THE END of apartheid opened the doors of Africa's biggest economy to foreign influence and to a greater flow of the development aid South Africa sorely needs.
Higher education, a strong but threatened sector crucial to the country's progress, is a special target for British support. Three hundred new professional contacts are made annually with South Africa through the British Council alone. Many are in higher education, where there are 26 formal links involving 22 British and 14 local institutions.
South Africa now has the third largest Higher Education Links Scheme in the world after China and India, according to Tony Reilly, the council's director in Durban and of the links scheme in South Africa. Many links are due to end in March and new ones are being selected. The global amount involved is Pounds 15 million over five years.
The grant for the links scheme - made by the education division of Department for International Development (DfID) to the Fund for International Co-operation in Higher Education (FICHE) - was extended for five years from 1997 to 2002. It is the largest single project funded by the education division.
As part of the extension, DfID recommended that there be more of a regional focus, with 40 per cent of the Pounds 15 million being allocated to Sub-Saharan Africa. Programmes with universities and technikons in South Africa dovetail well with Britain's development agenda.
The average link costs between Pounds 15,000 and Pounds 20,000 over a three-year cycle, which allows several exchange visits to be made ranging from a few weeks to a few months. However, each link levers much larger amounts.
According to FICHE's 1996-97 annual report, a review of the previous three-year links programme found that Pounds 9 million allocated between 1993 and 1996 generated "over Pounds 700 million worth of impact". The grant gives good value for money, the report continues, and has large built-in multiplier effects "with UK universities contributing substantially in terms of academic time and other inputs".
Last year's change of British government and the transformation of the former Overseas Development Agency into DfID refocused British aid.
DfID's broad purpose is to "improve the quality of life of people in poorer countries by contributing to sustainable development and reducing poverty and suffering". There is also a strong emphasis on women and, among other things, on markets and good government, education and health, productive capacity and the environment.
A priority in South Africa is building capacity in historically disadvantaged institutions through academic links, especially in research, staff and curriculum development, Mr Reilly said.
Britain's new ethical foreign policy has also softened the economic edge of development aid. While previously there was a noticeable British interest in education exports and promoting UK plc, the new Foreign Office and DfID agendas seem more about developing human resources.
The quality of life focus can be difficult to reconcile with higher education programmes. However, Mr Reilly points out, with the new emphasis on academic links mirroring DfID's developmental priorities, "they can and do contribute significantly towards the achievement of overseas countries' social, educational and economic goals".
Projects are concentrated in subjects such as health, law, politics, development, community psychology, rural agriculture, tourism, gender and quality assurance. One fruitful existing link is between the universities of Zululand, Natal and Nottingham on mathematics and science education. This link has led to the establishment of a self-sustaining operation, the Centre for the Advancement of Science and Maths Education, based at the University of Natal.
Another example is teacher education involving the universities of Durban-Westville, Zululand and Sussex, which has led to a masters in education. This link will be showcased at a British Council-funded conference in Durban in July.
There are 28 proposals for future collaboration between British and South African institutions being considered. The successful ones are to begin in April.
One is for a link between the universities of Durban-Westville, Zululand, a number of UK institutions and Britain's Quality Assurance Agency, aimed at helping develop South Africa's higher education quality assurance mechanisms and procedures. Others include research into the chemical composition of traditional medicines by Mangosuthu Technikon and the University of Edinburgh; the development of design technology education by Boland College of Education and King Alfred's College Winchester; and a distance education project between the University of Fort Hare and the Open University.
Their success also depends on people running them - each has a coordinator in both South Africa and Britain - and on the goodwill of academics, who give their time freely.
But herein lies a problem. Time is starting to mean money in higher education. Contributions "in kind", in the form of academic staff time, may well come under increasing pressure to be justified in the form of clear tangible benefits to the universities. "In many cases, however, the mutual benefits of these academic links are clear to both sides," said Mr Reilly.