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Race and higher education in South Africa

As South Africa enters the post-election era, the future of race relations in higher education is still undefined.

The historically differential treatment of the three subgroups
collectively differential treatment of the three Africans, Coloreds,
and Indians — poses a remarkable challenge to policy-makers who have
to transform the curriculum and formulate new strategies for the
re-allocation of resources. During the apartheid era, the following
racial classification terms were conceptualized: “White” refers to
people of European descent; “African” refers to the indigenous people
of South Africa; “Colored” refers to people of mixed Africa, Malay,
Khoi, and European descent; “Indian” or “Asian” refers to people of
Asian descent — excluding Japanese, who were classified honorary
whites; “Black” refers collectively to Africans, Coloreds and Indians
and is a political term which emerged out of the Black consciousness
philosophy in the 1970s.

The continuing significance of race and the constant reconceptualization of racial identity raise a number of issues.

It is evident that the current curriculum at both historically
white and Black universities is heavily Euro-centric. There is still a
pervasive attitude that there is nothing wrong with this curriculum.
The problem has been defined in terms of the increasing presence of the
“under-prepared” (mostly Black) students in institutions of higher
education. This attitude was echoed at the annual meeting of the
American Education Research Association held in San Francisco last
month by a professor from the University of Potchefstroom, a
historically white university, when he stated that: “…white
universities are Western animals and they have to conform to the high
academic standards of the West. If Black students want to attend our
universities, they have to adjust to the way things operate at these

These attitudes demonstrate the arrogance of some South African
scholars who still equate Euro-centric ideas with intellectual

It is not enough to give all South Africans the same quality of
education without changing the content. In other words, the current
curriculum which contains abundant negative portrayals of Black culture
cannot be used as the universal curriculum. Some scholars have called
for the “Africanization” of the curriculum to reflect the interests of
students represented in higher education — a proposal which has
ignited a heated debate within the education sector.

Beyond incorporating Black history and literature into the
textbooks, what does “Africanization” really mean? Does African culture
include Coloreds and Indians as well? Scholars at historically white
universities (HWUs) argue that Africanization of the curriculum will
lower standards and jeopardize the competitiveness and international
status of their institutions. To what standards and to whose standards
are these universities adhering?

The redistribution of resources is another contentious issue which has ignited fervent debates in higher education circles.

Prior to 1984, universities were funded by means of a subsidy
formula which based the allocation of financial resources on the number
of students enrolled and the “success rate.” This success rate
criterion impeded the funding of HBUs which had (and still have) higher
drop-out rates and a higher proportion of students from lower
socio-economic status who require more financial assistance. The
problem then became cyclical because failure to meet this criterion
meant lower allocation of funds, and lower allocation of funds meant
failure to provide adequate academic programs for Black students.

The new system of financing higher education will necessarily have
to be biased in favor of supporting HBUs. The system cannot simply
ignore the inequities of the past and assume that all universities now
have to be evaluated as though they were equal. They are not equal and
future allocation of resources should reflect this disparity.
Naturally, any mention of “biased” allocation of resources will and has
aroused opposition from the HWUs who claim that they have increased
their enrollment of Blacks in their universities, and thus require
resources to support these “disadvantaged students.”

The challenge with the re-allocation of resources is further
complicated by how the various universities collectively identified as
historically Black should be treated. Given that the status of Colored
and Indian universities was elevated to that of HWUs when they were
granted autonomy in 1983, does this entitle them to be grouped together
with African universities? Further, should it be taken into
consideration that these universities have received better funding and
facilities relative to their African counterparts?

Although the ANC led government of national unity has pledged its
support to the creation of an equitable system of education, the
question of race cannot be treated nonchalantly. Failure to address
this issue assertively will only perpetuate inequities which are so
firmly entrenched at all levels of the South African system of

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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