Moving South Africa's universities beyond educational apartheid
By Linda Vergnani
The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 2001
Seven years after apartheid ended here, student enrollment, even at what were all-white universities, has begun to reflect what the Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu dubbed the rainbow nation.
But almost everyone agrees that South Africa has a long way to go before the effects of apartheid are erased from higher education.
Since the end of apartheid, the proportion of black students has increased by 18 percentage points -- to 71 percent of the nation's student population, still short of reflecting the nation's heavily black racial makeup. But 80 percent of the academic staff members at universities are white.
The government's National Plan for Higher Education, released last month, aims to forge a unified, racially integrated higher-education system out of a jigsaw puzzle of institutions, deliberately duplicated and fractured by apartheid. As part of the restructuring, a national panel has begun investigating mergers of universities and colleges in different regions, to increase efficiency and to address issues of racial balance.
The higher-education system, many hope, can eventually more accurately reflect the racial mix of the 43 million people who live in South Africa: 77 percent indigenous African, 10 percent white, 9 percent mixed race, and 3 percent Asian.
Since apartheid ended, black students have voted with their feet, with thousands moving away from the once strictly segregated, financially strapped, rural black universities and into the wealthier, academically more selective urban universities.
"There are more black students at the University of Witwatersrand than at any historically black university," says Colin Bundy, outgoing vice chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, an English-language institution in Johannesburg. Fifty-seven percent of last year's student enrollment at the university was black.
The greatest influx of black students was into five formerly all-white Afrikaans universities and seven previously all-white technikons, or technical institutions. By last year, the technikons had an average 76 percent black enrollment, compared with 64 percent in 1998.
Benny Khoapa, the ebullient vice chancellor of Technikon Natal, believes his institution provides a model for the bold changes needed to transform higher education. When Mr. Khoapa arrived at the technikon in 1994, the year of the democratic election that brought Nelson Mandela to the presidency, he was the first senior black academic to be employed at the technikon. "It was a very white institution," recalls Mr. Khoapa.
Now 80 percent of the student body is black -- a term that in South Africa includes indigenous African, Asian, and colored, or mixed-race students.
Mr. Khoapa notes that over the past two years African students have become more relaxed in the previously whites-only institution. "They walk freely like they own the place," he says. "When I first came here, you would find little groups, frightened little clusters of Africans there and whites here and so on. They were obviously very distrustful of each other."
Recently the Technikon Natal decided to combine with the adjoining M. L. Sultan Technikon, which under apartheid only educated Indian students. The two racially mixed campuses are separated only by a fence and an open parking lot.
The decision to combine was made by the technikons' governing councils and is supported by government. At present the adjoining technikons duplicate 32 programs, which will be consolidated in future.
At the Technikon Natal, most of the campus buildings are modern, but Mr. Khoapa's office is in a renovated colonial house set in a tropical landscape. Mr. Khoapa says support for the merger is strong: "It's like the new South Africa: Everyone is in favor of it. We are going to have a single vice chancellor, a single senate, a single policy."
He strolls through the gardens of the modern campus, abuzz with students, to some red brick buildings to meet his counterpart, Anshu Padayachee, acting principal of the M. L. Sultan Technikon.
Leading us into the M. L. Sultan's hotel and catering school, on the far side of the fence, Ms. Padayachee acknowledges that apartheid left the campus with cramped facilities. The buildings of her institution are close together, and it doesn't have sports fields or an airy student union, like the Technikon Natal.
The merger, she says, will give her students new opportunities. "The student population is different to next door. They have larger numbers of white students and colored students there," she says. "We have mainly African and Indian students. Through the merger we will reflect the South African community a little better."
Education Minister Kader Asmal's new plan aims to increase the participation rate of 20- to 24-year-olds in higher education from the current 15 percent to 20 percent over the next 10 to 15 years. In particular the plan wants to increase the proportion of African and colored students, to redress the effects of apartheid and economic disadvantage.
The report that described the plan also documented that participation in higher education is still characterized by gross inequities. While the participation rate of African students in public higher education has increased from 9 percent in 1993 to 12 percent in 1999, it remains well below the proportion of white students, which declined from 70 percent to 47 percent in the same period.
White participation in public institutions is believed to have declined partly because those institutions are actively recruiting blacks, and partly because white students are moving to private universities and overseas institutions.
The impact of AIDS may make the government's recruitment goals for students and academic staff difficult. An estimated 4.7 million South Africans, most of them black, are infected with H.I.V. Recent surveys show that around a third of the adolescent and young-adult population is H.I.V. positive.
So AIDS is likely to have a devastating effect not only on student enrollments but also on retention and graduation rates. Under the new national plan, future government financial support for institutions will be tied to graduation rates, not just enrollments.
The extent of transformation has varied between three groups of residential universities. One group is the four academically strong English-language institutions: the University of Cape Town, the University of the Witwatersrand, Rhodes University, and the University of Natal, which were once called racially open because they defied apartheid and admitted some black students although the majority of students were white.
They have vied to increase black and particularly African enrollments. The University of Natal now has a student enrollment that is almost 80 percent black, with the others hovering at about 50 percent. When the universities are assessing test scores on examinations taken in the final year of high school they take into account that some black students have attended inferior schools. Many universities offer basic courses to help those who need more preparation for university-level science and engineering.
Some of the five Afrikaans universities, once conservative and strictly reserved for whites, have had a large influx of black students. Last year, the black enrollment ranged from 50 percent of students at Rand Afrikaans University to 23 percent at the University of Pretoria. The bilingual University of Port Elizabeth, which teaches in both English and Afrikaans, had a 56 percent full-time black enrollment.
Enrollment of African students at the five Afrikaans universities increased from just under 4,500 full-time students in 1993 to 19,000 full-time students and 32,500 distance-education students in 1999.
The nine historically black universities, including six institutions set in former black homelands and once reserved for Africans only, have remained almost exclusively black. But student numbers have declined by 22 percent in the past two years from around 91,000 students to 71,500, as black students have headed off to white institutions. Many of the rural black institutions encountered a leadership vacuum in the 1990's as top professors and administrators were snapped up by predominantly white universities, the government, or private companies.
Government-appointed officials are now running two historically black institutions -- the University of the North and the University of the Transkei -- after investigations revealed mismanagement and corruption. The government is more interested in getting the institutions on a sound financial footing than in integrating them: In 1999 only 640 white students attended them, compared with almost 80,000 African students.
Of all the historically white universities, the University of Natal has been most successful in enrolling more black students. Seventy seven percent of the students registered there last year were black compared with 50 percent of the student body in 1993. But 41 percent of last year's enrollment was African and 33 percent Indian.
The university's success in recruiting black students has not extended to the academic staff. Last year, just one quarter of the 798 permanent and long-term contract academic staff at Natal were black. Of these, just 12 percent, or 92 people, were African compared to 11 percent in 1994.
The slow progress is echoed elsewhere. At South African universities in general, the number of black academic staff members has increased from 13 percent in 1993 to only 20 percent in 1998.
Siphiwe Zuma, Students' Representative Council president of the University of Natal, is dissatisfied with the "tortoise pace" of change at his institution. "Above the floor sweeper," he says, "the university staff remains unchanged." He cites the vice chancellor's race -- white -- as evidence of a lack of transformation.
Mr. Zuma wants to see far more African working-class students admitted to the institution. "Even the black students here come from the middle and upper class," he says.
But other students interviewed at the campus fringed with palm trees said they felt the institution had undergone dramatic changes. Afam Onwuanyi, a Nigerian who is studying law and politics, said: "Actually the University of Natal stands to be one of the best universities in Africa. I've not noticed any social segregation on this campus. Everybody is treated equally, not by color." He says the majority of lecturers are white but are not racists.
In her office, decorated with African artifacts, Brenda Gourley, vice chancellor of the University of Natal, says her institution has made progress in including all races. But she adds: "I don't even pretend that we are a fully transformed institution. How could any institution in South Africa pretend that? It's going to take decades to get history professors, physics professors, all those people demographically represented on the staff."
She produces a series of photographs: Of nine executives, seven are black.
"We are battling to get senior black staff," she says "It's so difficult. First of all, the salaries in academia don't begin to match those in government and industry. Senior academics don't grow on trees."
Ms. Gourley contends the University of Natal always had a different ethos, partly due to the establishment 50 years ago of its black medical school, recently renamed the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine. Segregated by order of the previous government, the school became a center of the black consciousness movement in the 1970's, and this affected the political climate on campus.
Ms. Gourley says management tries not to use racial quotas, but does take race into account in admissions. At the medical school there were around 1,700 applicants for 200 places, and many applicants were Indians with top grades. The province has more Indians than any other area outside India, she says. "We obviously try to find as many black African students as we possibly can, and we try to give a fair number" of places to Indians, she says. Similarly, admissions at other South African universities tend to be more of an art than a science when it comes to trying to achieve racial balance, with no specified quotas or measurable systems of preferences.
The university has also set up outreach programs aimed at improving science and mathematics education for black pupils and helping to train teachers.
"If the university can't make a difference to the pressing problems around us, it's both an intellectual failure and an ethical failure," she says.
Historically black institutions have been hard hit since the end of apartheid, and the worst off is the University of Transkei, known as Unitra. Once the showpiece of the nominally independent Transkei state, Unitra is bankrupt and has been operating without a vice chancellor or governing council since 1999.
From outside, the angular concrete and yellow-brick campus that juts from rolling hills look impressive. But inside it feels empty, with only 3,833 full-time students enrolled compared with more than 7,000 in 1996. The enrollment figures themselves appear to be the subject of political wars, with some officials who want the institution to survive inflating the numbers to more than 4,000 -- the minimum number that the government believes makes an institution viable.
Periodically, sections of beige tile peel off the buildings and crash to the ground, endangering students. Carpet tiles are lifting from the floors, and stair railings are loose.
The university has a $12-million bank overdraft. Nicky Morgan, vice principal of the distance-education institution Technikon South Africa, agreed to take on the job of administrator of Unitra for six months, beginning in January. He says: "We can either conduct an autopsy and see why the university is dead or we can make sure there is life and try to not only secure it, but grow it." He intends to eliminate academic departments that do not have sufficient enrollments, cutting about 400 of the 1,200 staff members.
Mr. Morgan believes there is a strong case for retaining and improving the largely black former homeland institutions, if they can address regional needs in a cost-effective way. "Clearly there is a space for this institution in the same way that there is space for community colleges."
The institution's medical school has 400 students and perhaps the best reputation of any portion of the university. Lizo E. Mazwai, dean of the health sciences faculty at Unitra, says students come from all over the country to Unitra because of its community-based problem-solving approach to training doctors.
In an office gray with mildew and peeling paint, Themba Xatula, an officer of the Students' Representative Council, says: "I started here knowing the problems of this institution, and I can't leave. I will always be here until I get my degree. I come from a working-class background, and this institution was meant for the rural poor people."
He includes himself in that category, having found it too expensive to go to Rhodes University, where he says he would pay more than $3,000 for tuition and board, compared with $1,500 at the Transkei.
Petuxolo Macingwane, a fourth-year medical student, agreed that the university is financially attractive for many students. "If this university closes, there is nothing I can do. I can't skip and leave for other universities."
The government hopes institutions like Unitra will merge with other universities to survive. But an outcry occurred last year when an advisory Council on Higher Education gave 12 examples of possible mergers. Officials of some formerly white institutions say privately that they don't want to be burdened by supporting what they view as relics of the apartheid era. And some black institutions do not want to lose their identity inside the structure of what they consider to be Eurocentric universities.
In this political minefield, Mr. Khoapa of Technikon Natal is one of the few academics who openly advocate combining particular historically white and black institutions. "In that way, you can, with one stroke of the pen, remove the racial divide," he says.
© Copyright Linda Vergnani and The Chronicle of Higher Education