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Saturday, June 19, 2010


Volume Three Chapter Three
University Scholarships for South African Students

Let me begin with a systematic 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. The South African higher education system is a typical colonial educational 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, South African universities 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 being 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-speaking Whites, 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 has maintained relatively few ties with the old country. The second group were 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. Individuals were classified by official Boards, set up to determine their "true" ethnicity, and were then required to relocate to those areas, in many cases tearing families apart. In 1986, when I first visited South Africa, it was still the case that each year people were re-classified, from White to African, or from African to Coloured, or from Coloured to White, and then forced to relocate. The Indian, Coloured, and African persons not consigned to the Homelands were forced into townships separate from the White cities in which 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 long hours 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, Africans were permitted to work only in menial jobs for which they needed no more than minimal formal education, 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 jobs that there were too few Whites to fill, 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 University 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. For the Black students, a number of universities were created in the Homelands, ostensibly funded by the puppet Homeland governments, 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 was created 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.

South African university education is organized on the English model: a three year B. A. degree, followed by a one year honors degree, if one has done well enough. A student can then earn a Master's Degree, by writing a Master's Thesis, and a doctorate by writing a doctoral dissertation. Normally, there is no further course work associated with either the MA or the Ph. D., although that is changing, and there are now what are called "coursework Masters."

Typically, students are admitted not simply to a university but to a faculty, thus having already chosen their field of study. The undergraduate course offerings are heavily dominated by lock-step full year courses -- Philosophy 1, Philosophy 2, Philosophy 3, that sort of thing. Until quite recently, it was standard for the entire year's work to be evaluated by a single end-of-year written examination, or "script." Fail that exam, and lose all credit for the year's work. Also until quite recently, it was in practice impossible to transfer credits from one university to another, even if one had earned the credits at one of the elite institutions. Even now, it is quite unusual for a student to complete a B. A. at one university and do an Honors Year at another, and it is even very unusual for a student to transfer at the Master's or Doctoral level.

As in Great Britain, many of the university faculty hold only the M.A. degree. Also as in the old-fashioned Continental and English universities, only one person in each field or department holds the title of Professor, and is referred to as THE Professor of Chemistry, or History, or Education. That person is also typically the Head of Department.

To an American visitor in 1986, the South African educational system seemed hopelessly rigid and inflexible. Practices and arrangements that have long been customary and unquestioned in the United States were viewed with a suspicion verging on horror by even the most politically radical academics. A few examples will illustrate the gulf between the two systems. There was almost no room for choice of courses in the South African curriculum. There was no room at all for students to change their fields of concentration midway through an undergraduate education. If you started in Public Administration, you finished in Public Administration. Transferring from one university to another was unheard of. It could be done, but it required a vote of the full Faculty Senate. Taking time off from one's studies was unheard of, which in practice meant that only those from families that could support a student through the entire degree had a chance at earning a B. A. It was impossible to transfer from a Technikon to a University, let alone from a Teachers College to either a Technikon or a University. Courses typically were a year long, and were graded by a final examination, so that the American system of accumulating partial credits toward a degree was unknown.

The result of these practices and proscriptions was paradoxical in the extreme to an American visitor. On the one hand, South African academics espoused a social and political philosophy that was unimaginably radical by American standards. As I remarked earlier, even I, with my far left convictions, found myself surrounded by academics who viewed me as mainstream. But on the other hand, the actual administrative and pedagogical practices of South African higher education appeared to me utterly medieval. I quickly became aware of the baleful effect of these practices on the Black students who were now my primary concern.

Typical of colonial educational systems around the world, the faculty and administration I met were obsessed with MAINTAINING STANDARDS, a goal that they sought to achieve by means of an extremely high failure rate. Even at the Historically Black Universities, or HBUs, and even when those grading the examinations were themselves Black [or perhaps especially because they were Black], the failure rates, from an American perspective, were and continue to be appalling. These failure rates are bad enough for White students from privileged backgrounds [which is to say, virtually all of the White students]. For Black students, whose parents, extended families, and even communities have cobbled together the money for tuition at extraordinary cost to themselves, the failure rate is catastrophic. One story will illustrate the point. Very early in my travels to South Africa, I visited the University of the Transkei, in Umtata. I was told of a young man whose father had sold his stock to come up with the first year tuition charges, only to see his son flunk out. In my blind American fashion , I imagined this meant that he had sold shares of GM, but of course what it really meant was that this peasant farmer had sold his few cattle, thereby condemning himself and his family to utter poverty, all so that one member of the family could have some chance of escaping from their village.

I have spent twenty years fulminating and arguing and protesting against this punitive and destructive grading practice, to virtually no effect. The faculty tend to view the Black students as stupid, because English is not their first language [even though it is, typically, their third or fourth or fifth language], and consider themselves to bear no responsibility for the success of those in their classes. They, after all, are maintaining standards. One year, while on the campus of the University of Durban-Westville, I managed to obtain a huge computer printout of the results in all the final examinations given in the entire university the previous year. I asked to see the Chair of the Economics Department, a young White English speaking man clearly very pleased with himself. I pointed out that in the previous year, in which he had taught the First Year course, only 11% of the students had passed. [That is not a typographical error. It was eleven percent.] Yes, he said sadly, they really are unprepared for Economics. "What makes you think that you are a teacher?" I asked him. "If you were a doctor running a hospital and only 11% of your patients left the hospital alive, you would be brought up on charges of malpractice." He looked at me uncomprehending and unrepentant. I simply did not understand how badly prepared the students were. There was, as far as he was concerned, no more to be said. It had never occurred to him that he bore any responsibility for helping his students to succeed.

Admission to universities is also problematic in the extreme. At the end of each secondary school year, the students in the highest grade are required to take a battery of school leaving examinations called Matriculation Examinations, or The Matric. The Matric is administered nationally, and under apartheid, four examinations were given -- one each for Whites, Indians, Coloureds, and Africans. Students seeking to go on to university must take a certain mixture of parts of the examination, including some at a more advanced level [for which, as you will easily imagine, the Bantu system hardly prepared the African students], and must achieve a certain level of performance. The results of the Matric exams are awaited each year with bated breath and rate front page stories in the press, because unless one does sufficiently well to earn what is called, for mysterious reasons, a "full university exemption," one is simply not permitted to go to university. [I think the phrase refers to an entrance examination that was once administered, from which one could be exempted if one did well enough on the Matrics, but I could be wrong. No one I asked could ever give me a straight answer.] If the university chooses to admit a student without a Matric Exemption, the state funding formula did not allocate any money to the university for that student, and regardless of how well he or she does, the university in general was not permitted to award the degree.

There are two exceptions to this draconian rule, and during my many years with USSAS I have encountered both of them. First of all, students who take the Matrics several times and fail to achieve a Full University Exemption can apply for a Mature Age Exemption and, in some circumstances, win the right to enter a university [if one can be found to admit them] with somewhat weaker Matric scores. Second, there is some room for the Faculty Senate of a university to allow students without a proper Exemption to enroll and study for a degree, under a provision called the "Senate Discretionary Rule." Such students can in fact earn degrees, but under the system that was in place when I first arrived in South Africa, students admitted in that fashion did not count in the Funding Formula used by the State to decide the amount of the university's annual allocation. In effect, the university had to underwrite the education of those students out of its own funds.

The grading of the African Matrics was haphazard, corrupt, and unpredictable. Only a small fraction of each age cohort of African students actually managed to finish secondary school and sit the exams, and only perhaps 1-2% of the entire age cohort earned an Exemption, and thus was eligible to apply to university. Making it into this select company did not guarantee admission. Far from it. Each university was free to impose its own admissions standards, more rigorous than those required for an Exemption, and there was in general nothing resembling financial aid.

At one point shortly after his appointment, Jakes Gerwel, the radical new Rector of the the University of the Western Cape [the University for Coloureds] announced with great fanfare that he was adopting a policy of Open Admissions -- first come, first served. Familiar as I was with the practice of open admissions at the old CCNY in New York, it took me a while to realize that this revolutionary policy only applied -- indeed could by law only apply -- to the tiny group of non-White students who had managed to obtain an Exemption. Later on, after Jakes had gone into Mandela's government, UWC announced an experimental program under the Senate Discretionary Rule to admit students without Matric Exemptions. I was very excited by this revolutionary move, and underwrote it with USSAS funds as much as I was able. The results were exactly as I had expected. There was no discernible difference between the academic performance of students entering with a Matric Exemption and students entering under the Senate Discretionary Rule, but even though Mandela was now President of South Africa and Kadar Asmal was Minister of Education, UWC could not get the Ministry of Education to adjust the funding formula so as to recognize the legitimacy of the several hundred students in the experimental program.


Marinus said...

My mother was for many years an academic at the University of Zululand, and up until late in high school I spent a lot of time on that campus. It was a strange place, I don't know if you've visited it. It has a rather impressive auditorium, the site of many political rallies and a favourite haunt of Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and library which compares favourably with that of other universities its size (far larger than what is to be found here where I am now, at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology). But the music department (where my mother taught) was a series of pre-fab buildings during all of her time there, well over a decade, despite the fact that it was supposed to be a temporary structure. Instead the department and all the musical instruments got housed in this row of plywood boxes -- as a violist, I'm sure you can appreciate how thrilled the musicians were with that. The music department wasn't the only one that suffered like that. There was a really uneven expenditure at that university, and I suspect that there were certain talismanic structures that were put up as a political statement, and, except for special favour, everything else (and the people inside those structures) had to do with what they were given.

When my mother was appointed there, she only had her honours degree, an higher education diploma and a few years of teaching experience (and no political links -- at least none that my parents have ever deigned to inform me about). I of course believe her to be an extremely bright and capable individual, but in the rest of the world those are the qualifications of a teaching assistant, not someone setting up curriculums at tertiary level. But it was a suitable level of qualification of the role she was expected to play: giving the introductory courses to students who had no, or very spotty, formal training. She never did a lick of research in her capacity as academic, except for the MA she completed part-time (through UNISA) in her time there with a resulting publication or two. And, from what I can gather, a great number of the academics at that university played very, very similar roles.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Marinus, Your description is fascinating, and not surprising. The HBUs were a very ill-assorted lot. UDW and UWC were genuine university campuses, and Fort Hare had a great tradition, although it had fallen on hard times when I visited, but places like UniZulu and Venda and the University of the North were another matter entirely. I did visit the campus once, as part of a group who drove up from UDW. This was at the main Empangeni campus. The thing that impressed me most was that the Rector had somehow managed to acquire three or four doctorates [let us not discuss their value!]. At that time, fifteen years ago, I was having very bad back trouble, and actually visited the campus in a wheelchair.

Despite sll of that, I look back on those years with very great fondness. The people I met were wonderful, and the students were as well. It made me very proud to be able t help some of them.

JP said...

Care to say a bit more about our universities thinking themselves the equivalent of Harvard/Oxford? I have not ever really picked that up, though my experience is mostly of the historically Afrikaans universities.

(Oh, and quibbles. You left out the Malay heritage of the 'coloured' people, the Afrikaners are a Dutch/German/French mix (with roughly 6% non-european blood thrown in, apparently), and the Afrikaners view themselves as settlers, not colonisers, though I won't argue the point.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think the English language universities are oriented toward England [and latterly, at America]. They talk about themselves in a way that makes it clear they conceive of themselves as world class, but if you look at the various departments,and compare their scholarly accomplishments with those of corresponding American departments, it is clear that they are good, solid universities not in the first rank.

I am well aware that the Afrikaners view themselves as settlers. So did the colonizers who came from England to push the Native Americans out of their ancestral homes. Indeed, they fostered the illusion that they had found an empty land. There is a lot of that going around. The Israelis imagine that no one was living in Palestine before they arrived, or so a guide told me when I visited Israel.

JP said...

Oh, OK. If you take 'settler' to imply that the land was terra nullius then you are correct.

The Afrikaner liking for the term comes from the association of intending to stay (making it home), as opposed to intending to run it as a satellite of a foreign power to which you are still loyal. This is seen as a point of pride against English whites, and the derogatory term for an English white comes from this contrast.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

JP, that is quite correct. I was struck by the fact that many English South Africans had dual passports, the clear implication being that they could always leave, whereas the Afrikaners thought of themselves [legitimately] as Africans. It was also the fact that many Afrikaners speak Zulu [perhaps from their time s farmers with Zulu farm workers], ant think of themselves as really understanding the Blacks, as they would say.

Marinus said...

Empangeni, yes, that's the town I grew up in. Of course, the old South Africa being what it was, Empangeni (and Richards Bay, and Mtunzini) were white areas, and the campus was in the small town of KwaDlangezwa, a few kilometers south, across that ludicrous border and in the bantustan of KwaZulu.

There were genuine academics there, some even drawing students from the white universities for postgraduate work (though this must be after apartheid got abolished, and even then I imagine being one of those students must have been an amazingly weird experience). Not any more: I see UniZul has lost full university accreditation.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

This is what I love about posting my Memoirs on line. I talk about Harvard, and up pop folks from my Harvard days. I talk about UMass, same thing. Then I talk about the University of Zululand, and lo and behold, there is someone who grew up in Empangeni!! I mean, how cool is that?

彥安 said...

Man proposes, God disposes...................................................................

Aleph said...

Thank you for posting your engaging memoir on the web. As a South African academic, I was particularly interested to read your comments about SA universities.

You write: '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.'

This hasn't been my experience. In fact, I've never heard an academic or student at the University of Cape Town, where I work, claiming that the university is equivalent to these great institutions. When our best students are admitted for postgraduate study to Berkeley, Oxford, etc., they are thrilled, as they should be, and as they would not be if they believed (absurdly!) that they were merely transferring to an equivalently good university in another country.

If the belief that South African universities were in the global top rank of universities were as widely and intensely held as you imply, then it would be surprising that universities comparable (as you put it) 'with second tier State Universities in the United States -- UMass, UConn, maybe Ohio State' could contain so many ignorant and deluded people.

Marinus said...

I have to say that my experience as a student at an SA university (the University of Pretoria) bears Prof. Wolff out. Everybody is aware of the gulf in prestige between, say, Wits and Stanford. But in UP's engineering faculty a lot was made of the academic relationship they had recently established with M.I.T. (this is in the early 2000s) and it was taken as a badge of courage that the folk at M.I.T. had apparently recommended that they tone down some of their evaluations (in order to get higher passing rates, I suspect). In private, lecturers would tell us about this as a vindication of the university's standards.

Aleph said...

Naturally I can't speak for every department in every SA university, and I know nothing about engineering at UP. But Prof Wolff has made a very bold claim, whose scope covers a variety of universities. Thus, I think that the fact that it doesn't resonate with me at all - with my experience in an area of one SA university - does make it dubious.

Also, Wolff's beliefs about SA universities seem to be in tension with each other. It is odd to hold that (a) some SA universities are at the decent standard of second-tier US state universities, but (b) at all SA universities there is fervent acceptance of a clearly absurd belief.

The remark I quoted from Wolff is striking and entertaining, but a less sweeping claim would have a great chance at plausibility. In its current form, it strikes me as cavalier. I'm quite happy to work at an unspectacular but decent institution, but am disconcerted to read that I might be deluded about its quality.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Well, I can live with cavalier, but let me remind everyone that this is a Memoir, not a work of scholarship, so it reports the world as I found it. Aleph, I am happy to accept your correction, inasmuch as it is your world I am talking about, and you are therefore much better situated than I to make generalizations. I will say, however, that what I have said arose out of my own direct observations at a certain moment in time. As for the possibility that academics can be deluded about their own circumstances, I would just cite as an example the fact that many academics at Harvard are under the impression that they are at a quite progressive institution, whereas to someone looking at them from the outside, it does not appear that way at all.