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Friday, August 21, 2009


From the outset, I imposed strict guidelines on the selection of recipients of the USSAS bursaries, which have, with one revision, continued to the present day. There are six principles:

1. All recipients must be Black, which in South African terms means African, Indian, or Coloured. At Durban-Westville, an historically Indian school in transition to a majority African student population, we made an effort to balance the races, but there were very few Coloured students attending UDW.

2. We must strive for gender balance. This was rather easy to accomplish, and in fact over time, a slight majority of women over men have received awards.

3. We should try to strike a balance between urban and rural students. This has proved very difficult to achieve, and in fact, because of the bizarre distortions of population distribution imposed by the apartheid regime, has proved impractical.

4. We are NOT trying to identify the very best students. This is not a merit based program. In light of the stringent filter of the Matric system, I assume that every student who is eligible for admission to a university is capable of succeeding, given a decent chance. One sees here the influence of my American experience, and my long-standing hostility to the elitist system of university admissions in this country. [For an extended defense of this prejudice, see ] With our limited funds, we support the first students who apply, so long as they fit the guidelines and genuinely cannot continue in school without our help. Unfortunately, there is ever a shortage of students who fit this profile.

5. If one of our bursary recipients manages to do well enough in the end of year examinations to be permitted to return the next year, he or she will automatically receive a bursary, assuming that I am successful in raising the necessary money. This is one of the most important decisions I made in setting up USSAS, and seems to have played a very large role in the striking success of our USSAS scholars. I shall talk about it more below.

6. Finally, six or seven years ago, in response to the horrific HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa [the latest figures are that 20% of the population is HIV positive], I shifted the focus of USSAS, and decided to require that bursary recipients be involved in the struggle against HIV/AIDS in some way or other. In practice, this has meant supporting a group of students in the Child and Youth Development Program at Durban University of Technology who are being trained to work with street children and other young people who are HIV positive or have been affected by the epidemic [for example, by losing a parent to the disease], and also requiring the students I support at the University of the Western Cape to be involved in the extraordinary HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention program run on that campus by Dr. Tania Vergnani -- arguably the best such program in the country.

This is a good place to share a bit of wisdom that I have gained from my twenty years of experience with USSAS. I am a philosopher, and for the first thirty-four years of my half century in the Academy, I taught philosophy at the undergraduate and graduate level, and wrote books of philosophy. Now, what philosophers do is think -- no fieldwork, no lab work, not even much in the way of library research [my books are notorious for their lack of footnotes.] Very quickly, one learns as a philosopher that so long as all you are doing is thinking, you might as well think big. So philosphers do a lot of thinking about God, about the universe, about Being, about possible worlds in addition to the actual one. The idea of Everything, it turns out, weighs no more than the idea of Something. Neither one involves any heavy lifting. However, as soon as you try to make a difference in the world, you learn that it takes a great deal of effort to make a tiny difference, and a great deal more to make a slightly bigger difference.

All of this came home to me very quickly once USSAS was up and running. In our very best year, thanks to a complicated deal that Prem struck with the UDW administration for cost sharing, we were able to help maybe 120 young Black men and women. Now 120 students gathered in a room looks like a lot of people, but that is really so small a number that it does not even constitute a blip in the South African national figures on numbers if Black students at universities. Even after twenty years, the 1400 or so students we have helped constitute a tiny fraction of all the Black students who have gone to university in South African in that time, and an even tinier fraction of all the young people who were eligible to go, let along those who had the talent and the ability, but not the Matric Exemption. All that folding and stuffing, merge printing and sealing and stamping, all those trips to South Africa, all those thank you letters banged out on my home computer, and from a philosophical perspective, precious little to show for it. It would have helped, of course, to be religious. After all, if eternal bliss is in the offing, what is a slog through a pile of mailing materials? But absent the comfort of faith, I have found that I must learn to be satisfied with the knowledge that at the end of the day, there are identifiable young people in South Africa who would not have gone to university were it not for my meager efforts. You see, while the Thought of Somebody is very little, in the presence of the Thought of Everybody, a real person, even just one, is very significant. Indeed, one actual person, no matter how insignificant, is more important than all of the philosophical ideas ever thought.

To keep this lesson vividly before my mind, I found it helpful on my infrequent trips to South Africa to spend time meeting with the students USSAS was helping. These meetings at Durban-Westville, then at Cape Technikon, UWC, MEDUNSA [The Medical University of South Africa, the only Black medical school], and the Qwa Qwa Campus of the Univefsity of the North, were always the high points of my South African trips.

The first thing I learned, not surprisingly, was that the students, scorned by the faculty as unprepared and even stupid, were fluent in three, four, five or six languages. Now, I must explain that I am, as we say delicately, linguistically challenged. I have, I flatter myself, a complete mastery of English, but my French is execrable despite my many trips to Paris, and my German is almost non-existent [a painful admission for a Kant scholar who has also written two books about Karl Marx.] A typical USSAS student was a very serious young woman at UDW, Benedict Zhivani, who was studying for the Ll. B. degree. I was chatting with her in English, needless to say, and I asked her what languages she spoke. "English," she replied with a smile, "and Afrikaans [which, incidentally, is required by anyone seeking to argue before a South African court], and French, and Zulu, oh, and Latin." In the United States, this alone would have been enough to earn her admission to Harvard, but at UDW, she was considered a marginal student at best because her English was a little rusty. A young man, asked the same question, replied "English, and Zulu, and Sotho, and of course. Xhosa." "Why of course?" I asked. "Well," he replied, "Zulu and Xhosa are almost the same language." I must have looked a trifle surprised, because he undertook to demonstrate the fact. He pronounced a word in Zulu. He then pronounced a word in Xhosa that to my untutored ear sounded utterly different. "You see?" he said, as though talking to an idot or a child. "They are the same."

There were less happy moments, enough to bring me to tears. Prem came to me on one visit with a special case -- a young woman who had applied for a USSAS bursary after all of the regular money had been allocated. Her mother was the sole support of an extended family, working as a household maid for pathetic wages. The young woman had no money at all for food or lodging, and had somehow put together enough for the registration fee. [Keep it in mind that she had earned a Matric Exemption, placing her in perhaps the top 2% of her age cohort. Without it, she would never have come to our attention at all.] She was sleeping on the floor of a friend's room, and subsisting on scraps brought back from the student dining room. Could we find the money to pay enough of her remaining tuition fees so that she could stay in school? Of course I said yes. She didn't make it, flunking out at the end of the year. But as I explained to Prem, that was perfectly all right. We had done the right thing. The purpose of USSAS was to give young men and women like her a chance, not to restrict ourselves to students who were sure to succeed.

Tomorrow: USSAS responds to the changing South African situation.

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