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21 March 2018 12:59 (South Africa)
South Africa

The battle at UCT: Race-based admissions policy issue flares up again

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • South Africa

An argument about whether the University of Cape Town should scrap its race-based admissions policy has been raging for the last few years. UCT’s council has been considering the thorny issue for most of this year, and a decision on the matter is now overdue. On Friday, a group of ANC-affiliated student groups, the ANC and the SACP will be marching on UCT to demand that affirmative action is retained in the admissions process. Furthermore, they claim that both the DA and Agang are putting pressure on UCT to dump affirmative action. It’s the latest installment of a debate which shows no sign of going away. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Of all South African universities, UCT is the one which consistently attracts the most heat for its race-based admissions policy. UCT Vice Chancellor Max Price has previously said that he believes this to be the case because the competition for places at UCT is so fierce that there will inevitably be disappointed candidates of whatever race.

It’s also likely to be the case due to the university’s location: in a city often perceived as untransformed, in the only DA-run province in the country. ANC Western Cape leader, Marius Fransman, has on numerous occasions in the past revealed himself to be eager to use UCT as emblematic of Cape Town’s failure to adequately racially transform.

For the majority of the last decade, the argument has been slugged out in the pages of UCT’s Monday Paper and in the opinion pages of Cape Town’s newspapers. It’s an issue which is both emotional and divisive, and successive vice-chancellors have failed to douse the flames. In an article for the Mail & Guardian last January, current vice chancellor Price wrote that UCT’s council was “actively investigating better proxies for inequality”. But, he said, they hadn’t yet succeeded: “We are making progress, but so far have not been able to validate an alternative set of criteria that are more reliable than race”.

The two normal arguments against a race-based admissions policy are that it reinforces racial division, and may unfairly disadvantage white students from a poor background, while wealthy black students may be unfairly advantaged. But, Price wrote, UCT’s experience has been that the advantages of the policy outweigh the disadvantages. For instance, just because a black student is at a private school is no guarantor of academic success. The educational level of the parents is a major factor: parents with higher levels of education can provide a type of learning support which others may not be able to.

The South African school system “favours children who have been brought up with an innate familiarity with Western culture”, Price suggests. Racial stereotyping, and anxiety about it, has also been shown to produce educational under-performance.

For all these reasons, then, a black student who may be from a wealthy family may nonetheless be placed at a disadvantage in the education system. “There is ample evidence that the unfairness of inferior education is perpetuated among the next generation,” Price wrote in another op-ed.

One of UCT’s most vocal anti-affirmative action advocates has been philosopher David Benatar, who has consistently argued this position in public debates and in op-ed pages for the past six years at least. Benatar questions the notion that race is the best proxy for disadvantage. He suggested in response to Price last year that alternative criteria could be to favour those whose parents did not complete school and those who are not fluent in English.

“Whatever proxy one chooses, there will be some disadvantaged people who do not have the proxy characteristic and there will be some advantaged people who do have it,” Benatar wrote. “However, the use of ‘race’ is a particularly toxic proxy. It is steeped in South Africa’s appalling past and it reinforces the racial thinking that is both morally reprehensible and damaging. There are alternatives that are much less obnoxious and they should be embraced.”

At a press conference in Cape Town on Thursday, gathered politicians and students were having none of this. Veteran SACP leader Howard Smith put his view simply. “I lived in Cape Town for part of the time when Apartheid was enforced,” he said. “To the best of my recollection, it was people with dark skins who were excluded from institutions. It wasn’t people with some other disadvantage: an ill-educated parent, or a club foot.” Under Apartheid it did not matter if your parents were rich or poor, Smith said. “So when the South African Constitution says we need to redress unfair discrimination, it must be talking about race.”

Until South African universities fully reflected the demographics of South African society, he said, it could not be claimed that historical disadvantage had been adequately tackled.

Progressive Youth Alliance member, Luntu Sokutu, who has been sitting on the UCT admissions policy task team, explained that the UCT council announced last year that it would carry out public consultation on the matter between April and August, and table all information at a council meeting in September.

“The consultative process happened according to this timeline,” said Sokutu. “All student structures rejected the proposal [to change the race-based admissions model], the SRC rejected the proposal, all six faculty councils rejected the model as well as the faculty boards.”

But when the council met in September, Sokutu says, they did not discuss the outcome of the consultative process. The Progressive Youth Alliance’s concerns, then, are twofold: firstly, that the council has not communicated to students why the issue hasn’t been discussed; and secondly that the next council meeting is on 7 December, when students will have left for holidays. Sokutu said they were worried that a decision which affects all South Africans will be taken in an “isolated environment”.

On Friday’s march, the students are making the demand that an urgent meeting of the UCT council must sit, and by Monday students must be told whether the race-based admissions policy is to be changed. If this does not happen, they threaten disruptions to the exams due to be written on Tuesday.

Gerda Kruger, UCT’s Communications and Marketing Director, released a statement to the Daily Maverick stating that the UCT Senate will be meeting in late November to make a decision on whether to retain the current race-based admissions policy or to change it for the student intake of 2015. “Any new admissions policy will carry forward UCT’s commitment to transformation and non-racialism,” she said.

“UCT is not abandoning “race” as a factor in determining disadvantage. However, we have discovered over the years that the issue is infinitely more complex: Apartheid’s attack on the dignity of black people was mounted at a variety of levels, leaving a legacy of many sites of disadvantage. This is what we seek to address in revising our admissions policy, by exploring a more refined model that defines disadvantage in ways that better capture what caused the damage and how ‘race’ is experienced today at both individual and group level.”

This argument is highly unlikely to appease either the Progressive Youth Alliance or the tripartite alliance. At Thursday’s press conference, representatives suggested that UCT was being put under pressure from both the DA and Agang to scrap race-based admissions because this accorded with both parties’ ‘open society’ principles. The SACP’s Smith pointed out that both Mamphela Ramphele and Helen Zille are former UCT employees and still enjoy a close relationship with the institution.

“[DA federal leader] Wilmot James, Helen Zille and Max Price often spend part of Sunday morning strolling through Newlands Forest,” Smith said. “I’m sure they are not discussing squirrels and pine needles. I think they are plotting the future of UCT.”

Asked to respond to the claim that Price enjoyed an inappropriately close relationship with DA politicians, UCT’s Kruger reiterated the university’s autonomy. “Under the leadership of various vice-chancellors throughout its long history, the University of Cape Town has demonstrated its independence from political pressure and that of particular political parties,” Kruger told the Daily Maverick. “The vice-chancellor reports to Council, which comprises members both within and outside of UCT. University strategy is set by Council and not by any individual.”

Both Agang and the DA scoffed at the idea that they were attempting to influence UCT policy. “It is utter nonsense and part of an electioneering smear campaign by a desperate party that knows it no longer enjoys the kind of support it used to,” Agang spokesperson, Thabo Leshilo, told the Daily Maverick. “They are clutching at straws and doing what they do best - playing the person instead of the ball. The truth they have to confront is that they have failed dismally over the past 20 years to ensure that our children can enter university without needing special help. In fact, they have continued where Hendrik Verwoerd left off - ensuring that the black child is denied the quality education that is his or her only chance to escape poverty.”

Zille’s spokesperson, Zak Mbhele, meanwhile, dismissed the claims as “simply another instalment of the ANC’s misinformation campaign in the run-up to the elections”.

It remains to be seen whether UCT will buckle under the pressure to produce a straight answer to the race-based admissions question sooner than they hoped to do so. The one thing you can bet on is that this debate isn’t going away any time soon. DM

Photo: UCT (Adrian Frith via Wikipedia)

Read more:

  • In defence of race-based policy, in the M&G
  • Past sins revisited and corrected, in the M&G
  • Fairness without racial preference – A reply to Dr Price, on Politicsweb
  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • South Africa

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