To forgive but not forget

December 29, 1995

SOUTH AFRICA. F rank Mdlalose," called out a white man in received English pronunciation. A cheer erupted from the almost all-black audience seated amid the Victorian splendour of the Durban City Hall, which is a replica of the Belfast City Hall.

Political animosity flew out of the window as Mdlalose, Inkatha Freedom Party premier of South Africa's conflict-ridden KwaZulu-Natal province, climbed the steps to the stage to be capped for a medical degree he received more than 35 years ago.

He was followed by about 400 black doctors ranging in age from mid-20s to late 60s who, in the prevailing South African spirit of forgiving the past, attended a reconciliation graduation ceremony at the University of Natal medical school ealier this month.

For decades, graduates of the medical school, which has produced 90 per cent of South Africa's black doctors, boycotted graduation in protest against apartheid and their racist treatment by the "liberal" university. At least the university was tolerant enough to allow its medical school to be a hotbed of anti-apartheid activity: democratic plans laid in frequently-raided dormitories have now hatched.

Certainly most of the people who were clapping the IFP premier support the African National Congress. At least they should: among the graduates were two cabinet ministers (one ANC), a provincial premier, six provincial ministers and several civil service department heads, most of them ANC.

They are the "medical mafia" of the newly powerful, which prompted one speaker to compare the medical school today with the University of Stellenbosh, which produced South Africa's elite in days not long gone by.

It was an extraordinary ceremony, full of cultural juxtaposition and symbolism. A white chancellor and dean, African, Asian and coloured graduates at an English ceremony, and an African choir which belted out the university anthem in Latin.

Forgiveness but not forgetfulness. Speakers, including honorary graduate and health minister Nkosazana Zuma - a former student who fled the country and completed her medical degree in Britain - reminded the university of when black students were made to live and learn in bleak barracks in the shadow of an oil refinery miles from the main campus. They were not allowed to wear the university blazer, and could not visit the main campus or join its sports clubs.

The ceremony was also a sharp reminder that, in the second year of the new South Africa, race remains the major item on the agenda.

The racial composition of South Africa's student population has altered radically: the number of African students registered at universities has trebled in the past ten years, and for the first time in 1994 there were more African students than any other race.

In 1996 an interim student loan and bursaries scheme will be in place and there will be a final aid scheme in 1997. They will ease the financial burden on poor students and also help avert the annual disruptions and fees debt crises that characterise campuses.

With African students now comprising just under half the student body but 75 per cent of the population, higher education still has a long way to go. In 1995, the race struggle moved to institutional transformation and the racial composition of higher education staff, especially academic staff.

This will be a significant battle, since it involves that which is closest to the hearts of established academics: their jobs, opportunities, research and intellectual traditions. Troubles at the University of Durban-Westville have been over the "Africanisation" of a progressive but mostly Asian institution.

The ongoing fight between University of the Wi****ersrand deputy vice chancellor, William Makgoba and 13 established academics, has divided the university on racial lines and challenged the Wits traditions. The University of Cape Town had an easier ride in appointing Mamphela Ramphela as the country's first black - and second woman - vice chancellor, but even there race, language and "liberal tradition" were issues.

At Afrikaans universities, difficulties mostly surged around pay but they too had racial aspects: disputes were between white management and black unions, and in some cases there were clashes between protesting black workers and white students. Clashes between African and other students also occurred on some campuses, mostly when non-African students grew tired of disruptions, protests and trashings.

At the end of the year, the lesson learned was that forgiving the apartheid past and joining the national reconciliation drive spearheaded by President Nelson Mandela, is going to be easier than forging a vastly changed, and peaceful, future.

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