condemn the offensive messages being propagated and we deeply regret the insult that it may cause to members of our community. 

We have deliberated on the matter, and while we do not agree with the actions of these students, we have been advised that legally, the statements may not be a violation of our country’s Constitution, which provides for freedom of expression, unless it constitutes incitement to cause harm. In this instance, while the messages are certainly hurtful, we have been advised that they may not directly incite harm. 

The University does not condone the actions of these students, whose behaviour runs contrary to the values of tolerance and respect that we expect from members of the Wits community and we strongly urge them to desist from this offensive and hurtful behaviour. 

Management’s response to the statement ‘Blacks can’t be racists’ 

The protesting group makes the case that black people cannot be racists. Their argument is based on the fact that the structure and distribution of power in our society and the world is decidedly in favour of white people. 

There is a serious methodological and intellectual problem with this argument. 

First, it makes the assumption that power is always homogenously constructed. In fact, power is always a relational concept displayed in any actions between individuals, even if both are of the same race. It is precisely because of this unequal power relationship that we cannot extrapolate from a structural relationship of power in society and the world, and use it unthinkingly to describe the interactions between any two individuals. 

We are thus of the view that it is indeed possible for people to act in racially offensive ways against white persons. 

Nevertheless, even if there was credence to this argument, it is the responsibility of every member of this University to be courteous to, and respectful of one another, even when we have different views. The statements by the protesting group may or may not be racist, they may not be unlawful, but they are certainly hurtful and offensive to others. 

There is no use in engaging in esoteric debates that do not obviate from the fact that the statements are offensive and hurtful and that they fundamentally violate and undermine the core values of Wits University. 

Should a member of our University community behave in this regard? We cannot deal with this using security measures. What is required is a social convention, through which members of the Wits community rise and say #NotInOurName. 

Offensive graffiti stealing from the poor 

Some of these students may be able to obtain temporary satisfaction as a result of wearing offensive T-shirts or spraying graffiti on our walls. We are forced to clean this offensive graffiti at a huge cost to the University. These are funds which could have been spent on financial aid. This is the tragedy – people who are claiming to act on behalf of the poor are behaving in ways that may redirect resources away from the poor. The University will take action against anyone caught defacing University property, or spraying graffiti on walls not designated for this purpose. 

Conclusion 

We understand that there are some who would like to manipulate the current political climate and the debates around race in society to deliberately provoke and offend others to suit their own agendas. We need to rise above the cheap politicking and rather use this opportunity to effect meaningful transformation in the higher education sector and society. We can only do so if we all act in ways that are respectful and tolerant of one another.

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