Award scheme proves a triumph

November 17, 1995

One of the most significant aspects of South Africa's transformation process has been the extent to which well-qualified and highly motivated black South Africans have slipped easily and effectively into positions of power and responsibility.

The gloomy warnings of whites hanging on to responsibility because it could be proved there was no one to replace them, or of a slide into chaos, have conspicuously failed to materialise.

Part of the explanation is a low-profile 35-year programme, mainly funded by the Nordic countries, to train cadres of exiled black South Africans and others disadvantaged by apartheid. Between 1958 and 1993 more than 700 South Africans received major awards to study on almost 1,000 courses.

On the face of it a piece of liberal western altruism. But under the surface the scheme was fraught with difficulty and danger.

Originally co-administered by the London-based Africa Educational Trust and the International University Exchange Fund in Geneva, the London organisation effectively took over the operation when the Geneva end was infiltrated in the late 1970s by Craig Williamson, an agent of BOSS, the South African security service, and its activities compromised. It became obvious that the identities, movements and intentions of award holders were known to BOSS, and the programme was transferred to London.

BOSS's interest is partly explained by the study of the scheme carried out by university researchers in the United Kingdom and in South Africa which shows a strong correlation with the African National Congress. The primary route for most of the students supported by the AET programme was through liberation movement leaders, with the ANC claiming most and significant numbers going to the Pan African Congress and the Black Consciousness Movement.

To judge the effectiveness of the programme, researchers from London University's Institute of Education and the education policy unit at the University of the Western Cape were commissioned to investigate. They selected a random representative sample of 100 of the former students and set out to trace and interview them.

Out of the sample of 100, the researchers traced 92, of whom a remarkable 82 were located and interviewed. Almost three-quarters of the sample had or were about to return to Southern Africa.

The random sample included two cabinet ministers in the new South African government; two members of parliament; four senior government or regional directors; 16 professors and lecturers; ten doctors, dentists and health professionals; seven private or voluntary sector senior directors and managers; and five artists and television producers.

ANC members or supporters made up 45 per cent of the sample, while award holders with an ANC parent added a further 8 per cent. The researchers cleared the selectors of a positive bias towards the ANC - they put the explanation for the preponderance of award holders with ANC connections to the organisation's growth and the effectiveness of its networks in exile.

The pass rate - expected to exceed 80 per cent - is better than for African, coloured and Indian students at South African universities.

The report concluded: "The AET South Africa Programme has clearly succeeded in helping to produce a highly educated and competent group of people, the majority of whom are making a very significant contribution to the political, economic and cultural development of South Africa in its current transition from apartheid."

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