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Saturday, August 22, 2009


As USSAS was getting started, the situation on the ground in South Africa with regard to higher education was changing rapidly, and we were forced to alter our guidelines and procedures to adjust to that change. The first response of the historically Black universities to liberation was to expand their intake enormously, in an effort to respond to the pent-up demand. UDW, Western Cape, Zululand, Venda, Transkei, Fort Hare all began taking many more students. On the opening day of term [which in South Africa is January or February, of course, because the country is in the Southern Hemisphere], young men and women would show up at the doors of the university, sometimes with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing, having walked hundreds of miles from the rural areas. They would put down the small registration fee and begin classes, with little or no idea of where they would get the remainder of the tuition. So long as the students were passing their exams, the universities would do everything possible to carry them on the books while they and their families tried to get loans from local banks for the unpaid fees. Those who did not pass -- and there were many, thanks to the punitive grading practices of even the HBU's -- simply walked away at the end of the year, leaving their accounts in arrears and uncollectible.

Very quickly, the HBUs fell into deep financial trouble. At first, a few large American foundations bailed them out with multi-million dollar grants. Mellon, for example, gave a grant to UWC, huge by South African standards, to balance their books. But the situation was unsustainable, and in response, the universities changed their rules so that the registration fee came to represent half or more of the year's tuition charges.

At the same time, the new government, which came to power in 1992, created a national student loan scheme, called TEFSA [Tertiary Education Fund of South Africa -- you see why I say all the acronyms sound alike]. But the catch was that in order to be eligible for a TEFSA loan, a student had to be registered, which meant coming up with the very large registration fee. Incidentally, it is worth noting that this new enlarged registration fee was on the order of 5000 Rand, which, at the exchange rate of those days, was only about $500.

Prem and I discussed this new problem, and decided that the best way we could stretch the bits of money I was able to raise was to offer bursaries sufficient to cover the registration fee, and then let students apply to TEFA for the remainder. That in fact is what we have done for almost fifteen years now. Each $10,000 I can raise in the United States translates into twenty students able to register and study for another year.

USSAS has never been a big money operation. In a really good year, I might raise $50,000 or more, but in a typical year, I raise between $35,000 and $45,000. Most of my donations fall in the range of $50 to $100, but there have been a few astonishing and welcome surprises. One December, early on, I was in Johannesburg, visiting Debra Nails at Wits, when a fax came in from Susie back in Pelham. Someone had just sent a check for $14,000. What should she do? "Deposit it!" I faxed back. The donor, I eventually learned, was a retired Professor of Eighteenth Century English Literature, not on my list of previous donors. He made comparable donations for many years, the check always arriving just about on the last day of the year. I sent lavish thank you letters, of course, but never heard from him personally [the money came from something called a Unitrust in his name -- some sort of tax device], and were it not for the internet and the fact that he has a rather unusual name, I would not even know that he is a retired professor.

Since the only costs incurred by USSAS were the printing and postal charges, a dedicated fax line, and some money to help pay for my trips to South Africa, almost everything I raised could be sent over to the South African bank account and used for bursaries. Over the years, USSAS has given perhaps 1500 awards, so there are hundreds and hundreds of South African men and women who have university degrees as a result of our efforts.

Each year, when I come to South Africa, I explain to the students we are supporting that I have no idea whether anyone will send money next year, but that if they do, and if the students pass their exams, they will once again get bursaries. The evidence from our experience at UDW shows that this simple promise, combined with the personal attention paid to them by Prem, resulted in a startling improvement in the pass rate of our bursary recipients, by comparison with students at UDW generally. It was, for me, one more confirmation of my long-standing conviction that virtually all of the students who make it to university are capable of doing well enough to earn their degrees.

During my years working at UDW, I got involved in a variety of other activities there, in addition to the USSAS scheme. The United States Agency for International Development [USAID] launched a program called the Tertiary Educational Linkages Program [TELP], and invited the HBUs to submit proposals for grants. For those who have not had experience with USAID, I should explain that USAID programs, although designed to assist underdeveloped economies, characteristically spend most of their money hiring Americans to travel abroad on comfortable per diems, to tell the benighted locals how to run their affairs. In a typical USAID grant, maybe 90% of the money will be paid to Americans, and only 10% will find its way into the local economy. Well, the South Africans were awash in American experts of all sorts. South Africa in the early nineties was very much the flavor of the month. Since there are four thousand Americn institutions of higher education as contrasted with maybe thirty of the same in S0uth Africa, and since every American academic wanted to spend at least a few weeks on a South African campus, the last thing the HBUs needed was another flood of American experts paid by a grant supposedly designed to help them. I went a wonderful meeting chaired by the expensively paid TELP coordinators and attended by the Rectors of all the HBUs [most of whom, incidentally, were manifestly better educated than the Americans who were there to lead them by the hand into the world economy], and in no uncertain terms, they stated that they wanted the preponderance of the funds to come to their institutions, to be spent as they thought best. Since Nelson Mandela was then possibly the most widely respected person on the planet, USAID caved.

UDW really had no one at the middle management level capable of writing grant proposals. The lack of second tier academic administrators, as a consequence of the apartheid policies, was one of the signal weaknesses of the South African HBUs. I had been rather successful on my home campus with some grants I had managed to secure for a school to college program I was running for minority high school students in Springfield, MA, so I volunteered to try my hand at the TELP opportunity. In the end, I wrote five TELP proposals, four of which were funded. One of them was for a "modularization" conference, to begin the process of restructuring the UDW curriculum. The idea, which seems second nature to an American academic, was to break the big, unwieldy year long sequenced courses into modules of eight or twelve or sixteen weeks. This would allow students who could handle part of the year's work to get credit for it nailed down, even if they weren't up to meeting the pass standard for a module farther along. Students would also be able to accumulate partial credits, for perhaps half a year of work, and then leave the university to work or look for money to continue their studies. Simple and self-evident as this may seem, it was a revolution in South Africa, and met with considerable resistance.

My visits to South Africa weren't all work, of course. Three experiences in particular stand out in my memory. The first was a weekend trip to a resort in the Drakensberg Mountains, west of Durban, where I read a paper I had written attacking the concept of culture as an ideological construct. After a solemn afternoon of intellectual discussion, we all turned our attention to the real purpose of the outing, a true South African Brai. I should explain that to South Africans, a balanced diet is four or five different sorts of meat. A Brai, or barbeque, as we would call it, consists of steaks surrounded by a garnish of sausages and chops, all washed down with beer and wine. One of the more endearing traits of the South African is his or her suspicion of work. Fridays are usually spent preparing for the weekend, and a week with a holiday on a Wednesday or Thursday is pretty much a washout. The Drakensberg is hauntingly beautiful, with sprongbok and impala grazing on the slopes of the hills.

The second event was what is called a Midlands Ramble. The Midlands in South Africa is the area between the lowlands around Durban on the coast and the Drakensberg, which though not of Rockies stature, is still a pretty decent range of mountains running down the center of the country. Tucked away, at the end of dirt roads and little hollows, are countless artists' and craftspersons' studios where pottery, painting, woodworking, basket weaving, glass blowing, and jewelry making flourish. They may live in rural isolation, but these folks are no rubes. They sell into the world market, and know quite well the value of what they make. The ramble, with half a dozen friends from UDW, was an all day affair, broken for lunch at an impossibly quaint inn called -- I kid you not -- Granny Mouse's House. I think I bought a necklace for Susie, but it is long ago, and I am no longer sure.

But far and away the most extraordinary experience of my entire twenty year involvement with South Africa was the night I spent at the Beatrice Street Y in downtown Durban attending, and filming, an isicathamiya contest. Isicathamiya [it is a Zulu word, the first syllable of which is actually a sibilant click] is a contest of male Zulu a cappella singing groups. The most famous of these groups is Ladysmith Black Mambazo [which means, roughly, the black horned bull from the town of Ladysmith], though as I discovered during that remarkable night, Masakela's group does a prettified version of isicathamiya, suitable for White audiences. The tradition of male a capella singing is rooted in Zulu history, but has been strikingly influenced by African American musical styles, including the Cake Walk. Groups of men, perhaps ten to twenty in number, practice under the leadership of the group director. Usually, they all affect the same uniform -- black pants and shirts, white socks, and black shoes, for example. They sing Zulu songs about life, love, work, and family, achieving keening, penetrating harmonies, to which they join fancy dance steps, a bit like the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. There are very strict rules for the competitions, which are held all night in an available venue. [All night because the pass control laws made it illegal for them to be on the streets of the White cities after dark, so they would start when the work day ended, and keep going until dawn the next day.] Each group pays a small fee to enter the contest, and the pot thus accumulated goes to the winners. A random passer is recruited to act as judge, and his decision is taken as final, even if he falls asleep during the contest! The audience, which for the most part consists of the girl friends and wives of the singers, is forbidden to applaud or cheer, save for a small designated claque for each group, who get up periodically, applaud, and in general show their approval of their heroes. Each group warms up in the rear of the room, until their leader decides they were ready. They then dance in, singing as they come, do two or three numbers, and dance out again. The sounds are piercing and hauntingly beautiful, as only African singing can be. I spent all night filming with a video camera I had bought, and later on, wove selections of the isicathamiya contest into the half hour video I produced [myself!] as a fund-raising device for USSAS.

I have made a good deal, in these posts, about the punitive character of the South African grading practices. It occurs to me that before concluding this day's post, I ought to tell one story to illustrate what I mean. Early in my trips to UDW, I happened to be on campus just when final exams were being graded. Everyone had big piles of exam books stacked on their desks. I asked Mala what the passing grade was, and she said it was 50%. "Let me see some exams that received 47s or 48s in the first year course," I said. In other words, I wanted to see the exams of students who had come close, but had nonetheless lost all credit for the entire year's work. She pulled six or seven from her pile, and I sat down to read them. The questions were all pretty standard for an Intro Phil course, and could easily have been taken from Philosophy 100 at UMass. After I had read through them all, I turned to Mala and said, "You know, every single one of these students would have received a passing grade at the University of Massachusetts." She was rather startled by that. Despite being quite sophisticated and widely traveled in America, Europe, and Asia, she suffered from the typical colonial self-doubt. "But they are not really prepared for the Second Year course," she responded. "All right," I said, "then give two passing grades, one that admits you to the second year course and the other that does not, but nevertheless gives you credit for the year's work. Not all of our first year students go on to be majors." Now this was the most sophisticated of the South African academics, the president [as it happens] of the national organization of progressive university teachers. And yet this simple solution had never occurred to her, nor, it was pretty clear, had she given the matter much thought.

Tomorrow: USSAS Leaves UDW

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