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Sunday, August 16, 2009


This morning, I begin a several part blog posting on the scholarship organization I founded nineteen years ago, called University Scholarships for South African Students [USSAS]. For more information about USSAS, and pictures of and stories about some of the students who have been helped by USSAS, you can go to .

I am going to start with a rather long account of the history and structure of South African higher education, which is very different from the American variety, so that you can understand exactly why USSAS was needed, and what it does.

I hope the readers of this blog find this interesting. It is, like my multi-part essay on the ideal college, a break from the political commentary that has taken up much of the space on this site since I started blogging.

By the way, Susie and I just saw the new Meryl Streep movie, Julie and Julia, which is, of course, a delight. Julia Childs fans will enjoy it for Streep's dead accurate portrayal of the inimitable Ms. Childs, but I was also taken by the story of the young woman [played by Amy Adams] who blogged her way out of an early life stalemate by undertaking in one year to make, and to write about, every single one of the more than 500 recipes in Childs' classic book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. A great inspiration to apprentice bloggers.

I. The South African Higher Education System -- Some History and Background

The South African higher education system is a typical colonial education system, on to which have been imposed two distorting influences: the existence of two dominant colonial languages, Afrikaans and English, rather than one, and the complex system of racial segregation and domination known by its Afrikaans name, apartheid. When the two colonizing populations, one from Holland and the other from England, combined to form the modern Republic of South Africa, two groups of universities were established, one using Afrikaans as its language of instruction, the other using English. The first institution established was The University of South Africa, or UNISA, which was, and remains today, a correspondence or distance learning institution. The other universities started life as campuses associated with UNISA, although fairly quickly they gained independent status. Virtually all of the educational institutions in South Africa, until very recently, have been state supported, though the historically White universities, both Afrikaans and English, have very sizeable endowments. With the exception of UNISA, which now has more than 100,000 students, all of the South African unversities are small by American standards -- six or seven to fifteen thousand students, more or less.

In addition to the English and Afrikaans universities, one university was established very early on to educate Black students -- Fort Hare University, in what used to be called the Ciskei [meaning, literally, "this side of the Kei River -- the other side of the river was known as the Transkei.] Nelson Mandela was educated there, as were many of the men who eventually become leaders of sub-Saharan African nations after the post World War II wave of liberations.

The entire university system is not large, by American standards -- sixteen universities or so. The University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, and the University of Cape Town, or UCT, are the leading English language historically White universities, and the University of Pretoria and Stellenbosch University are the principal Afrikaans language historically White universities. There is considerable competition among them to determine which is the academically best campus, with all of them fervently and mistakenly believing that they are the equivalents of Oxford and Cambridge, or Harvard and Berkeley. In fact, the strongest universities in South Africa can plausibly be compared with second tier State Universities in the United States -- UMass, UConn, maybe Ohio State, but probably not Michigan State, and certainly not UCLA or Berkeley.

In 1949, the Nationalist Party came to power in South Africa, and a wide-ranging system of racial laws was put into effect formalizing, and also very much complicating, the segregation and exploitation that already existed somewhat more informally. Underlying the laws was a pseudo-philosophical theory of racial identity, claiming to find its intellectual rationale in the phenomenological school of thought established by Edmund Husserl. The people of South Africa, it was claimed, formed a collection of racial, cultural, linguistic, and intellectual unities that ought to be kept separate and permitted to develop, each in its own unique manner. In addition to the Afrikaans and English people, twelve other groups were identified. The first was the large number of descendants of the Indian workers who had been brought to South Africa in the nineteenth century to work in the sugar plantations on the Indian Ocean coast of Southeastern South Africa. This population, numbering more than one million, is native English speaking, and had maintained relatively few ties with the old country. The second group was the descendants of intermarriage between the Dutch settlers and the indigenous population of the Western Cape area. This population, called Coloured in South Africa, was [and remains to this day] Afrikaans speaking, and is located primarily in and around Cape Town. The other ten groups are indigenous African people, differentiated primarily by their languages -- Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, Venda, Ndebele, and so forth.

A vast and extremely cruel program of relocation was undertaken to sort the African peoples into their "natural homelands." Ten quasi-independent nations were created, with puppet governments and ostensibly traditional lands carved out of the agriculturally least valuable farmlands and rural areas of South Africa, and individuals were required by official Boards, set up to determine their "true" ethnicity, to relocate to those areas, in many cases tearing families apart.

The Indian, Coloured, and African populations were forced into townships separate from the White cities that they served as pools of cheap labor. Stringent Pass Laws and Group Areas Acts made it a crime for a non-White person to be found within a White city after sundown, forcing the people who performed menial labor in the cities to travel each day to and from the townships. Since huge numbers of African men were required in the mines and the factories on which South Africa's growing wealth depended, single-sex hostels were built near the work sites, and the men were permitted several times a year to return to the Homelands to see their wives and children.

At first, Blacks were permitted to work only in the most menial of jobs, and an ideological justification was developed according to which they were intellectually incapable of work requiring more sophisticated understanding, or even literacy. A national system of Bantu schools, so called, was created to provide primary education for Black children, and Teachers' Colleges were set up to train the Black women who would serve as teachers in the Bantu schools. Drawing yet again on distorted and corrupted versions of Continental Philosophy, the Afrikanns intellectuals who served as rationalizers for the apartheid system developed an educational theory, called Fundamental Pedagogics, to justify the stringent discipline and rote learning imposed on the students in the Bantu schools.

Eventually, however, as the economy grew, and the White population shrank as a proportion of the total population, it became clear that some sort of higher education was going to be required to prepare the non-White population for a productive role in the economy, and so a number of new universities were created, along strictly racially segregated lines. By this time, there were thirteen separate Departments of Education in South Africa -- one for White schools, one for Indian schools, one for Coloured schools, and one in each of the ten Homelands. The Whites already had their universities. For the Indian students, the Univetsity of Durban-Westville was created, with a White Rector, of course, but eventually with some Indian as well as White academics. For the Coloured students, the University of the Western Cape was established in Bellville, a community not far outside of Cape Town itself [and quite near the airport, as it happens]. For the Black students, a university was created in each of the ten Homelands, ostensibly funded by the puppet Homeland government, but actually supported by the central government. Thus, there came into being a University of Zululand, a University of the North, a University of Venda, and so forth. Inasmuch as the entire South African governmental system was a vast works project for otherwise idle White South Africans, not surprisingly the Homelands university system became a place to locate politically connected Whites with marginal claims to academic qualifications.

Along with this now quite complex system of universities, there also existed a system of Technikons, modeled on the Continental rather than British system, in which a cross between technical and vocational subjects were taught. Parallel to the White Technikons, there now came into existence a number of racially segregated Technikons for Indian, Coloured, or Black students.

This, in somewhat simplified form, was the situation with regard to tertiary education in 1990, when the ANC was unbanned, Nelson Mandela and his colleagues were freed from Robben Island, and the process of transition to a free South Africa began. It is the situation I found when I first travelled to South Africa in 1986.

Tomorrow: The curriculum, admissions, and the academic structure of South African university education.

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