Four black university workers expressed pain and anger Thursday over being duped by white students into eating food allegedly tainted with urine for a video.
The video, which shows four women and one man on their knees eating the food, has been seen around the world, exposing deep racial tensions in South Africa more than a decade after Apartheid ended. Only the women attended a news conference at the University of the Free State to express their outrage.
"We feel pain," said Emma Koko, 40, who has been working at the school for 20 years and whose son attends classes there. "It's something we were not expecting. We regard them (the students) as our children."
The video depicts a mock initiation ceremony into a campus residence, with the middle-aged black cleaners portraying students. The workers seem to know and trust the students in the video, laughing as they try to eat the food while on their knees. But according to the video footage, one of the students urinated on the food beforehand unbeknownst to the cleaners.
On Thursday, the student head of the residence, Pieter Odendaal, claimed the student in the video was "not really urinating" and had poured water from a bottle on the food. Odendaal, who was not involved in the incident, insisted the video was taken out of its "humorous" context and that the workers had not been duped or humiliated.
At the news conference, the four women did not want to give details about what they had endured, sitting downcast with hats pulled low over their eyes.
But they said they felt humiliated by the video, whose intention is clearly to make viewers believe that workers were tricked into eating food contaminated with urine.
"We used to treat them like our children," said one woman, who did not want to be identified. "We know them very well."
The university's legal adviser, Lesley Mokgoro, said the workers "were misled to believe they were taking part in a competition."
"They were not aware of what they were participating in," Mokgoro said. "They have been seriously affected by this."
Integration at school 'not perfect'
University authorities have opened a criminal investigation into the making of the video. Two of the students involved left the university last year and the other two have now been barred from campus.
The university in the city of Bloemfontein, south of Johannesburg in the country's agricultural heartland, is regarded as a bastion for Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch settlers who are often most closely linked with white apartheid rule. While visitors enter the campus along Nelson Mandela Drive, statues of Afrikaner heroes dot the neat gardens and many of the university buildings bear their names.
The campus was quiet Thursday a day after police used a stun grenade to disperse stone-throwing students protesting the video. White and black students walked to and from classes — but seldom together. A few police patrolled the campus.
In the video, which was made last year but surfaced this week, the Afrikaans-speaking students refer sarcastically to the university's policy of integrating the campus dorms.
University rector Frederick Fourie said he was reduced to tears by the student's duplicity. "Their actions were despicable," he said.
Fourie acknowledged integration at the school was "not perfect."
The university, known for strong science departments, is one of a handful of institutions set up for the Afrikaans elite across the country. They all have high academic standards but are seen as conservative and have struggled with racial integration since opening their doors to black students in the early 1990s.
Black students make up 60 percent of the Free State university's 25,000-strong student body. Most of the support staff is black but over 80 percent of teaching staff is white.
Only eight of 138 students who live the Reitz residence, where the video was made, are black.
Odendaal, the residence head, acknowledged the video had given the dormitory a bad reputation.
Black students said it was well-deserved.
Commerce student Mpho Mothibi, 24, said Reitz residents set dogs on her during an inter-dormitory event three years ago.
"This is not the first time there has been an incident with the residence," she said of the video.
Her friend Avika Sooknanan, a former student, said racial tensions are high on the campus. "Every black person has a story of racism, directly or indirectly," she said.
Mothibi said one of the women in the video once told her to try to ignore offensive behavior of white students.
"One of the ladies in the video told me I must just ignore them, that it was just their way; that they are being silly," she said. "It saddened me to hear her talk like that, like she never expected anything better."