No one raised an eyebrow at a Democratic Alliance young professionals evening last week when keynote speaker Mamphela Ramphele likened the University of Cape Town’s race-based admissions policy to the apartheid-era pencil test. I am usually the first to defend hyperbole, but only when used sparingly to make a point and when the user is fully in command of the exaggeration and its effects. Ramphele’s usage was indefensible.
“I feel very uncomfortable, as a former UCT alumnus,” Ramphele said. She took a pen and stuck it into her wispy, jet-black hair, and continued speaking. “To see us descend to the pencil test,” she said. She shook her head. The pen fell to the floor.
The crowd of fresh-faced young professionals, many of them current and former UCT students, burst out – first in laughter then in rapturous applause.
Ramphele, a former UCT vice chancellor, said the university’s admissions policy worked like a pencil test, because she knew children of a friend who wanted to attend the university’s medical school, but were penalised because they were of Indian descent.
“Since when do Indian people get punished for being successful?” she asked.
I am not going to discuss the UCT admissions policy. Much has been said about it, but you’re probably better off actually reading the policy yourself and coming to your own, hopefully reasoned, conclusions.
What astounded me was the ease with which the comparison to apartheid was made, and how the room of young professionals and students, most of whom were of the age that made it likely they only became politically sentient after apartheid’s end, applauded. This was perhaps because Ramphele voiced a frustration many of them felt over the policy.
Some of the white students probably felt the policy limited their aspirations by assigning them a lower admission point score, meaning what they viewed as their rightful place in a programme could be given to a student who fell in the “redress” category. And the black students might have felt like the policy would forever leave a question mark over whether they earned their place in the programme, or if it was handed to them on account of their skin colour.
Excuse me. I realise I have used white and black here in the apartheid-era shorthand of “whites” and “non-whites”. That framework is difficult to break, but does its continued use justify likening the present to apartheid?
I, too, admittedly lived in youth-induced, decidedly middle-class political bliss shortly before apartheid’s end. It’s only when we were sent home from school amid fears that the AWB was on its way to Mafikeng to help Lucas Mangope hold on to his Bantustan that the things my parents had been saying about the horror we had been living began to sink in. I watched, aghast, from the safety of my living room, as constable Bernstein Menyatswe shot dead Alwyn Wolfaardt, Fanie Uys and Nico Fourie.
Menyatswe, like many of those who cheered him after the killing, did not get to that place from nowhere. Wolfaard, Uys and Fourie, too, did not suddenly emerge from the nothingness to find themselves lying on the ground around their blue Mercedes, pleading for their lives. Killer and killed alike were brought to that place courtesy of a system of hate and fear entrenched deep into this country’s political, judicial, economic and social systems.
Apartheid was brutal and barbaric, and has scarred us all, white and black, in profound and varied ways.
I might be forgiven for making light of it because by the time I fully understood what had been going on, it was over. But for Ramphele – who lost a mentor, a friend and more when members of the apartheid state’s police force killed Steve Biko – to evoke apartheid in such a garish way is inexcusable. If the likes of Ramphele have forgotten how heinous apartheid truly was, then what chance do I or others like the young professionals there that night stand?
This is what the apartheid pencil test did. The Population Registration Act of 1950, realising how hard it actually is to tell white from coloured, coloured from black or Indian from coloured, set up a series of demeaning and arbitrary tests to assign racial classifications. Not only did the tests take away the individual’s right to identity, their results determined where you could live, who you could marry and have sex with, what social rights you had, whether you could vote, and a slew of other equally important matters of privilege and opportunity. This was done for no reason other than to ensure the continued domination of one racial group over the others.
We are still using the same language, yes, but that is where it ends. Any further comparison is invalid and thoughtless.
UCT has made a fair and reasoned argument for why it believes its admissions policy will address the legacy of decades of inequality and the resultant disparities in the education system, many of which still exist today. If Ramphele, or anyone else, believes that the inequality need not be addressed, Perth perhaps might be the right place better suited for that outlook. If, however, she believes the method used to address the inequality is incorrect, then she has until 9 March to give the university her input. In it I hope she, and anyone else who chooses to make a submission, sets aside frivolous comparisons to apartheid and, instead, proposes solutions that would make this country live up to the values enshrined in our much-loved Constitution. DM
Osiame Molefe is a writer with a keen interest in the space where personal and societal ambitions intersect with technology, politics and economics. That intersect right now, in South Africa, has brought him to observing, researching and writing on racial and gender inequality, and how well, or poorly, dialogue around these issues takes place. His column deals with these and issues tangential. When he is not writing news, analysis and opinion, he reads speculative fiction and writes some, too. Rumour is he single-handedly keeps the South African sparkling wine industry afloat. In a former life, he worked as a chartered accountant in New York, Bermuda and Johannesburg, but has since fled that industry in pursuit of a life less grey. He holds a bachelors degree in accountancy from Rhodes University, but don’t let that fool you into believing he has a head for numbers. He does not.
Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.