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Are we forgetting what the point of UCT’s affirmative action is?

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

At no point so far have I heard a student from a truly disadvantaged background speak on the UCT admissions policy. The blacks that have spoken on it have largely come from (let’s admit it) relatively privileged backgrounds. Shouldn’t this debate be about those who really need affirmative action?

In 2007, I spent an entire year at the University of Cape Town. While the whole experience may have been a waste for me (and the people who sponsored me to go), it was certainly an interesting and illuminating period. I have no idea why I got in as I couldn’t be bothered to read through the thick reams of entrance paperwork. I would hope that it was on the strength of my academic achievements in high school. But there’s a very good reason why I chose UCT: not only did it demand the cheapest registration fee (R90) of the forms that I had before me at the time, it was also famous for having an admissions policy that was biased towards “previously disadvantaged” applicants. And I certainly considered myself to fall in this special category. I only owned two pairs of takkies, for heaven’s sake.

Recently, there’s been a bit of a debate about the UCT admissions policy. To put it in terms a boy from Hope can understand: the university identifies that under apartheid, opportunity was pinned to race, and therefore, in its duty to pursue redress, it needed to lean its admissions practices towards previously disadvantaged students, who would be black.

This policy has come under enormous criticism for apparently fostering reverse apartheid and I gather some opprobrium for blacks who feel miffed because they are sometimes regarded as having made their way into UCT because they’re black, and not because they’re brainy.

In fact, the entire submission by the Democratic Alliance Students’ Organisation (Daso) seems to be based on that sentiment. Well, bollocks to that, I say.

Look, this isn’t to say that there aren’t some very smart and very capable black people out there who rightly feel alienated because the whites they interact with wrongly think that they got to where they are through means other than sheer ability. That happens a lot. My dears, affirmative action was never really thrust in your direction anyway. Think about it. Would AA and BEE have ever been necessary if every black child in South Africa was born into a middle class family? No, it wouldn’t.

Think about this: in 2008, South Africa had roughly 49,5-million people living within its borders, and about 12-million of them depended on a government grant to survive from day to day. The majority of those people, overwhelmingly so, are black. As the population of the country has grown to over 50-million, the number of grant recipients has been in pace.

We can argue all day about why this social grant situation is as it is, but the fact is that it cannot continue to be like this. We simply have too many South Africans living perilously close to starvation. The good news in this regard is that government intervention is moving more and more citizens away from the poverty line.

And it is in this spirit that we should view university admission policies that have an affirmative action bent. Forget about diversity vs representivity, or what prejudiced whites think of black people in universities – these policies are about moving as many people as we can who are shut out of opportunities and would otherwise spend their lives as dependents of the state into the knowledge economy, and thus better job and life prospects.

I interviewed one UCT student whose life story made a lasting impression when I met him very briefly in 2011. Khethelo Xulu is currently pursuing a master’s degree in haematology, and is from Empangeni in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, one of the poorest areas of the country. The circumstances he had to overcome to make it to UCT are truly astounding (meeting him in Zurich made the distinction between his background and his current situation even more incongruous).

Khethelo is one of the most amazing people I have ever met. He is the chairman of the Bumbanani Youth for Social Change, which works to solve the difficult problems of illiteracy and joblessness that plague his community in KZN. When I think of UCT’s admissions policy, I always picture Khethelo and the place he comes from, and I suddenly find it to be very welcome.

“It is an undisputable fact that the majority of the black learners go to the disadvantaged schools in the townships and the rural areas,” Khethelo said. “Given the prevailing conditions in those areas, how does Daso expect these learners to ‘demonstrate the potential to achieve excellent academic outcomes despite an inadequate primary and secondary education’? Despite the highly talented learners that usually get chosen by institutions like UCT, the rest of the other learners dare not dream about studying at an institution like UCT. Won’t this continue to perpetuate the class divide we are already seeing in our country, where [only] a few black elite joining the existent ‘gentlemen’s club’?”

He continued: “Ideally, we should eventually move to a system where race won’t be the main criterion for selecting a particular student. However, this requires that we improve our educational system and ensure that all the learners are on par regardless of the school they attend. Now this requires all the stakeholders to play an active role in assisting government achieve this objective.

“The increase in the number of black graduates will indeed go a long way in contributing towards this agenda as more young people from the townships will have positive role models from within their societies; there will be a new breed of parents who care and are able to assist their children with their education, particularly during the early development stages,” he said.

Do you now understand what the affirmative action is? DM

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  • Race is just a useful marker to distinguish between the worthy and unworthy in Daily Maverick.

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