It is eight years since South Africa's return to democracy and the beginning of the reconstruction process that promised so much to the country's oppressed majority. But the process of transformation in the country's universities has been slow. Although numbers of students have increased (and within that the proportion of African students), the participation rate for black students is still only 12 per cent, compared with 42 per cent for whites and 37 per cent for Asians.
Equally, the government's plan to reshape a higher education system developed along racial lines by the apartheid regime has been laboured and frequently flawed. Education minister Kader Asmal has tried to force the pace, but entrenched interests have set bear traps at every turn. His latest skilful footwork has broadly retained plans for a streamlined system. But a threat of quotas for universities that fail to meet specified targets for recruiting more African black students will antagonise universities striving to accelerate change but making slow progress because of a lack of black academics to effect the cultural change nearly everyone wants. A painful streamlining from 36 institutions to 21 will not deliver a new cadre of black academics needed to tackle myriad social and economic problems still facing the country. Whether it will actively get in the way is the critical question.