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Monday, August 17, 2009


When I first went to South Africa in 1986, the country was still sweltering under the oppressive apartheid regime, but change was in the air, and everyone sensed that the old Boer dictatorship could not last much longer. In the circles in which I traveled, radical ideology flourished. The Communist Party was a recognized partner in the Mass Democratic Movement of those who had stayed in the country, rather than going into exile. The three pillars of revolutionary change were the ANC, the Congress of South African Trades Unions, or COSATU, and the Party. I was, I must confess, in radical heaven. The instant you met someone, you knew that he or she was either your comrade, with whom you could trust your life, or your enemy. There was no middle ground.

Conversations and journals of opinion were alive with radical proposals for changing everything. The Freedom Manifesto of the ANC, smuggled out of Robben Island, called for collective ownership of the means of production and thoroughgoing land redistribution without compensation. Even in the field of education, radical proposals were everywhere. The old leftist dream of breaking down the wall between hand work and head work was taken seriously by academics and reformers, and it was easy to imagine that once liberation was achieved, South Africa would leap to the forefront of the world movment for educational reform.

Once liberation finally came in 1990, calls went up across South Africa for Educational TRANSFORMATION. There were Transformation Conferences, Transformation Committees, Transformation Officers at each of the universities, Transformation grants from the USIA, Transformation Workshops. At times, it seemed that the regular business of the universities had been indefinitely set aside while everyone engaged in transformation.

The three transformation goals most often posited were increasing the number of Black students at universities, increasing the number of Black academics and administrators in universities, and rationalizing the overlapping, duplicating hodgepodge of institutions bequeathed to the new South Africa by the apartheid regime.

It took me a while to realize that transformation was unlikely actually to reach into the classroom and change the way students were taught and examined. The rigidities of the existing educational bureaucracy made any sort of genuine change extraordinarily difficult. Perhaps most distressing to me was the discovery that my radical friends, who had talked so bravely of Marx and Engels and Lenin and Trotsky and Mao and Castro, actually had no desire at all to change what they themselves did. They were quite as convinced of the essential rightness of their pedagogical practices as were my American friends convinced of theirs. The only people who were genuinely eager, for example, to implement the radical proposal to give formal educational credit for life experiences were the organic intellectuals, as Gramsci called them, who had been working in the townships and the unions. Indeed, in all of my time in South Africa, I can think of only one academic, Prem Singh at UDW, who actually spent time experimenting with new teaching techniques in an effort to reach his Indian and African students. Each time I came to UDW, he would show me new lesson plans, and with great excitement pull out essays that his students had written.

The effort to increase the numbers of Black students at university proceeded along two fronts. The existing historically Black universities rapidly expanded their intake. Durban-Westville, Zululand, Western Cape, Venda, and the others started admitting larger numbers of students, for despite the crippling requirement that admittees have a Full University Exemption on their Matric, which restricted the pool of applicants to a tiny sliver of each age cohort, there were still many, many young Black men and women who were being denied access. The historically White universities, even those at which Afrikaans was the language of instruction, began cherry-picking the tiny pool of Black students who had actually done well on the Matrics, trumpeting their new-found progressive commitment by going after the children of returning ANC leaders and such. I was on fire with revolutionary zeal, and talked to anyone who would listen about my belief that Durban-Westville and Western Cape would become the leading universities of the new South Africa, but my naive enthusiasm was not shared by the new Black elite. They all chose to send their children to Wits and Cape Town.

The search for Black administrators was considerably more difficult, even though the numbers needed were very small, inasmuch as the entire higher education sector is tiny by American standards. A few positions went to those who, like Jakes Gerwel and Jairam Reddy, had remained in South Africa during the struggle. Some posts went to exiles who began to flood back into the country. Kader Asmal, a distinguished legal scholar who had taught for twenty-seven years in exile in Dublin, Ireland, returned to become the first Minister of Education in Nelson Mandela's government. [Kader is a marvelously flamboyant character with many of the same endearing traits as our own Larry Summers. I had a boisterous dinner with him and other returnees in Cape Town at a restaurant that had, in the bad old days, been a meeting place for revolutionaries.]

The call for structural rationalization garnered the most national attention, and inevitably became the subject for complicated political maneuvering and log-rolling. It made no sense to support two Technikons side by side in Cape Town, one for White students and the other for Coulored students, both offering the same range of courses and degrees. Everyone could agree to that. But was rich, well-endowed, well equipped Cape Technikon to merge into poorer, less well equipped Peninsula Technikon, simply because Pen Tech was Coulored and Cape Tech was White? And if the two were to become one, which Rector would survive as the head of the new, rationalized institution? Over a period of many years, as I returned again and again to South Africa, I watched Kader Asmal and the Cabinet juggle a dozen or more such hot potatoes. [One of the less well publicized rationalization efforts involved reducing the number of Teacher's Colleges from more than one hundred to two or three dozen. This effort was overseen by Ben Parker, an old friend on whose doctoral dissertation committee I served as external reader. Ben, who passed away last year much too early, had done extensive field work on the system of farm schools that existed along side of formal educational institutions in the old South Africa.]

My disappointment with the failures of genuine change in the South African higher educational establishment were eventually given voice in a speech delivered to the Faculty of Education of the Univetsity of Pretoria. If you Google "Tertiary Education in the New South Africa: A Lover's Complaint" you can take a look at it.

It was into this exciting, frustrating, bubbling mix of contradictions that I thrust myself, eagerly and somewhat naively, in the late eighties and early nineties.

Next: The complicated journey that led to the founding of University Scholarships for South African Students.

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