S. African white students plead guilty over urine-tainted food, drink in racism video case

By Bongani Mthethwa, AP
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

White students plead guilty in racism video case

BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa — Four white former students pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges surrounding a video they made humiliating black university employees in a case prompting bitter protests that racism remains entrenched in South Africa more than a decade after the end of racist white rule.

The men pleaded guilty to charges of illegally and deliberately injuring another person’s dignity. The video showed the employees being forced to consume food and drinks that appeared to be tainted with urine. The students later described it instead as a “harmless” liquid.

The court accepted the guilty plea and adjourned to Wednesday for closing arguments from attorneys on sentencing that is unlikely to include imprisonment.

The video, which was shot in 2007 at the University of the Free State some 250 miles (400 kilometers) southwest of Johannesburg, used the university employees to re-enact the initiation rights normally given to students trying to get into the residence hall. The employees included four middle-aged women and one man.

After the video first emerged in 2008, police dispersed stone-throwing students on the sprawling campus and classes were cancelled.

Students Roelof Malherbe and Schalk van der Merwe were banned from the campus and two fellow students living in the university accommodation known as the Reitz men’s residence, Danie Grobler and Johnny Roberts, were implicted in making the video after they graduated and had left the campus.

The men’s residence was also shut down after video received worldwide publicity.

The university in the city of Bloemfontein has been regarded as a bastion for Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch settlers who are often most closely linked with white apartheid rule.

Commentary on the video in the Afrikaans language included sarcastic references to the university’s policy of integrating the campus dorms years after the end of apartheid.

Black students make up 60 percent of the Free State university’s 25,000-strong student body. Most of the support staff are black but the teaching staff are mainly white.

Multiracial elections in 1994 ended decades of white rule in South Africa but racial undercurrents remained strong.

Amid tensions on the campus in 2008, lawyers for the students said although it appeared as if the food had been urinated on, a “harmless” liquid had been squirted from a bottle.

Apologizing in the statement, two of the students said they had been “crucified as racists” and regretted making the film, meant as a “satirical slant” on the issue of racial integration at the university hostels.

In a sign of the gravity of the case, South Africa’s most senior prosecutor, Johan Kruger, appeared for the state Tuesday. Renowned defense attorney Kemp J. Kemp, who represented Jacob Zuma before he took office as president last year, represented the students. Prosecutors dropped the corruption charges against Zuma.

(This version Corrects that the video emerged in 2008)

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