The Role of Public Universities: Examining one university's response to xenophobia

Judith Favish


On 19 May 2008, South Africans woke up to the horrifying image of a man engulfed in fire. This man, Ernesto Nhamuave, originally from Mozambique, was one of the 65 or more foreign nationals who would die in the following days in the xenophobic violence that swept Gauteng. By the end of the week, the violence had spread like wildfire throughout the country. This unprecedented violation of the rights of ‘others’ in South Africa bordered on human catastrophe and caught the government, public institutions and individuals by surprise – people did not know how to respond.
This article examines how the University of Cape Town (UCT) reacted to the crisis, and shows that it did so in a manner that suggested that UCT was grappling with appropriate ways of translating its commitment to being an engaged university into concrete action. UCT’s immediate response to the xenophobia crisis took the form of humanitarian aid designed to mitigate the suffering of thousands of people displaced by the violence. This article specifically focuses on the interventions of SHAWCO, a community development organisation run by students of UCT; the Refugee Rights Project; and the Department of Social Development. These initiatives were nominated by the faculties and student society representatives on the Social Responsiveness Working Group for inclusion in the 2008 Social Responsiveness Report at UCT. Representatives from these units were also represented on the Vice-Chancellor’s Crisis Response Committee.

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Information for this case profile was provided by: Ms Thandi de Wit, Ms Fatima Khan, Mrs Wendy Lewin, Mr Frank Molteno, Ms Fatima Williams and Associate Professor Allan Taylor; from an interview conducted with Professor Martin Hall on 16 October 2008; and from a group interview conducted with Mr Jon Hodgson, Mr Jonathan Hoffenberg, Mrs Wendy Lewin, Mr Frank Molteno and Ms Fatima Williams on 30 October 2008.

Habib, A 2008, 'Explosion of a dream deferred', Cape Argus, 17 June.

University of Cape Town 1996, 'Mission statement', University of Cape Town, Cape Town; see