Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Righting Past Prejudice Heaps Up Problems for the Present

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Righting Past Prejudice Heaps Up Problems for the Present

Article excerpt

South Africa reaches 'tipping point on unbalanced affirmative action'. David Matthews reports.

A Nobel-prizewinning architect of apartheid's demise and one of South Africa's longest-serving vice-chancellors have spoken out about what they see as political pressure to discriminate against non-black university applicants.

Frederik Willem de Klerk, the final president of South Africa's apartheid era, which ended in 1994, said that the political atmosphere surrounding admissions was part of broader and unwelcome interference by the government in the country's academy.

There has been fierce debate over a policy by the University of Cape Town that allows black and "coloured" (mixed-race) applicants entry to the institution's most popular courses with significantly lower grades than those required of white, Indian- or Chinese-ethnic hopefuls.

Max Price, Cape Town's vice-chancellor, has argued that the system is needed because the legacy of apartheid means that black students still on the whole go to poor-quality schools. Critics have countered that the policy is simply another form of racial discrimination, leads to weaker students being accepted and gives an unwarranted advantage to black students from wealthy families.

"We're reaching a tipping point on the issue of unbalanced affirmative action," Mr de Klerk said, adding that the policy could "estrange" young non-black South Africans who could aid the country's economy.

"I'm fully in favour in all walks of life of forms of affirmative action, of ways and means of rectifying the wrongs of the past. But it should not be done on the basis of clearly defined quotas and the like," he said.

Mr de Klerk welcomed the announcement earlier this year that Cape Town would review its admissions policy with a view to moving away from looking simply at race, taking into account other family circumstances such as wealth.

He spoke to Times Higher Education earlier this month after a convocation ceremony in London for graduates of the Greenwich School of Theology.

The school runs degree programmes accredited by North-West University, the current incarnation of which was formed by a merger with the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education (Mr de Klerk's alma mater) in 2004. Potchefstroom was dominated by white, mainly Afrikaans-speaking students, whereas the original North-West (previously known as the University of Bophuthatswana) taught mainly black students from rural areas.

Theuns Eloff, North-West's vice-chancellor since 2002, was speaking alongside Mr de Klerk. …

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