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. …


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