Toward Conceptual, Policy, and Programmatic Frameworks of Affirmative Action in South African Universities

Article excerpt

Debate surrounding the concept and goals of affirmative action is growing in the United States and other countries. This article explicates and compares the conceptual tenets of affirmative action as they have been operationalized in the U.S. and South Africa. It critiques the positions on equity and affirmative action stated in South African policy documents and by key government policymakers, university executives, and faculty. It also presents case study data on the relationship between affirmative action and institutional change at four South African universities, identifying emerging paradigms for democracy in that nation's higher education system.


Much of the development of affirmative action concepts, policies, and programs-along with much of the debate-has been centered in the United States. However, other countries have used this mechanism to redress societal inequities. In South Africa, the transformation from apartheid to democracy has highlighted the roles of institutions of higher education. The development of a critical knowledge base and the preparation of students to assume key professional and policymaking roles in various sectors are central purposes of universities. Unfortunately, the presence of "Blacks" (Africans, Indians/Asians, and Colored groups) and women of all races and ethnicities in South African universities as students, faculty, and professionals is still limited in various disciplines, faculties, and administrative areas. Herman (1995), for example, reports that 51 out of every thousand in South Africa's White population were enrolled in postsecondary institutions in 1991 compared to 35, 13, and 9 out of every thousand for the Indian/Asian, Colored, and African populations, respectively. The 1996 Green Paper on Higher Education Transformation, one of the South African government's major working policy documents, details staff composition trends showing that Whites and men still hold those positions with the greatest prestige, status, and influence in the nation's academy (National Commission on Higher Education, 1996b). The Green Paper further reveals that in 1993, South Africa's historically White universities (HWUs) produced 83% of all research articles generated by the nation's scholars and 81% of all master's and doctorate graduates.

To change these realities, redress or affirmative action has become a salient mechanism. Increasing the percentages of underrepresented groups and women is a primary emphasis of affirmative action in higher education. Other prominent ways to redress inequities and to diversify colleges and universities include: professional development for junior professionals, academic bridge programs for students who are underprepared to engage in university work, and the equitable distribution of financial resources to the historically (Black and) disadvantaged universities (HDIs) that have served the nation's Black populations.

Various levels of resistance have been encountered in the implementation of such changes in South Africa. Several reports and pieces of legislation written or passed since the 1994 democratic elections have articulated rationales and ways of ensuring fairness and equity throughout the South African university system. After presenting a brief "glimpse" of the disparate education provided to South Africans of various racial/ethnic groups during the apartheid era, the present article explicates and compares the conceptual tenets of affirmative action as they have been operationalized in the United States and South African contexts. It also critiques the positions on equity and affirmative action expressed by various South African educational policy documents and government officials. To portray the relationship between affirmative action policy and institutional change in the nation's HWUs and HDIs, this article presents relevant findings from the authors' qualitative study of the history and goals of four South African universities. From these multiple sources are gleaned components of emerging paradigms for democracy in South African tertiary institutions.


Prior to the historically significant free elections held in South Africa on April 27, 1994, the educational system in that nation upheld the policy of apartheid (literally "aparthood" in Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch Boer settlers), as characterized by the following statement made in the House of Assembly in 1945:

We should not give the natives [Blacks] an academic education, as some people are too prone to do. If we do this we shall later be burdened with a number of academically trained Europeans and non-Europeans, and who is going to do the manual labor in the country?. . . I am in thorough agreement with the view that we should so conduct our schools that the native who attends those schools will know that to a great extent he must be the laborer in the country. (cited in Kumbula, 1993, p. 14)

Education was the institutional mechanism set in motion, maintained, and secured by the apartheid government to control the Black majority economically, politically, and socially. Statistics on enrollment, resource allocation, and teacher training reveal that this mechanism's thorough penetration of all cultures enabled authorities to impose a society based upon segregation and discrimination. The 1905 School Boards Act set this mechanism in motion when it established government schools for White pupils only (Kumbula, 1993). This gave Whites the head start that characterizes their present social, economic, and political position to this day. Only in 1976 did school attendance became mandatory for South Africa's African children; however, only about 70% of African children ages 7 to 19 are reported to have been enrolled in school (Kumbula, 1993).

Once set in motion, apartheid's mechanism of oppression was maintained as administrators allocated to African schools the fewest resources insofar as staffing, level of teacher training, textbooks, library holdings, equipment, and per capita spending per student were concerned. In 1948, for every 20 rand (South African currency) spent on African education, 20 times more was spent on White education. By 1989, the numbers were 5 to 1 in favor of expenditures on White students. Despite these obstacles, African enrollment in secondary education rose from 1 in 23.8 in 1969 to 1 in 5 by 1989. The rise in enrollments for the nation's other racial/ethnic groups between 1969 and 1989-from 1 in 3 to 1 in 2 for Whites; from 1 in 9 to 1 in 4 for Coloreds; and from 1 in 4 to 1 in 2.6 for Indians/ Asians-can best be understood when considering that Africans make up more than 70% of the South African population (Kumbula, 1993).

The picture in higher education institutions differed little from that evident at primary and secondary school levels. South African higher education sites are categorized into three groups: universities, teacher colleges, and technical institutions (or technikons). Under apartheid, each group included schools that targeted and enrolled specific racially / ethnically defined groups. Fifteen similarly defined government ministries managed this segregated system. The Department of Education and Training (DET) oversaw the education of those Africans residing near or around areas designated for Whites. The education of the Africans living in the four former independent homelands (bantustans, or the equivalent of Indian reservations in the United States) was managed by four different departments of Education and Culture (Lindsay, 1992). Many of the 17 HDIs remained segregated until the 1980s; only the University of South Africa has traditionally offered correspondence degrees for students of all racial/ ethnic groups. In 1978, university enrollments comprised 121,869 Whites, 25,150 Africans, 10,661 Coloreds, and 10,117 Indians/ Asians. By 1991, however, African enrollments had increased dramatically, such that there were 110,130 African university students enrolled nationally compared to 157,432 Whites, 19,575 Coloreds, and 21,035 Indians/Asians. Teacher training programs enrolled the largest number of Africans (35,795), compared to 8,766 Whites, 7,851 Coloreds, and 1,726 Indians/ Asians (Kumbula, 1993).

The area of teacher training for Africans secured apartheid's grip on the mechanisms of oppression in education. As H. F. Verwoed, the father of apartheid and the Minister of Native Affairs when the 1953 Bantu Education Act was passed, stated: "When I have control of native [African] education I will reform it so that natives will be taught from childhood to realize that equality with Europeans is not for them.... People who believe in equality are not desirable teachers for natives" (cited in Kumbula, 1993, p. 15). Perhaps White officials expected that high numbers of African teacher trainees would ensure an adequately colonized teacher population, thereby securing the control necessary to maintain White supremacy. However, teaching proved one of the few viable career options for Africans, and colleges of education were more accessible to them than were universities and technikons. In 1991, for example, about 16% of students in colleges of education were White, compared to 51% in universities and 62% in technikons. By contrast, about 66% of the enrollees in colleges of education were African, compared to 36% in universities and 23% in technikons. Prior to the 1994 elections, there were 69 colleges of education for Blacks, including those in the self-governing territories and homelands; 12 for Whites; 2 for Indians/Asians; and 13 for Coloreds (Lindsay, 1995).


Many of the theoretical frameworks of affirmative action commanding critical attention developed in the United States (Benjamin, 1997; Crenshaw, 1988; Franklin, 1993; Gates, 1986; Gregory, 1994; Tierney, 1997). However, the continuum of opinions and responses to affirmative action has widened into an international arena that offers insights and theoretical frameworks for institutions in many nations that are striving to formulate equitable and just policies for diverse populations. In South Africa, such frameworks have been developed by Mare (1993), Mathabane (1994), Mphahlele (1990), and Ramphele (1996). In the following discussion, the views and positions of these theorists will be contrasted with those from the United States.

The View from the United States

In the 1960s, the United States implemented affirmative action programs to compensate African Americans for the 250 years of oppression and disenfranchisement wrought by the institution of slavery as well as the 100 ensuing years of institutionalized governmental, societal, and cultural discrimination. The purpose of these affirmative action programs was to "level the playing field" for African Americans; yet, as Benjamin (1997) adamantly asserts, "the idea that thirty years of half-hearted and ill-defined compensatory programs is sufficient can only be considered nonsense at best and a cruel hoax at worse" (p. 1). Paradoxically, however, state legislatures, courts, and others in the U.S. have, in recent decades, considered arguments from their constituents to repeal affirmative action programs. Some have dismantled existing affirmative action policies and replaced them with policies based on standards of merit and current measures of financial need. Critics of such action maintain that race and gender discrimination are still prevalent in the U.S., and that attempts to dismantle affirmative action programs can only be motivated by parties interested in maintaining the status quo (Benjamin, 1997; Gates, 1986).

For example, Benjamin maintains that the status of African Americans throughout U.S. history can best be characterized by cycles of progress and retrogression. Progress, he asserts, has been achieved when the federal government and courts support and intercede on the behalf of African Americans; retrogression has occurred when the government and courts refuse to act proactively. He notes that in the nine years after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the U.S. Congress passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the nation's Constitution, making slavery illegal, establishing voting and citizenship rights for African Americans, and providing them with various legal protections, respectively. In the wake of these legislative changes, U.S. voters elected 2 Black senators, 20 Congressional representatives, and numerous state and local officials, including sheriffs, prosecutors, state house speakers, lieutenant governors, and superintendents of schools. However, this progress was virtually erased during the first three quarters of the 20th century. As Benjamin reports, the underlying effects of this reversal continues to trouble the United States, and recent Supreme Court and Congressional decisions are paving the way for further reversals simply because "[they] refuse to deal honestly with the question of racial equity in the face of persistent white privilege in every sphere of American life" (p.10).

Franklin (1993) stresses that the impact of a racially segregated past and one defined by discriminatory practices cannot be fully measured against current societal conditions. Rather, such measures must also take into account the more than 100 years of discriminatory teaching, writing, and public policy that followed chattel slavery in the United States. His analysis of the policies affected during the turn of the 20th century is indicative of this. He notes that U.S. laws defined what it meant to be "White" as well as what it meant to be "Black," and within this boundary of racial identity Whites formed their relations with Blacks and racially categorized others. Franklin brings into sharp focus what DuBois (1903/1961) deemed "the problem of the color line" (p. 23) noting that, "It would take the wisdom of the ages to see the profound impact that several centuries of preoccupation with undervaluing an entire race of people could have on the moral fiber of a nation, and on the national psyche" (p. 35). Franklin too concludes that 30 to 40 years of affirmative action policies have not produced the color-blind society that many seem to believe exists in the United States today given that "the power to allocate resources has invariably been in the hands of whites, [which] has inevitably meant placing African Americans at an almost hopeless disadvantage" (p. 61).

Tierney (1997) delineates three affirmative action positions that are useful in theoretical discussions of the policy's validity. The first position views affirmative action as a compensatory procedure designed to address injustices of the past. The second views it as a corrective tool designed to address present discrimination. The third views affirmative action as a mechanism designed to promote a multiculturally diverse and equal society.

The compensation position has been criticized for advocating redress and the assignment of benefits to individuals who did not suffer directly from past injustices. This position characterizes affirmative action recipients as victims, thereby complicating program efforts by circumscribing an entire group (Crenshaw, 1988; Gregory, 1994). Further, as Franklin (1993) states: "Whenever an effort is made to redress a wrong done to a certain group, some members of the group that have never experienced a wrong tend to feel aggrieved" (p. 71). Some critics also assert that compensation programs place substantial pressure on individual members of the victimizing group even though they were not the original perpetrators of the abuse. Although Tierney (1997) points out that most higher education affirmative action policies are not based on this position, he notes that critics and advocates alike nevertheless center their arguments around compensation. Franklin (1993) and Willie (1989) concur, attesting that critics see the potential of these arguments for promoting reverse discrimination, despite historical and economic realities; while advocates see their utility in ameliorating the persistent effects of racism and sexism. They contend that legislative policies and socioeconomic conditions from previous years indicate the need for governmental action-at the legislative, judicial, and executive levels-that guides both the private and public sectors in efforts to erase color barriers. In short, many who oppose affirmative action do so from an ahistorical context that omits consideration of former relations between groups and of the implications of past injustices on contemporary culture.

Tierney frames his discussion of the second perspective, affirmative action as a corrective tool to ameliorate present-day discrimination, within a discussion of the historical role of higher education institutions. As he suggests: "[T]he radical reinterpretation of the public sector as a sphere solely for individual competition is unjustified in institutions that have been traditionally defined as vehicles for upward mobility for all people, not merely the privileged few" (p. 192). In other words, institutions must implement policy in which race and gender are important considerations within a merit-based plan. Continuing, he explains: "We do not compensate someone today for an injustice visited on someone else a century ago. We compensate someone today because the after-effects of injustice still exist. In doing so, we correct a system and acknowledge that injustice still matters" [italics added] (p. 192). He maintains that this philosophy will engender plans based on merit while keeping a strong commitment to race and gender. Moreover, the replacement of race-based privileging policies with policies that privilege the poor stamps this group with the labels previously assigned to racial minorities.

The third affirmative action position, Tierney claims, promotes diversity in student, staff, and faculty populations; and emphasizes preparing the workforce of the future by ensuring diversity in the present. According to Gregory (1994), economic realities highlight the need for programs based upon this position, especially since the vast majority of new entrants to the labor force are minorities and women:

The United States will be a healthier and more vibrant place as our professional and graduate schools begin to reflect the full heterogeneity of the population s racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, quality, and excellence. That future can best be fully realized through an aggressive and unequivocal commitment to affirmative action diversity principles. When that era fully flowers, the need for affirmative action methodologies will evaporate. However, the remedies for the underlying social pathologies that thus far have precluded the full implementation of quality education. . .have yet to be found. (p. 427)

Currently, officials in the executive and legislative branches of government are trying to determine whether affirmative action has "worked" in academia in the United States. However, Tierney (1997) and others contend that the success or failure of U.S. affirmative action programs cannot be confirmed merely through the analysis of program outcome data, much of which may be indeterminable given that affirmative action policy is merely one factor in an individual's professional success. If affirmative action programs have not diversified U.S. higher education at this point in time, they argue that such programs should not be scrapped all together. Instead, Tierney suggests that the challenge ahead "lies in developing more proactive policies that help academe serve the public good by advancing diversity and fostering the public culture so that everyone is able to particpate" (p. 193).

South African Perspectives on Affirmative Action

Ramphele (1996) notes that prior to the transition to democracy, South Africa's affirmative action policies and programs accorded benefits to the nation's poor Whites at the expense of Blacks. Whites received preferential treatment in terms of access to jobs, housing, and education. She furthers her point by declaring that

. . . apartheid in general is an affirmative action program for Whites targeting white males in particular for success and dominance in positions of power and status in South African society.... [IJt is therefore important not to be simplistic in the advocacy of [affirmative action], as if it were an inherently good public policy instrument. It has to be used with care, if the creation of further inequities is to be minimized. (p. 90)

In the present era, Ramphele maintains that "regstellende aksie captures the essence of what is at the heart of affirmative action in the eyes of those committed to it" (p. 84). Regstellende aksie, an Afrikaans expression meaning "corrective action," has been utilized by some contemporary South African policymakers when discussing various points and perspectives of affirmative action. As Gabriels (1996) explains:

. . . affirmative action should not be reduced to a selection policy aimed at replacing some white faces with black faces.... Perhaps affirmative action is an inappropriate term to describe the aim of movement in South Africa to correct the legacy of apartheid. The Afrikaans term regstellende aksie or corrective action is a more appropriate description of the intention. (p. 76)

Many South Africans feel threatened by the far-reaching implications of affirmative action and believe it represents a step backward because it emphasizes racial groupings in order to manage compensatory policies. Some have wondered if implanting a system of affirmative action will amount simply to replacing one evil with another (Ramphele, 1996). They contend that it has not worked in other nations and is unlikely to be effective in South Africa. Still others, including many Afrikaners and political conservatives, posit that apartheid created few, if any, disadvantages in any sectors of South Africa society. Another position is that affirmative action represents merely a turning of the tide, whereby those who were previously disadvantaged will have an opportunity to achieve success over those who were previously advantaged. This latter position tends to invoke the most opposition because of its potential for characterizing members of the formerly advantaged group as victims.

There are also those who hold that apartheid disadvantaged some people, who should receive consideration for available resources; however, this group tends to argue that affirmative action is primarily a color issue and negates the lack of representation of women. As Ramphele notes, even though 95% of the poor in South Africa are Africans, consideration of variables such as gender, age, and geographical location present a much clearer picture of the disadvantaged. For instance, she points out that 75% of impoverished South Africans reside in the bantustans formerly known as Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda, and Ciskei; and that poverty rates in these areas are 50% higher among femaleheaded households. She further notes that 61% of South African children live in poverty, concluding that these figures reveal that color-based affirmative action concepts do not comprehensively describe the disadvantaged and thus they cannot effectively address inequities.

Categorizing human beings, using any measure and in any societal context, is a disturbing and uneasy process, as described in the early work of DuBois (1903/1961) as well as in the contemporary works of Butler (1996), Gates (1986), Goldberg (1990), Goldstone (1996), Hollinger (1996), Mare (1993), and Ramphele (1996). Experiences gleaned from the development and implementation of affirmative action programs in the U.S. are instructive in this regard. Racial/ethnic categories have been firmly set in that nation's affirmative action system, yet they are in a constant state of flux due to changing identification standards, including those describing biracialness. Thus, as affirmative action policies are formulated in a democratic, majority-ruled South Africa, Ramphele suggests that attention be paid to the following questions:

When the color-based classification system has been omitted, how will officials identify affirmative action recipients?

Should self-classification be permitted?

What other means are appropriate?

She further recommends that South African policymakers avoid labeling individuals with the characteristics ascribed to a designated group, either to promote or deny promotion, in order to avoid creating new inequities.

Ramphele delineates five themes for officials of the new South African government to consider before negotiating affirmative action policy. First, she recommends that they acknowledge the importance of redress to correct the distortions that are part of apartheid's legacy. Second, she contends that affirmative action must be based on a foundation of equity. As she writes:

The emphasis should be on access to opportunities, personal development of all people at an institutional level, and changing the institutional culture to reflect a greater diversity of experience and orientation, so that all participants feel at home in a given setting. [Affirmative action] within such an equity framework would be properly located as a strategy to achieve set goals, rather than constituting an end in itself. (p. 86)

Third, Ramphele posits that policy deliberations must reflect the fact that affirmative action cannot cure all past ills or undo all past wrongs-"one may have to make peace with the past," she claims (p. 87). Fourth, while noting that affirmative action definitely has a place in society, she maintains that individuals are ultimately responsible for their own growth and development. Thus, she stresses that affirmative action programs must be carefully targeted. Last, she maintains that clear achievement goals and timeframes must be integral parts of affirmative action programs. Such programs, she points out, are not to be sustained indefinitely. As she concludes: "[Affirmative action] is a strategy which has no inherent moral or ethical basis. Such a basis has to be created by locating [it] within a well-thought-out and articulated equity framework" (p. 91).

Mare (1993) has examined the "culture of racism" in South Africa from the historical legacy of colonial conquest to the deeply entrenched belief in "the Afrikaner volk with its claims to a God-given mission" and the implementation of apartheid (p. 106). Like Benjamin, Gates, Franklin, and others in the United States, Mare contends that such a culture cannot be easily wiped away with a few years of affirmative action, nor should one group be privileged or held in higher esteem than another. Rather, he posits that racial/ethnic conflict in South Africa will be resolved when individuals are "sensitively and self-consciously depoliticised and severed from the arena of competition for resources, privilege, power and rights in future transformation" (p. 107). He also suggests that South Africans seek other arenas that will allow them to further deemphasize their politicized racial/ethnic identities and participate in the country's transformation process (e.g., women's groups, churches, sports clubs, local political affiliations). According to Mare, "The factors that make a population available for ethnic identity formation need to be separated from the sparks that politicise and give a conflictual edge to ethnicity" (p. 108). Additionally, he proposes that the connections between capital and the individual be clarified, noting that economic relations have been clouded in their social construction and seemingly made invisible to the average citizen. These relationships, he claims, need to be revealed for their nonracial/ethnic roots so that economic identification can be loosened from racial/ethnic identity. Mare's views on affirmative action also underscore the need for curricular and pedagogical change in South Africa. As both he and Mphahlele suggest, the nation's system of higher education is in desperate need of curricular transformation and development. Without a critical ideological base, he warns that affirmative action strategies will be powerless to engender the South African society envisioned in the Green Paper-that of "a culture of tolerance, public debate, accommodation of differences and competing interests, a democratic ethos, or a sense of commitment to a common good" (NCHE, 1996b, p. 4).


The New South African Constitution

South Africa's new governmental assemblies have made a significant effort to develop documents that support and ensure democratic participation of all peoples of South Africa. Preeminent among these documents is the South African Constitution itself, which makes provisions for affirmative action programs in an attempt to protect against revocation yet allows for justifiable claims of reverse discrimination to be tried (Republic of South Africa [RSA], 1993). The Constitution represents the most intensive collaboration between the South African government and its people to date. Large numbers of citizens participated in the process of approving this document`s final drafts ("Report of the Constitutional Assembly," 1996). As a result, the Constitution provides for legislative action to protect and/or advance those disadvantaged by discrimination in the past. It further stipulates that the state will not condone or perpetrate discrimination, directly or indirectly, based on race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, color, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language, or birth. The Bill of Rights further protects the freedom of religion, belief, and opinion, including the right to academic freedom in institutions of higher learning, freedom of expression, and the right to assembly, demonstration, picket and petition, among others. Concerning education specifically, the Bill of Rights states that: "Everyone has the right to a basic education, including adult basic education; and to further education, which the state must take reasonable measures to make progressively available and accessible" ("Report of the Constitutional Assembly," 1996, p. 12). Moreover, "to guarantee access [to] and implementation of the right to education, the government will take into account the following issues: equity, practicability, and finally, the need to redress the results of past racially discriminatory law and practice" (p. 12).

The Government's Reconstruction and Development Plan

Policies developed after the 1994 elections to protect all citizens fundamental rights to education are now being implemented. Among these is the Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP), one of the first plans to address and expedite implementation of civil rights policy as outlined in the new Constitution. As detailed in the White Paper on Reconstruction and Development (RSA, 1994), the RDP proposes policy for change in critical areas of development including human resources, education, and redress and equity. It proposes to strengthen human resources, integrating industry, home, and education via the imposition of the concept of lifelong learning, and by restructuring and integrating training and education from preschool to higher education. This involves the design and use of equity-sensitive indicators of development and educational attainment. The RDP acknowledges that developing and improving education and other human resources must be carried out on a large scale in order to meet new economic policy goals.

As noted in the White Paper on Reconstruction and Development, "Improved training and education are fundamental to higher employment, the introduction of more advanced technologies, and reduced inequalities" (RSA, 1994, section 3.2.5, p. 24). Therefore, the RDP envisions higher productivity and new and better management skills for various demographic groups and women in the South African labor market, which is presently characterized by high unemployment as well as a poorly developed and skewed skills base and wide divisions between White management and African, Colored, and Indian/ Asian workers. It emphasizes integrated education and training in skills areas that are in demand in the labor market. Finally, the RDP urges officials to administer programs effectively to ensure equal access of men and women to training and education at all levels.

The National Commission on Higher Education and the Green Paper on Higher Education Transformation

Following the introduction of the RDP, South African President Nelson Mandela appointed a National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE) in February 1995 to analyze the condition of higher education in South Africa. The commission released its preliminary report in April 1996 and actively solicited public response to that document. After an exhaustive effort by various task forces and committees, which held public hearings and conferences, the NCHE published its final report, A Framework for Transformation in August 1996 (NCHE, 1996a). Following this report, a subsequent document, the Green Paper on Higher Education Transformation (NCHE, 1996b), outlined the commission's comprehensive efforts and delineated areas for critical policy and program implementation. In his introduction to the Green Paper, Sibusiso M. E. Bengu, the Minister of Education in the democratically elected government, explained that this report represents an advanced stage in the process of public consultation:

The Green Paper signals the policy intentions of my Department in regard to the reconstruction and development of higher education in South Africa. I agree with the NCHE's point of departure: that while our higher education system has considerable capacity and internationally acknowledged areas of excellence, it [higher education] is also fundamentally flawed by inequities, imbalances and distortions deriving from its apartheid history and present structure. . . (NCHE, 1996b, unnumbered page)

Borrowing from the earlier Framework report, Bengu added that these two NCHE documents clarified how the system of higher education must be expanded and transformed: To preserve what is valuable and to address what is defective requires transformation. The system of higher education must be reshaped to serve a new social order, to meet pressing national needs, and to respond to a context of new realities and opportunities. (NCHE, 1996a, p. 26)

In April 1996, the Department of Education released draft forms of its third policy document, Education White Paper 3: A Programme for Higher Education Transformation, and its omnibus Higher Education Bill for public comment. These documents were finalized after intense consultations with higher education stakeholders in meetings held around the nation. After public review of both, Minister of Education Bengu submitted them to the Cabinet in June 1997.

The Department of Education's White Paper 3

The White Paper 3 is the Department of Education's penultimate statement of its findings and recommendations as previously defined by Minister Bengu in NCHE's Green Paper. It states that the successful transformation and expansion of the South African system of higher education depends upon policy whose overarching guiding principle is redress. Further, it identifies two elements as critical to effective redress programs: (a) a level of access which ensures that no qualified person will be denied participation in the higher education system, and (b) a level of institutional support which ensures that past inequities and disproportionalities are recognized and properly addressed. The White Paper 3 announces the Department of Education's proposal to implement and oversee in the next few years a thoughtful plan that targets redress at all levels of education structure. It also notes that the Department's ultimate goal is to create a single comprehensive and coordinated system of higher education, while acknowledging that such a unitary system will require social structures and economic patterns of development that promote the development of enlightened citizens and a highly skilled labor market (Republic of South Africa Department of Education [RSADE], 1997).

White Paper 3 posits that higher education can help to foster participatory democracy when both curricula and research are closely connected to the interests of a civil society. A higher education system so transformed would ensure equal access to all persons, prepare highly skilled workers, encourage a culture of human rights, advance scholarship internationally, and foster participation in problem solving. As stated in the draft of this document:

The principle of democratisation requires that governance of the system of higher education and of individual institutions should be participatory. Structures and procedures should ensure that those affected by decisions have a say in making them. It requires that decision-making processes are transparent, and that those taking and implementing decisions are accountable for the manner in which they perform their duties and use resources. (RSADE, 1997, sect. 1.16)

As envisioned, redress would continue to serve as the overarching principle guiding the transformation of the educational system. However, echoing the Green Paper, the White Paper 3 maintains that redress must be conjoined with the principle of equity to become an integral component of transformation at the national level. This interplay between redress and equity in a unitary system is seen as promoting the following goals:

(1) the diversification of the educational system;

(2) the advancement of horizontal and vertical mobility in society;

(3) the assurance of "transparent," cost-effective management; and

(4) the increase in workers' commitment to the ideals of internationally measured work.

The White Paper highlights four deficiencies in the present system that hinder these goals: inequitable access, small numbers of science and business graduates, the lack of critical ideology, and parochialism. In explicating the first of these deficiencies, this document notes that the apartheid-based system-and subsequently the present systempreserves inequitable access for both students and staff along lines of race, gender, class, and geographical location.' It attributes the second deficit-the shortage of graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and commerce-to discriminatory practices aimed at hindering the advancement of Blacks and women? The characterization of South African education as lacking in critical ideology and promoting parochialism is also attributed to the apartheid legacy in White Paper 3, which contends that apartheid actively sought to make higher education impotent in its traditional role-namely, that of creating the type of society envisioned by the Green Paper.

The Department of Education's Agenda for Higher Education Change As outlined in the White Paper 3, the South African Department of Education envisions that the multiple needs of an increasingly diverse student population will be met by offering:

(1) multiskilling, reskilling, and remedial skill development;

(2) multiple entry and exit points;

(3) a range of delivery mechanisms;

(4) increased course offerings in science, technology, and engineering;

(5) vocational and short-term programs; and

(6) counseling, career guidance, and financial aid (RSADE, 1997).

Over the next 10 years, the Department is committed to expanding the nation's unitary educational system and altering the representation on South Africa's higher education campuses to reflect South Africa's general population. It expects to achieve this by increasing public funding for education, redistributing targeted public subsidies, mobilizing private sector funding, implementing a new system of funding, coordinating student enrollments, and evaluating program admissions. Academic bridge and development programs employing various pedagogical methods will replace traditional, disciplinebased serial courses at the nation's universities, leading to an open, flexible system that is "modular and credit based" (NCHE, 1996, p. 19). These expansion plans will focus not only on increasing African enrollments in education at all levels but also on retaining and graduating these students.


To ascertain the relationship between affirmative action policy and institutional change in South African higher education, the authors undertook qualitative research at four South African universities in 1991, 1993, and 1997. The four institutions (identified herein by pseudonyms) were: Homeland University, Parliament University, Suburban University, and Hilltop University. Information was gleaned from interviews with key administrators, faculty, and professional staff and from review of the institutions' strategic plans, mission statements, college calendars (catalogs or bulletins), miscellaneous university publications and reports, and World Wide Web home pages.3

Homeland University

Homeland University, an HDI with approximately 3,000 students, is located in one of the former homelands. Since the 1994 change in government, Homeland has been implementing a new strategic plan to address previous discrimination while moving academically into the next century. Its strategic goals include improving interdisciplinary curriculum design, academic standards, and research; correcting acute imbalances in the staff-student ratio; improving its physical facilities; improving access to tertiary education, community involvement, and funding; and establishing linkages with other institutions. Homeland has blended these objectives with an overall commitment to empower its students to overcome the effects of discrimination. This includes helping them to understand that incidents of "protest for protest's sake," which, according to a senior administrator, occurred frequently at Homeland prior to the democratic elections, will not necessarily lead to affirmative action and may actually be counterproductive, particularly in a predominantly African milieu, further hindering student progress.

Homeland's critical challenge is to execute its strategic goals in the face of counterforces. The often hostile and competitive environment, the lack of funds for necessary improvements, and perceived academic inadequacies make the attainment of this university's strategic goals extremely difficult. South Africa historically has underfunded higher education generally, and Homeland particularly has lacked financial strength. These external and internal budgetary constraints mean fewer resources, including books, equipment, and infrastructure.

Interestingly, Homeland has turned a constraining force, inadequate resources, into a driving force and catalyst for quickening the pace at which it has created linkages with outside institutions. Such linkages have helped to create an atmosphere of equality-a key goal of affirmative action in institutions where cooperative relationships are not the norm, intensive professional staff development is lacking, and many faculty do not have doctorates. Though not designed specifically as affirmative action programs, creative linkages with international universities can be corrective tools for achieving affirmative action goals. Homeland has established institutional linkages with several HWUs in South Africa and with major traditionally White and historically Black colleges and universities in the United States. Interacting with faculty from the U.S. in curricular and research development as joint partners has enabled Homeland's predominantly African faculty to interact more effectively with their White South African counterparts. As a senior Homeland administrator noted during an interview with the authors, "It's hard for the Afrikaners to deny our capabilities when we've interacted effectively with Americans."

Parliament University

Parliament University, another HDI, is located in a large city and enrolls over 14,000 students. It was established in 1950s as a separate institute for Coloreds. During apartheid, the University provided education marred by underfunding and racist ethics; many of the original academic staff were apartheid supporters. In the late 1970s, however, Parliament University appointed a Colored rector, who began to implement structural and philosophical changes. He articulated several key goals that brought about comprehensive changes. The University abandoned the apartheid-sanctioned educational policy and began cultivating an open university that would address the needs of Third World communities locally and beyond. The thrust of these goals, furthered in the 1980s with the next appointed Colored rector, more clearly defined Parliament University's commitment to the contemporary democratic movement. The University became known as the "university of the working class" and the "home of the left." A politically motivated student body initiated many of the philosophical and policy changes carried out at Parliament. However, this intense, sustained political activity also had a negative impact in that it frequently distracted students and faculty from serious teaching and learning. Morale declined among lecturers, dropout rates increased, and the University became academically weak, which led to its receiving even less government funding.

Since the 1994 elections, Parliament University continues to participate in politics that are intended to uplift the institution as well as the country. Its mission continues to be one of contributing to the creation of democratic opportunity for all South Africans and other Third World nations. It has hosted several international conferences on key issues related to South Africa's future development, and has conferred degrees upon its first women doctoral graduates. The University has also created a forum for the development of proposals to alter its institutional structure, governance, finance/budgeting, academic and student development, administration and staff development, public relations, racial/ ethnic and gender relations, and affirmative action policy. The rector and vice chancellor recently declared that in the coming era, Parliament University will be known as a place of both equality and quality, where the administration is responsive, innovative, and accountable.

Suburban University

Suburban University, an HWU, was established in the 1890s as a school of mines. It is known for its liberal faculty and antidiscriminatory stance, which has grown firmer over the past four decades. In the 1960s, Suburban's leaders touted that their University was dedicated to the education and advancement of both men and women, without regard to race. In the 1970s, its students and staff demonstrated frequently against discriminatory practices outside academe. In the 1980s, the University began to admit students of color regularly. Throughout the 1990s, its students have continued to protest discrimination; however, they have directed recent efforts against policies within the University. These efforts, students informed us, infuse the conscience of the country with a measure of their own vitality.

Suburban's current enrollment of nearly 19,000 students and its complement of approximately 1,200 academic staff, primarily faculty, reflects the diversity of South Africa. Among Suburban's central goals are staff development and the correction of race and gender imbalances in staffing. Suburban's chancellor, though pleased with the growing diversity, acknowledges that he and the faculty must continually address inequities. As he shared with the authors, "It is not sufficient that in our universities student bodies are beginning to reflect the make-up of our nation. It is necessary that the governing bodies and academic staff of institutions reflect it. Governing bodies and the Senate must be representative of the people this University serves." He further noted that Suburban's institutional vision of becoming a center of excellence, one that can effectively contribute to the construction and development of a new South Africa, will materialize only as past imbalances are corrected.

Beyond these commitments, other key purposes include broadening access for potential students from disadvantaged communities and promoting coherent academic development for current students. A senior faculty member described for us one of the University's academic development initiatives. This program, he noted, was a "special program in sciences for students who make at least 51% on the matriculation examination [secondary school graduation examination], but who may have graduated from a school with limited curriculum and laboratory facilities." He added that initial results indicate that those students who have successfully completed this program also succeed in their regular classroom courses. Such corrective initiatives can serve as models for ongoing affirmative action policies and programs.

Hilltop University

Hilltop University, established in the 1820s as a school for British and Dutch male colonists, became a university in the 1840s. By 1900, it had begun to admit White women. In the early 1900s, Hilltop created several programs in response to the industrialization of South Africa, particularly developments in mining. It established departments of chemistry, physics, mineralogy, geology, medicine, education, and engineering. Hilltop presently enrolls approximately 15,000 students, and asserts that its mission is to become a national and international university of the first rank. Though recognizing that this goal demands individuals of high caliber, Hilltop's leadership understands the complexity of hiring academic staff based solely on merit. Correcting the imbalances due to apartheid and promoting equity and affirmative action coupled with merit are among Hilltop's key goals. As a result, it is committed to providing faculty and staff role models of various races/ethnicities for students, balancing staff within departments, and nurturing the careers of both women and Blacks. As the University's vice chancellor told us, "Equity and excellence are two sides of the same coin. There must be a balance between the future and equities based on past apartheid."

To achieve such a balance in a new democracy, Hilltop's administrators have initiated corrective programs such as alternative admissions, academic development for underprepared students, and professional faculty and administrative development. The University's alternative admission programs take into account both previous educational background and achievement and academic potential. Further, its academic development programs acknowledge the need for equity while providing a foundation for excellence in subsequent course work. Hilltop's professional development programs enable academic faculty and professionals to gain expertise. Such programs have served to diversify its current staff and can ensure a future diverse professional staff, as students see modeled academic careers that are open to them regardless of demographic background.

Hilltop's new mission statement, authored in 1995, supports "education for life," "education for enrichment," and "education for reform" in South Africa. This statement suggests that the University has accepted the responsibility of facing the injustices of the past while looking forward to the future and ensuring that compensatory actions do not inadvertently diminish South Africa's or the University's standing in the world. It also articulates Hilltop's commitment to academic freedom, critical scholarship and research, creative and rational thought, and free exploration. Further, it advocates Hilltop's commitment to strike a balance between freedom and responsibility, rights and obligations, autonomy and accountability, transparency and efficiency, and permanence and transience-all working in harmonious synthesis through participatory and dialectical deliberation. To meet the emerging needs and demands of this new mission, Hilltop created its own "transformation board," which agreed to exercise "interactive powers" in the conception and maintenance of policy and structural change at Hilltop.


The range of critical perspectives highlight various conceptual and philosophical differences between the affirmative action scenarios in South Africa and the United States insofar as higher education is concerned. In the U.S., the legislative and executive branches of government conceived affirmative action's terms and its subsequent policies. The South African contribution includes various government policy papers as well as universitybased strategic plans, mission statements, internal policies, and programmatic procedures. All concur that some forms of corrective action are needed.

During apartheid, macrolevel social and political policies, along with those initiated for and within universities, combined to deny educational opportunities to the vast majority of South African society. However, the sociopolitical and educational realities that helped solidify apartheid in South African universities linger in the present era. Thus, affirmative action policy issues continue to be a concern in higher education. Several institutions are encountering challenges that require ongoing vigilance and commitment to affirmative action. Such challenges have emerged in professional development programs for faculty and administrative staff, academic bridge programs for underprepared students, and policies formulated to ensure equitable distribution of fiscal resources. During the past several years, the executive and legislative branches of the government have articulated policies and identified initial thrusts in its national program for the reconstruction and development of a new South Africa. In concert with university officials and faculties, the South African government has targeted academic bridge and enhancement programs for underprepared students as part of higher education's contribution to the reconstruction and development effort. As the process of reconstruction and development evolves, universities must determine how they will respond to new technological fields that are key to ongoing national development needs and that may require new and higher order analytical skills and abilities. They must also determine whether they should begin to identify new pools of potential students for elevated academic development programs. Whereas the considerable professional development programs made available to Blacks and women academic and administrative staff in South Africa's institutions of higher learning should most certainly continue South African universities must also ensure professional development opportunities for White men (whose numbers may decline), to help them learn how to work cooperatively with Blacks and women. It is extremely difficult to erase the effects of socialization and a knowledge base that concentrates information as power in the hands of select professionals. Mutual sharing and cooperation in the development and enhancement of emerging intellectual and administrative knowledge bases are new equity challenges.

Higher education funding is among the most difficult challenges facing the South African government. The National Parliament's reviews of concrete policies and procedures for a unitary system and its fiscal funding formulas in 1997 and 1998 are expected to produce legislation that ensures equitable distribution of funds. The White Paper 3 articulates the proposed policies and procedures (RSADE, 1997). Although universities were continually involved in framing these proposals, implementing new laws at tertiary sites will be challenging, to say the least. Funding formulas based upon full-time enrollments, research productivity, and disciplines offered (all possible plans are currently under review) could likely mean that South African HDIs will receive more equitable fiscal allocations, yet HWUs contend that substantial percentages of Black students are matriculating at their sites. Hence, fiscal allocations to meet the needs of different demographic groups are critical, regardless of location.

Adroitly balancing innovative corrective action with reconstruction and development activities in the new South Africa requires flexible paradigms. Adopting such paradigms can yield benefits for all in the higher education sector and contribute to the overall democratic South African society. As such, affirmative action can positively affect all South Africans.

*The author expresses tremendous appreciation to Monica deMello Patterson, Janet Haner, and Maria Poindexter for their research, critiques, and editing.

1These inequities have been further detailed by Sidiropoulos et al. (1996) and Kumbula (1993), who have documented the large disparity in participation rates among South African students of different racial/ ethnic groups and genders. For example, Kumbula states that in 1993, South African universities awarded White students almost twice as many degrees, certificates, and diplomas (31,304) as conferred to African students (16,482). In 1994, the average amount spent on education for White students was (Rand) R5,403, compared to R2,184 expended on African students (excluding those in the former homelands). Kumbula also notes the disparity in enrollments at South African HDIs and HWUs in 1978:121,869 Whites compared to 25,150 Africans, with the overwhelming majority of the latter enrolled in HDIs.

2Cooper (1995) reports that enrollments for women of all races/ethnicities and for African women and men in South Africa have been lower in the fields of engineering and science. The number of engineering and science degrees awarded to Africans increased 22% between 1989 and 1993, but this increase represented only 5% and 4%, respectively, of all degrees awarded in those years. Mathematics degrees increased by 29% but represented only 2% of all degrees awarded between 1989 and 1993.

3To preserve anonymity, these valuable sources have not been included in the list of references. Pseudonyms are used to protect the identities of the institutions, faculty, and professional staff who participated in this investigation.




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[Author Affiliation]

Beverly Lindsay, The Pennsylvania State University*