Grinding poverty, broken bodies, taxi wars - and hope

August 14, 1998

Diversity within the Commonwealth's universities will be high on the ACU's agenda, with contributions from writer Carol Shields and Canadian Indian university head Eber Hampton

What can British universities possibly contribute to higher education in South Africa? Michael Scott went to find out

Violence at the World Cup has been attributed to the English malaise. It is perhaps a symptom of a problem underlying a false sense of national identity.

I have recently returned from two violent cities in South Africa, where I was chairing an academic quality audit. On the Friday night I held a seminar with lecturers in Johannesburg on curriculum development, teaching,learning and assessment strategies. The following day I was with black and white students interrogating the issues concerning pedagogy, content and resource.

Sunday was a free day. We booked a safari. It was an exciting prospect but something more pertinent than the animals caught my attention. Driving to the game reserve, our black driver told me that his grandfather lived until the age of 94 but never voted. This was now the new South Africa. It would take time and patience. The violence of which we had heard could only be overcome by education, health and welfare policy and employment. We passed a dam with a resort for sailing and fishing. He had a dream of owning a home overlooking the water.

Earlier we had passed a black township. It was made from corrugated iron. It was thrown together like the huts on an allotment squeezed into a space with no land between. At night on our return, small fires were burning inside these sheds called homes, with shadowy figures hovering around. The task facing the new South Africa is overwhelming.

We flew to Durban and drove to our hotel in a minibus taxi. It is a splendid city; old colonial buildings are squeezed between Singapore-style skyscrapers, some of great beauty, others of awful banality. We were told to keep together and not to stray out of the safe areas.

We went to the Centre of Contemporary African Art. The work of the young black artists illuminated the frustrated anger that is poverty. It was frightening. We got slightly lost on the way back, and though in little danger, we realised that the violence was not just theoretical.

On the television the local news announced the taxi wars. There were pictures of minibus taxis similar to our own peppered with bullet holes. There were images of black youths with broken limbs and lacerated faces. Within an hour of the news item, our taxi firm raised its charges to take us to the University of Natal by 300 per cent.

Natal University is an impressive institution. It knows its local, national and international mission. It promotes the need for a new type of university for the modern age; a lifelong university for all. We experienced no violence travelling to the campus but were told that life is cheap; on average there is one death a day on the road we had travelled.There is a strange paradox between the ideal and the reality but a confidence that the ideal will win through.

Why, I had to ask, are British universities operating in South Africa? We can claim that we are fostering the mission of internationalisation, promoting the economic viability of individual institutions and the tending to the humanitarian needs of underdeveloped countries. We can even claim that one day the underdeveloped will be developed and will remember its friends. Yet I felt, as an individual, concerned about my lack of knowledge and my impotence in the face of something totally beyond my capability to effect change or even fully understand the situation. I knew for the first time how the wealthy do not comprehend that they are rich. The violence is endemic. In that it is perhaps the opposite of the violence of the football hooligan. Yet, there may be a connection.

Perhaps there are tensions at home that we do not understand. The problem goes much deeper and way beyond South Africa, even to our European football grounds. Our South African driver's solution was education, health, welfare and employment that would generate self-esteem and a sense of meaningful identity.

Michael Scott is a pro vice-chancellor of De Montfort University. He writes in a personal capacity.

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