Using apartheid’s vile tools to try to redress its legacy
Date Released: Mon, 25 November 2013 08:00 +0200
Picture: SHELLEY CHRISTIANS-HOLY GRAIL: Jameson Hall at the University of Cape Town’s main campus
UNDER apartheid, South Africa became one of the most comprehensively racialised societies in the world. So it should come as no surprise that dismantling the racial apparatuses of old is so challenging. The University of Cape Town is grappling with one of these challenges in respect of its admissions policies.
For the past few years, the university community — and its wider society — have been engaged in a remarkably inclusive debate about these policies. New proposals are being considered; final decisions have not yet been made. In this article I want to explain the complexities of the issues by way of three main dilemmas that face us.
The first relates to the ongoing use of apartheid race categories, associated as they were with a racist view of the world. Under apartheid, every South African was compelled into an official racial classification. This infiltrated every aspect of life as the basis of a discriminatory allocation of access to social, economic and political opportunities and resources.
There is nothing eternal or essential about these categories. They were historical constructs — pervasive and powerful — with the objective of signaling superiority and inferiority, and they invariably offended individual dignity, forcing us to view the world through a racial lens.
On the one hand, then, we want — like most South Africans — to move beyond these race categories. We want to be part of an institution and society in which we do not, first and foremost, see and classify people in terms of their race.
On the other hand, we also recognise that the legacy of exactly this system of racial hierarchy is still pervasive and requires active intervention to dismantle.
A century of racial social engineering has necessitated policies of redress to undo the disadvantages inflicted on those consigned to the bottom of the racial hierarchy. For this purpose, it is hard not to resort to the very same categories of race produced by apartheid to identify those who were previously disadvantaged.
So there are compelling reasons both to dispense with apartheid racial categories and to reproduce them. This conundrum is at the heart of the complexity of UCT’s admissions debate.
A second dilemma arises from the deeper analysis of how race and racism work by rendering black people disadvantaged in relation to whites. The effects of this historical legacy are still with us, compounded by governmental failures to improve the quality of primary and secondary schooling in non-model C public schools. The majority of those previously classified black are still denied access to good schools, come from homes without books or the internet, and have parents whose level of formal education means they can offer limited educational support to their children. Many go to school hungry and live in home conditions not conducive to doing homework.
For the same level of natural talent and motivation, their marks will be lower than the marks of comparably talented privileged children. If university places are plentiful and do not need to be rationed, then all those talented youngsters can be admitted. This is the case at some universities or in some disciplines. But when university places are highly rationed (that is, applications vastly exceed the places available) and therefore the marks required for entry are high, a disadvantaged background renders students less competitive.
If talent is randomly distributed, one would expect the top 10% of black pupils to be just as bright, talented and have equal potential to succeed academically as the top 10% of white pupils — although their actual school marks will be very different given their different circumstances.
So grouping applicants by race and taking the top X percent of each group will not only be fairer, but it will also select the best talent nationally. The university thereby gains access to a massive pool of talent that would not otherwise be selected if only marks were used without taking account of race.
Twenty years of democracy has, however, produced some significant changes in the old alignment of race and class. There are now black applicants to university who are certainly not disadvantaged and may even come from wealthier homes than most whites and may have had the benefits of 12 years’ private school education. Many of these applicants want to be considered on the basis of their merit alone and resent the racial stereotyping that suggests they cannot compete on these terms. Moreover, to give them preference over less privileged white students cannot be fair on an individual basis.
Yet, at the same time, racism remains a problem in our society and research suggests that racial stereotyping can affect the performance of black children in the best schools — a sign of the lingering disadvantage that still attaches to race, despite the historical shifts.
Hence the second dilemma: Do we continue to use race alone as a marker of disadvantage — or do we also take account of socioeconomic disadvantage, given that the old apartheid interlocking of race and class has shifted somewhat.
The first two dilemmas are linked to a third: how to apply a system that depends on race classification when there is no legal basis for classifying. The use of race as a basis of redress in admissions requires applicants to classify themselves using the apartheid categories. This leads to three kinds of problems.
Many students, including disadvantaged students of colour, on principle do not want to declare their “race”, which they disavow. This leads to their not benefiting from the redress policy, even though they are still suffering the legacy of educational disadvantage. Other students wilfully misclassify themselves in relation to the old categories — particularly whites and Indians claiming to be coloured. Because there is no legislated way of classifying people, this puts UCT admissions officers in the untenable position of having to decide how such applicants should really be classified. This we refuse to do.
We also face the post-apartheid realities of marriages across old racial lines, producing a new generation that — thankfully — does not fit the rigid strictures of the past. If one parent would have been classified white or Indian, the children might legitimately classify themselves as coloured, but in reality they suffer none of the legacy of apartheid disadvantage deserving of redress.
The racial demography of UCT does not yet reflect that of the country or even of the Western Cape. This does not surprise us — it is the symptom of a long history of racialised disadvantage that will take time to overcome, and we have therefore remained committed to a policy of racial redress in our admissions policy.
But we also need to be strategically adept, making changes in our policies as the realities of race and class in the country shift and attitudes towards race classification and the formal basis of such classification become increasingly contested. It is for this reason that we wish to revisit our original policies, in the hope of moving with the times, but without ducking the responsibilities imposed on us by our history.
Price is vice-chancellor of UCT