For the months leading up to departure, one the most common and surprisingly difficult questions I faced was, “Where are you going to be?” There were several variations on this question, such as: “So, are you going to be in Cape Town?” and “Will you be in Johannesburg or Cape Town?” I answered these questions in their various forms with varying degrees of self-consciousness about the fact that I would not be in Cape Town, or Johannesburg, or really anywhere that anyone I spoke to had heard of. “It’s a city called Bloemfontein,” I would respond, adding some combination of the following:
- It’s about 4 hours southwest of Johannesburg
- It’s a university town
- It’s not one of the big cities, but it was big enough to host games during the 2010 World Cup
- But since I have a research grant, I’ll probably be moving around quite a bit, visiting scholars and schools all over the county
- It is the judicial capital of South Africa. (this was typically Meggan adding this one)
The truth was that I really had no idea where I was going, what it was like. According to one tour book, Bloemfontein is a “buzzing university town when school is in session.” According to another, “Although there is no reason to go out of your way to visit Bloemfontein, its centralized location means that you are likely to pass through at some point during a long visit to South Africa.” The one person I spoke with about my plans who is most familiar with the country responded immediately, “Oooh, you don’t want to be in Bloem,” to which she added, “Well, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s just kind of a nothing place.” She searched for an American analogue, before concluding, “Maybe like Memphis.” (This person was not from Memphis and knew that I am, so this attempted disparaging comment flows from ignorance – little did she know, my hope was that Bloemfontein would be a little like Memphis, a mid-level city a little off the beaten path and a little off beat, but with a rich cultural life if you are willing to scratch the surface)
After a week, I am still uncertain about Bloemfontein as a city, but I have spent the majority of my time thus far on campus at the University of the Free State. I anticipate that campus will continue to be a primary spot for us throughout the semester. During the week, I have met with my hosts at the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice, colleagues at the school’s Faculty of Law and Faculty of Education, representatives from the Department of International Affairs, and the University’s Rector (President). I began these meetings with only the vaguest sense of how I could become a contributing part of the campus community, but I close the week with a sense that I can fulfill the Fulbright mandate to immerse myself on campus and many ideas of how I might do so.
With the law dean and a member of the Faculty of Education, I fell into easy conversation on familiar and shared topics. Given our shared interests and experiences, we were quickly able to develop ideas. With the folks at International Affairs, I heard suggestions for how to link with other international personnel and how our family might get the most out of life in Bloemfontein (helping in the “American corner” at the library, participating in after-school activities, etc.). I’m hopeful that these leads will pan out, but the meeting that did the most to place UFS in context was with Jonathan Jansen, the university rector (you may recall that I wrote about Jansen’s book, Knowledge in the Blood, in this post)
I sat in Prof Jansen’s office, its walls covered with photographs of interractial groups and couples on campus, answering his first questions about where I was from. (“Ah, Memphis, the city that killed King.”) After my description, he seemed strangely enthusiastic. “I am glad you are here,” he said. “For you, and for us. We have not had a southerner before. I think you will find this place strangely familiar.”
Prof Jansen has spent several spells in the US (though he, somewhat insultingly, has only visited Atlanta in the South) and had a ready answer to the question of what American university UFS is most like. “This is the South African Ole Miss,” he smiled. He described a substantial public institution in a largely rural province that is haunted by issues of racial hatred. And I smiled, too. “Great,” I said, “I’m right at home.”
Prof Jansen’s presence on this campus is precisely the result of racial riots that occurred on campus here in 2008 after a video of white students abusing black employees was posted to YouTube. This was the culmination of more than a decade of increasing racial tension as the university converted from one open only to whites and teaching primarily in Afrikaans to one with a student body more reflective of the 85% black population of the Free State province. (This article offers a terrific summary of the university’s complex racial history since integration) Having led change efforts at other campuses, Prof Jansen was brought in as rector to turn the campus around, and while there remain tensions, particularly with regard to campus dorms (akin to American fraternities) – a nearby private dorm has become increasingly popular with white students, who are able to maintain some of the traditions of the old dorm system without the mandated integration of campus housing – the university has been recognized for its progress (Oprah even came to visit and receive an honorary degree, calling the transformation “nothing short of a miracle.”).
These stories are sadly familiar. Remember the noose that was left on the statute of James Meredith at Ole Miss in 2014? The campus reaction to Barack Obama’s election? I am also reminded of some of the anti-Obama paraphernalia I have encountered in restaurants and convenience stores in rural Mississippi and Tennessee and cognizant that Ole Miss is not the only place that incidents like this occur.
Like UFS, Ole Miss is a place that struggles to rid itself of remnants of an openly racist past (they remain, after all, the Rebels). As I think through these topics, I try to keep in mind two somewhat contradictory thoughts. First, the fact that incidents occur at UFS or Ole Miss or anywhere else does not mean that every white student on these campuses is racist – indeed, on both campuses, there was rapid condemnation of the racist incidents from some in the white community. Still, second, I am reluctant to dismiss the incidents with a “few bad apples” theory. Rather, I suspect that the few bad apples gain strength from undercurrents of ambivalence about racial integration on campus and the loss of white power more generally that exist more broadly. Not everyone who supports the flying of a Confederate flag flies one.
Anyway, I at least now have an answer to the question of where I’ll be spending the semester – at the South African Ole Miss.