Learning to serve up the cake

September 5, 1997

OUTSIDE Durban there are two education campuses within a few hundred yards of each other. Mangosuthu Technikon swarmed with students at the beginning of the winter semester: at the Umlazi campus of the University of Zululand we saw no students.

We were told that Umlazi be-came busy later in the day, being used mainly by about 1,000 part-time employed students. There were 5,600 full-time students at Mangosuthu, where the vice chancellor said they were desperate for more facilities. Here there were problems with building - with obtaining money, and because much of the land belonging to the technikon held industrial waste.

We asked Umlazi why the institutions did not merge and were told that it was politically impossible: one was under the influence of the African National Congress, the other of Inkatha. Elsewhere, we were told the situation was at least as much a result of the more familiar rationalisations about academic status.

South Africa cannot afford this use of its facilities, whatever the reasons. It has 21 universities and 15 technikons. The technikons are, effectively, technical universities, which, people widely agree, do good work. A very high proportion of the graduates go straight to relevant work - this in a country suffering up to 40 per cent unemployment. But there is considerable unevenness in the levels of resourcing, and there has been little evidence of much attempt to secure effective liaison with the country's technical colleges, which, similarly, are unevenly resourced though on a much lower base.

Jairam Reddy, the distinguished former vice chancellor of Durban-Westville University and chair of South Africa's equivalent of the Dearing Committee, believes that higher education in the republic needs radical change.

There are, for instance, five departments of Afrikaans, and five departments of classics, just in the province of KwaZulu-Natal; all undersubscribed and struggling. The solution might be to have one good department for each discipline, but that sort of solution will be very hard to achieve. "We are all the victims of the social and psychological consequences of our racism," Mr Reddy told me. He agrees that one of South Africa's most urgent needs is large-scale investment in technical education below degree level.

But, so far, it has been impossible to reach agreement on the use of the proposed Redress Fund, which could be used as the first stage in securing greater equity in the funding of higher education. The fund is worth Rand220 million (Pounds 30 million), but this is wholly inadequate and none of it has yet been spent.

Recently, I visited two universities, two technikons and two technical colleges. To me, the technikon in Pretoria seemed lavishly app-ointed and resourced. My next port of call, to Pretoria (Technical) College, also surprised; it had decent buildings, equipment and levels of staffing.

It was pointed out to me that both of these institutions were originally provided for white students. They are, of course, fully integrated, now. At the technical college black students were in the clear majority. And the technikon had some impressive arrangements for staff development, including compulsory training in cultural diversity for all.

There were two surprises at the technical college, however; the presence of a security guard with a sub-machine gun on the doors ("only when we're collecting fees," I was assured) and the information that every day started with a staff prayer meeting, attended by up to 80 per cent of the staff.

At another institution there was a further jolt - my first encounter with an unreconstructed, and, it seemed, unrepentant Afrikaans Boer.

He reckoned that all educational excellence in South Africa was being lost, discarded because those in power were a) engaged in social engineering, b) useless, and c) communists. But he added that South Africa was now "the most exciting place in the world outside Cambodia". He listed the institutions where South Africa was, or had been world- class - every one of them Afrikaans universities. He be-lieved we should stop wasting money on little projects like distance learning and invest, instead, in "excellence". There was no apparent interest in arguments about global economies, international competitiveness, mass education or technical skills.

This professor was very proud of his Christianity, his plain speaking and his academic qualifications. But he was a powerful argument for the necessity of change in South Africa. When, later, we went out to Soweto, the same thought recurred to me.

We arrived, accompanied by a strong northerly wind that was covering everything in a choking dust. At times we could barely see to drive. Most houses here, surrounded by bare packed earth, with corrugated metal roofs, are composed of single rooms. The shops are roadside stalls for the most part, though in other places there is more urbanisation.

We saw Nelson Mandela's old home when he was first married - two rooms, now being turned into a tiny museum. We saw Winnie Mandela's present home, too - still in Soweto, but much larger than the first house and surrounded by a high brick wall.

We had an excellent lunch - mutton, beans and pap, with local beer - in a former shebeen where the proprietor had a picture of Richard Branson and a wall decorated with visiting cards.

At the end of my day in Soweto, I pondered on three things: the appalling, disgraceful and vicious system that was apartheid; the strength of the human spirit in overcoming and even surmounting such conditions; and the immense problems Nelson Mandela and South Africa still face.

Soweto is not the worst of the townships (according to our driver, that dubious title belongs to Alexandria) but there are nearly five million people living there and most of them will not be able to improve their lot.

It is small wonder that crime has increased in Johannesburg. Or at least that is the impression; our driver claimed that there was not more crime compared with the situation three years ago, and that it was just getting more attention because it was more spread out. And, of course, crime is now affecting the white population much more.

I believe education, at every level, for every South African, is the way to find the gold at the end of the rainbow. And I hope that the government will spend whatever they have now on technical education and on basic education for the millions who have been denied that opportunity.

Colin Flint is principal of Solihull College.

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