Magazine article The Spectator

The Black and White Degree Show

Magazine article The Spectator

The Black and White Degree Show

Article excerpt

Cape Town

I FIRST went to the University of Cape Town in 1967 to study physics and then went back in 1984 to study mechanical engineering. I saw two vivid changes when I returned: there were many more black students, and all public debate had ended.

In the 1960s I attended raucous mass meetings of students arguing for and against apartheid, and heard visiting Members of Parliament from all parties being loudly cheered and heckled. In the 1980s these public debates had been replaced with what seemed like prayer meetings, in which a student leader would pay homage to the pro-ANC, socialist orthodoxy before a small, respectful audience and which would end in a murmur of assent. Only speakers who obeyed the party line were allowed on campus: Alan Boesak and Trevor Manuel, ANC supporters, could speak; Chief Buthelezi of the IFP was banned. In 1986 the visiting lecturer, Conor Cruise O'Brien, was howled down and driven out by a bunch of black students because he derided the `academic boycott' of South Africa. He never returned and a commission of enquiry, appointed by the university, sided with the student thugs and condemned O'Brien for having 'a colourful and volatile personality' and being `politically provocative'.

Since then the triumph of acquiescence over argument has been almost complete. The universities are at the centre of huge and difficult South African problems about which the truth desperately needs to be spoken but is nearly always evaded. There is, for example, an absurd debate over the 'transformation' of the universities from 'Eurocentric' to 'Afrocentric' ideas. The striking point about this debate is that you are never allowed to enter it. You must simply nod your head to it. If you remembered that, at the time of their first meeting with white men, black men had no written language, and suggested that Afrocentric universities should abandon writing and go back to the oral tradition, you would be shouted down as a racist - and the threat of being called a racist is enough to silence any critic.

Apartheid spent far more money on the education of each white child than it did on each black, and black children are still at a huge disadvantage. If university entrance was based purely on merit, whites, a minority, would get far more places than blacks, a majority. The approved remedy is `affirmative action', special training or special exemptions for blacks. The aim is to increase the percentage of blacks in the universities until it matches that in the population, and indeed the numbers are going up: between 1991 and 1994 the number of diplomas and degrees awarded to blacks increased by 42 per cent, compared with 1 per cent for whites (although whites in 1994 still had 76 per cent of the degrees held by the population). Moreover, the big corporations, such as AngloAmerican, and state-run industries, such as Eskom (electricity) and Telkom (telecommunications), deliberately employ blacks to raise their racial quotas.

The consequences are mainly disastrous. Poorly educated blacks are pushed into university courses they cannot manage, forcing the authorities either to lower standards, so discrediting their degrees, or to humiliate the blacks with failure. Often the blacks enter university simply for the bursary money, which they send back to their large extended families in the townships, so turning educational finance into a form of social security. …

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