The vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Mamphela Ramphele, has stung the South African government with a public attack on its attempts to increase the proportion of black teachers at secondary schools.
It is the first time that a leading black educationist has confronted the government over balancing the need to maintain teaching standards with achieving racial equity.
In the mass-circulation Sunday Times, Dr Ramphele wrote that the government's attempts to transform the "grossly inequitable and inadequate" school system were "characterised by a tendency with the disturbingly familiar ring of sacrificing sound educational principles and practices for short-term political gain. The losers are the poor, who are mainly black".
The article appears to have been sparked by the education minister's threat to appeal against a High Court ruling. The court had declared illegal a teacher redeployment scheme that forces schools to select teachers from a departmental list rather than make their own choices. In response to the attack, the minister's special adviser, Thami Mseleku, retaliated with an article in the same newspaper dismissing Dr Ramphele's views as "speculation based on hearsay, coupled with an emotional appeal to the historically privileged".
The government seems to have been hurt not just by the public delivery of the criticisms but also by the fact that Dr Ramphele carries quite a bit of weight. She has credibility among whites because of her vow to maintain UCT as a centre of excellence, and she has impeccable liberation struggle credentials in the black community through her ties with the Black Consciousness movement and its martyred founder, Steve Biko.
Dr Ramphele argued that political coercion is unlikely to succeed in encouraging teachers, white or black, to agree to redeployment without attractive incentives. "As head of an educational institution committed to excellence and equity, I plead for a fresh start."