A clash of two cultures

February 24, 1995

It's like cod liver oil - no one likes it but you have to take it," says a senior professor at the University of the Wi****ersrand. What is he talking about?

As one walks through the campus, one can feel the turmoil brewing. The main concourse, the heart of the student social scene, gives away telltale signs. Everyone is present for their first lectures of the year, but there appears to be little racial integration. Is this just the inheritance of years of apartheid, or is affirmative action causing splits in the university population?

According to Alf Stadler, head of the politics department at Wits, these racial divisions are more marked than before. The leftwing whites are no longer so politically active and links between the white radicals and blacks are loosening.

The South African Students Congress is a largely black student group that is critical of the university's policy on affirmative action. T. K., one of its senior members, said: "I doubt if there's been anything going on with regard to administration and the intake of black students . . . The ones that are admitted are the yuppie ones with rich dads."

He also takes up the issue of standards which many people fear will drop with affirmative action. "Standards is an ideologically loaded statement. The university wants to defend eurocentric ideas and there's nothing wrong with that in Europe. . . Whatever standards you're talking about must be afrocentric."

Yet a senior member of staff scoffed at "afrocentric" standards. She said: "Ask anyone who goes on about afrocentric standards to be opened up by a doctor who hasn't been trained up to eurocentric standards!" But most seem to agree that standards are not at the heart of the debate. Makaziwe Mandela, Nelson's eldest daughter and Wits's first affirmative action equal oppportunity adviser, says: "We are not talking about dropping our standards . . . there's no evidence of a decline in standards at this institution; and anyway, it's a risk this country's got to take."

Wits' University on Affirmative Action, published in July 1994 states that the university "has clearly recognised the changing face of South Africa and the need to redress the historical racial and gender imbalances within the university".

In practice, this means that the university will be "actively searching for blacks and women" when recruiting staff and will help (financially, academically and pastorally) these groups coming in as students. Effectively, this will limit the possibilities open to white males leaving school with university recognised matrics (South African A-level equivalent).

Dr Mandela says that these white males feel "threatened" by affirmative action.

Her words are reflected by Muzi Sikhakhane, the student representative committee president, who understands the fears voiced by some of the white students such as Ben Saner who is concerned about the effect of "reverse-racism" that he feels could be an eventuality of affirmative action.

Affirmative action is also a sensitive issue for the South African Liberal Students Association which has about a 10 per cent black membership. Some students see SALSA as SASCO's main rival and one SASCO member dismissed its competitor as "a bunch of white racists who call themselves liberals".

But David Morgan, the association's chairperson, is quick to dispel "the rivalry myth". He says: "There is a big misunderstanding between us and SASCO . . . When we were founded, SASCO thought we were setting up our group just to oppose them."

His line on affirmative action is, indeed, rather liberal, yet his argument has a conservative edge. "Affirmative action must be applied fairly and must consult with the community, it mustn't just become a race thing or a colour thing. . . People who leave school without good matric marks should have a year's bridging programme to prove themselves."

Dr Mandela says there have as yet been no instances of students without full entrance qualifications being admitted to Wits. But all parties realise that this is something the government will at some stage expect universities to deal with. As Professor Stadler says, as a result of the apartheid regime, many "blacks were unable to get in because they were marked with lower grades". It is this history that needs to be understood and taken into account by universities.

Lorraine Chaskalson has been seconded from the department of English literature to head the development of the arts foundation programme. Early on in her conversation, she leaves behind the "ifs" of affirmative action and looks to the best way of going about it. The foundation programme is a one-year course provided by the universities which will be run from the academic year of 1996 with a pilot intake of 200 students. It has some parallels with British access courses but Dr Chaskalson says that it is not a substitute for matric.

She says: "The course is aimed at the level of potential rather than the level of historical disadvantage and we hope to enable people to gain the tools and understanding about learning and the knowledge which is necessary for a university career."

Her positive outlook is catching. Although she admits that funds are very short and that numbers of applicants will have to rise if the scheme is to be successful, she says: "We are going to have to be resourceful and creative with what we've got." She also stresses the importance of exchange programmes and support on a national and international level. The programme is already working in the English and geography departments and, according to the deputy dean of the arts faculty and funding convenor of the initiative, Tom Lodge, "it seems to work quite well and the people we take in do quite well".

Until 1996 there will probably continue to be uncertainties and potential for friction between some white students who feel their qualifications will not necessarily give them an automatic right of entry to university and some black students who feel not enough is being done to help them.

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