The daily battle for justice

July 16, 1999

Universities must spend every day on the frontline of the fight for social equality, argues Brenda Gourley.

London has reportedly overtaken Durban as the city with the largest population of Indians outside of India. Do the demographics of English institutions reflect that? Do they compare themselves with the demographics of London or the United Kingdom, or the world?

Few universities need give no thought to affirmative action of some sort. As the world becomes more and more cosmopolitan (whether by tides of refugees or just the movement of people seeking a better life), the demographics of the population the institution seeks to serve should be represented in its own demographics.

Which demographics to use as a benchmark has been the subject of heated debate in my institution, and I imagine it would be the same in any but the most homogeneous society, if there are any left.

The University of Natal declares itself to be an "equal opportunity, affirmative action" university, and it has all sorts of policies and procedures to ensure that the slogan is not just words. This is all very well when there is no competition for places at the university. But when competition is strong,there are those who believe they have been wrongly deprived of a university place because their paper credentials look better than an affirmative-action candidate. They feel so strongly that they are ready to take the matter to court - and they regularly do.

During South Africa's recent elections, a political party chose to champion the case of a student, an Indian, who in spite of impressive matriculation results, did not gain entry to a faculty where there is a large pressure for places and where the need for affirmative action is very strong. Party leaders picketed outside the university gates and full-page advertisements in the newspapers declared the party's intention to "fight back" (its election slogan). Its explanation for why the student was not admitted was simply "because she is an Indian".

The radio and other media gave prime-time coverage, but the case is sub judice: if I took on the media, I would be in contempt of court. Lawyers advised me not to prejudice the case when it eventually came to court and warned me that I ran the risk of a jail sentence. On the other hand, the university was being attacked in a very public way as being racist, and it is my job to protect the institution's reputation.

Some organisations regarded the matter as one of free speech and what university would not defend that? It is difficult to give the general public an informed view of the matter when one is bound by the sub judice rule. At the same time the public should be informed as to how the university came to find itself in this situation. Needless to say, we did respond in the general terms that govern my writing of this article.

For a very long time, Natal was the only South African university where black people could study medicine. From its establishment in 1951 until the early 1990s, the medical school was open only to black students (black African, Indian and coloured) and it has had to find ways of bringing them in from highly unsatisfactory schooling systems. How bizarre now to be accused of racism. How bizarre that the party for which Helen Suzman fought so long and so valiantly should be the party to exploit the fissure along which our society is always threatening to fracture - the issue of race.

The university makes no apology for its commitment to produce more African graduates from all of its faculties. Until graduates nationwide reflect demographic realities, we will practise affirmative action, with the support of the constitution.

Natal's senate (and indeed the senates of other universities) has instituted a range of alternative access programmes: a science foundation programme, an engineering bridging project, and an economics and management access scheme, to name but a few.

They have done this precisely because, given the wide disparities in education background, creative ways have to be found of identifying and nurturing students who have the potential to succeed at university. Considerable success has been achieved as is attested by the many well-qualified African graduates who started their university careers via these programmes.

While school or matriculation results provide an initial pointer, they are of themselves not an entirely reliable basis for selection. Wherever practicable, particularly where competition for places is strong, other selection tools must be applied. Career aptitude is obviously a key factor. The competition for places in our clinical psychology programme, for example, is intense.

In addition to scrutinising academic results, the school of psychology goes to considerable lengths to establish that those who are selected have the personal attributes required of good clinical psychologists.

Some argue that "equal opportunity" is not capable of being put into practice as a policy at the same time as "affirmative action". We would argue that people cannot be given an equal opportunity unless there is affirmative action. This is clearly endorsed by the South African constitution, which states: "To promote the achievement of equality, legislative and other measures designed to protect or advance persons, or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination may be taken." The university is doing just that.

Universities elsewhere in the world are failing in their duty to promote social justice if they too are not battling, on a day-to-day basis, with the imperatives buried in the rubric of "affirmative action" and "equal opportunity" - and they should not require an edict from government authorities to do so.

Brenda Gourley is vice-chancellor of the University of Natal, Durban.

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