IT IS almost always the case that the deeds of great men tend to dominate the discourse, silencing the voices of those who are the subjects of the discourse itself.

Therefore I cannot say that I am surprised that the four women at the centre of the University of Free State racism saga have been conspicuous by their invisibility while the rest of us have been engaging in a heated debate over whether the first black vice- chancellor of the university, Prof Jonathan Jansen, was correct to give get-out-of-jail-free cards to the racist perpetrators.

It seems to me we are adding to the racist insult and humiliation these women suffered by not insisting that they be heard. They suffered the racist humiliation because they are black, and the white boys who made them drink soup laced with urine were probably motivated by class and gender prejudice too. By not insisting that they be heard, we are reinforcing those class and gender prejudices.

In addition, we are reinforcing the idea that those who cannot discourse in English should not be heard. In other words, these women are victims of many layers of prejudice, including that which emanates from linguistic imperialism.

They may be part of a numerical majority when it comes to race, class, and gender, but the fact that they belong to these social groups means that their station in life as black people, workers and women has consigned them to the status of a cultural minority.

In some ways, we - the so-called enlightened in society - are as culpable as the white boys who made them drink urine on their knees. In future, we must insist on hearing the voiceless before we rush ahead into acts of reconciliation that may have very little to do with their plight and more to do with our own quests for greatness.

The context in which Jansen announced his intention to forgive the racist students is - despite his good intentions - problematic. It was good of the rector to talk to the victims before he made his announcement. But what should we make of the statement from a relative of one of the women, in which he disputes Jansen's assertion that he did in fact speak to this man's sister?

For now, let's assume that his sister did not inform him of the meeting with Jansen, for the alternative is to accuse Jansen of lying. Pursuant to this assumption we must take into account the fact of the imbalance in the power relations between Jansen and his workers. I am not arguing that they are incapable of using their brains, I am simply saying it is possible that this is how we treat those who do not share our levels of education and class position.

Before I forget, I need to say three things: First, what happened to these women is an eloquent argument for black consciousness, since I doubt they would have allowed four black boys to treat them like plantation slaves. Second, this episode reinforces my belief that the price of failing to extend quality education to the children of poor and working class families is paid most dearly by rural and working class women. Third, it has been argued that we cannot afford the cost of free basic education for all and free higher education to those with potential. I think it is time for us to start calculating the cost of not doing this at some point in future.

But I digress.

Was Jansen wrong? Honestly, I am persuaded less by the reasoning behind the decision and more by the decision itself, irrespective of whether Jansen was motivated by conviction or practical reasons. He is correct to argue that these racist boys are a product of a racist environment. His university is part of this environment and this means he has to implement his transformation agenda in this environment.

We must, therefore, not preclude the possibility that Jansen needed to give something to a racist community so that, they in return, allow him to forge ahead with his agenda.

But such decisions are seldom simply black or white. It is possible that Jansen was motivated by principle as well as by the politics of his working environment.

n Aubrey Matshiqi is senior research associate at the Centre for Policy Studies.