Making Science, Research a Priority for Black Students: South African Educators Urge Shift from Humanities to Natural, Applied Sciences

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Making Science, Research A Priority For Black Students: South African. Educators Urge Shift from Humanities to Natural, Applied Sciences

CHARLESTON, SC -- Those who once governed apartheid South Africa, determined decades ago that Black students had no use for math and science education. As a result they were systematically precluded from admission to many academic programs and professional schools.

Today the consequences of those policies are still wreaking havoc in the majority Black nation. Over time, a higher education system split and funded along racial lines, encouraged and produced more Bible scholars, political scientists and writers than it did computer specialists, biochemists, physicians and mathematicians.

When Dr. G.M. Nkondo, vice-chancellor of the University of Venda, took inventory at his institution he found that more than 70 percent of his graduates held degrees in the humanities. A discipline he argues that has been "badly taught."

By 1999, Nkondo said his goal is to increase the number of science graduates by at least 20 percent.

In a post-apartheid era South Africa, Nkondo and other education leaders -- both Black and white -- are scrambling to fill the void by putting math, science and technology where they say it belongs -- in the forefront of national education reform.

"Degrees in political science and philosophy are fine, but we desperately need people with degrees in the natural and applied sciences...practical skills," argues Nkondo.

As part of the deliberate apartheid plan, he said, "the government wanted to marginalize Blacks, disable them from participating in the economy."

Dr. Mapule Ramashala agrees: "As we restructure the curriculum, we must do so in a way that responds to the communities and the needs of the country." Ramashala is a research executive at the Medical Research Council of South Africa, and its top-ranking Black executive.

While South Africa has one of the best agriculture research councils, Ramashala said, "it has not benefitted Black farmers."

Likewise, "South Africa has produced some of the best researchers in the world, but most have been white," maintains Ramashala a clinical psychologist who was educated in both South Africa and in the United States.

"When Black universities were established under the apartheid system, they were not designed to be research institutions," said Ramashala. "When it comes to health, development and research," she added, "issues of access and equity are critical."

Taking steps to unravel the apartheid legacy, a new agriculture program and courses in rural development have been made "high priorities" in a strategic plan Nkondo developed for Venda and ultimately for the poor, rural community the university serves. Also planned for the 12-year-old university, is a school of environmental studies, he added. It will be South Africa's first.

At South Africa's Medical Research Council -- the counterpart to America's National Science Foundation -- the presence of post-apartheid South Africa is slowly taking hold, but not fast enough for Ramashala. …