By Sebastien Berger in Johannesburg
Published: 6:00AM GMT 24 Feb 2010

The case of the Afrikaner group, known as the "Reitz Four" after the whites-only student residence whose impending integration they were protesting against, has provoked widespread outrage and revealed the gap between contemporary South Africa and the dream of racial reconciliation espoused by Nelson Mandela.

Johnny Roberts, Schalk van der Merwe, RC Malherbe and Danie Grobler are all accused of crimen injuria, a South African offence meaning to insult the dignity of another person. In the video, staff at their dormitory were made to race, play rugby, kneel on the ground, and eat a "stew" apparently made from dog food and urine.

Some of those who consumed the mixture vomited immediately.

When the video emerged two years ago it provoked fury and soul-searching, as the country asked itself how far attitudes had changed since the days of institutionalised racism. Many were shocked to discover that segregated dormitories still existed, and the Reitz facility, at the University of the Free State in the Afrikaner heartland, has since been closed down.

But the issue is still a flashpoint, and protests are expected outside the courthouse in Bloemfontein on Wednesday.

When Jonathan Jansen, the university's new rector, used his installation speech at the end of last year to announce he was dropping internal disciplinary charges against the four in the interests of reconciliation, it prompted a new wave of anger from some quarters.

One ANC Youth League official reportedly said Prof Jansen – who is of mixed race – should be "shot and killed because he is a racist".

Prosecutors say that an attempt at "restorative justice", which would have required the accused to apologise to their victims, had failed after the complainants pulled out of the process, and the court hearing will set a date for the full trial to begin.

Frans Cronje, deputy CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations – which last year elected Prof Jansen as its president – said the reaction to the video was to be expected, particularly given that the workers had to kneel in front of the film-makers.

"That summed up all the anger and prejudice and humiliation of apartheid, 15 years on," he said.

But such incidents of physical racism were now relatively rare, he added. "If you consider the history of the country race relations are remarkably good. We have gone from white troops in the townships to a high degree of racial stability. Much progress has been made."

But underlying stances were harder to identify, particularly as the last major opinion poll on racial attitudes was carried out nine years ago.

"There's a great deal of prejudice in the country," he said. "A lot of whites are secretly uncertain about their black neighbours and work colleagues, and a lot of blacks are secretly uncertain about their white neighbours and work colleagues."

Earlier this month, in the run-up to the commemorations of the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison, his the former president, Thabo Mbeki, acknowledged that social divisions between the races are still strong.

"The problems that the legacy of a very long period of colonialism and apartheid, that legacy persists," he said. "Look at our cities, you see black areas and white areas, even though there's a bit of mixing there's still a lot of work to be done to create the kind of South Africa for which so many people died."