S. Africa's universities take a step away from apartheid

Surprising new pressure is being put on the South African government to back down on a key ideological issue -- racial separation at all the country's universities.

It has been a cardinal principle of apartheid - enforced social, economic, and political racial segregation -- that student should study at racially exclusive institutions.

The result: separate universities not only for whites and blacks, but also separate universities for Afrikaans and English-speaking whites as well for different tribal groups. There is also a university for Indians and another for Coloreds (people of mixed racial descent).

But the practice of maintaining strict segregation of the races at universities is steadily eroding.

The country's two major English-language universities, the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Cape Town, with enrollments of about 14,000 and 10,500 respectively, now have black enrollments exceeding 11 percent.

While the English-language universities have continued in and out of season to agitate for the repeal of all restrictions on black students, and to demand that the universities themselves should be solely responsible for whom they admit, the Afrikaans universities have generally kept very quiet on the issue or backed the government's stand on segragation.

The country's leading Afrikaans university, the Cape Province's University of Stellenbosch, alma mater of an untold number of leading Afrikaner politicians, businessmen, and other leading lights, announced in 1977 that it would take a limited number of special students of mixed race for certain restricted subjects as a trial.

These have never numbered more than about 100 of total student enrollment of about 12,000.

But it seems to have proved the thin edge of the wedge for that university. In an untoward and completely unexpected announcement on his return from a recent visit overseas, the Stelenbosch principal, Prof. Mike de Vries called a special press conference to declare that he believed all universities, senior technical institutions, and teacher training colleges should henceforth be open to everyone, according to academic, not racial, qualifications.

And he clearly contradicted orthodox apartheid thinking by enthusiastically arguing that the "diversity" of population groups and socioeconomic levels at racially open educational institutions would in itself provide an important aspect of the education acquired there, and help prepare students for life in the racially complex South African society.

This "heresy" was received fairly equably by the government, with muted support from several other leading Afrikaner acedemics, and with enthusiasm, of course, by the English-language universities, which considered it vindicated their own stand on the issue.

It is expected to presage a more relaxed government attitude toward racial mixing at the universities, although the battle for full academic freedom as regards race is far from won.

Yet with relatively few blacks entering white universities the segregated system the system has caused considerable frustration among black students denied higher education at institutions of their choice.

Figures released by south Africa's very highly regarded University of South Africa, which offers a remarkable range of university courses by correspondence, show an enormous increase in black interest in higher education.

Of its total enrollment of more than 56,000 degree students, more than 33 percent are now blacks. It predicts that by the end of the century 60 percent of its students will be black, and only 40 percent white.

Many of the admittedly small number of black students attending white universities manage to get a place in the universities by taking courses (like dramatic art) that are not available at local "ethnic" universities.

The system of racial seperation in universities was introduced with a flourish by the ruling National Party government in 1959, to the dismay and in spite of the bitter opposition of the major English-language universities, which traditionally had accepted all students on a basis of academic qualification, not race. The then minister of national education announced that no black students would be allowed to attend so-called white universities in the future unless they were granted a special permit.

And he told Parliament with evident satisfaction, "I can assure you that we will be very miserly about granting this permission."

Rather cynically, the act of Parliament that was introduced to prohibit black attendance at "white" universities was entitled the Extension of Universities Education Act. It has never entirely achieved its purpose.

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