School Fosters a New South Africa

Progressive university leads the way in educating nonwhite, working-class students

`MY mother is a till packer at Pick 'n Pay,'' Mzingisi Skweyiya says, explaining that she packs groceries at a supermarket. ``My father is a mechanic, but his salary is less than 100 rands [$40] a week. Neither of my parents has a high school education. I'm the first person in my family to attend university.'' Mr. Skweyiya is a student at the University of the Western Cape. Commonly called UWC, many refer to it as the ``University of the Working Class'' because it has become the school of choice for nonwhite South Africans. That Skweyiya, and thousands of black students like him, is there at all is the result of a determined push by the administration to make UWC a nonracial, democratic institution that caters to the needs of a future South Africa.

Situated eight miles east of Cape Town, it was built at the height of apartheid in 1960 to educate South Africa's Colored - mixed race - population. ``All of South Africa's institutions reflect our history,'' says Jakes Gerwel, the rector (president) of UWC, ``and it's been a history of severe social engineering toward ethnic and racial divisions.''

But the students, faculty, and administration at UWC have their own history - one of consistent opposition to apartheid.

``This university has always been a thorn in the flesh of the government,'' says Henry Abdoll, a university spokesperson. ``We've turned the original policy upside down. We are now a nonracial, truly South African university.''

The thorn became sharper when Professor Gerwel was selected to lead the university. His first decision was to throw open the doors to black South Africans. ``When I took office in 1987, we had about 6,000 students. Since then we've grown to a total of almost 13,000 students. In 1986, we had about 5 percent [black] African students. This year the majority of our first-year students in the Faculty of Arts are [black] African.''

The government's response to these changes was devastating. In 1989, the government altered the formula for allocating state funds to universities, effectively removing growth from the equation. UWC's subsidy was cut by a massive 52 percent.

``I'll leave it to others to decide if we were penalized [for accepting so many black students],'' Dr. Gerwel says with a wry look on his face, ``but I don't think it was a coincidence.'' Without funds to match the growing student body, the university hasn't been able to hire enough faculty to meet the demand.

Another serious problem is the underpreparation of the black students for university education. A study published in 1989 found that black pupils receive one-seventh of the funds available to white students.

``Looking back to my school in the township,'' says Skweyiya, a third-year student, ``it really was an underprivileged and underresourced one. There was not a library. There was not a laboratory to cater to the scientific needs of the students. There were often 60 to 70 students in a class.''

Mahlubi Mabizela confirms Mzingisi's experience: ``From the perspective of a science student like myself, in my high school there was no laboratory. So when you come to the university you have to be shown what is a test tube, what is a pipette. We had only pictures of them in our textbook.''

Rector Gerwel wrote in his 1989 annual report, explaining the challenge his university faced when it accepted so many black South Africans: ``Education is probably the area where the devastating effects of apartheid will linger the longest, because apartheid education has as its deliberate objective the systematic underdevelopment of intellectual skills and human potential.''

The burden of nurturing that intellectual potential has landed most heavily on the university's faculty.

``We're expected to perform at a superhuman level,'' says Professor Edith Vries. ``I don't leave my office before eight at night. When I get home I still have work to do. On weekends, I often conduct workshops.'' She opens her appointment book; every time slot is filled with meetings or classes.

MS. VRIES is herself a graduate of UWC and, despite the workload, supports the changes. ``The educational system in this country has annihilated a lot of people along the way,'' she says. ``And I, for a range of reasons, was not a victim. I was able to come here despite having working-class parents who never saw the inside of a high school. My community contributed to who and what I am. And I have to give back.

The road that Gerwel took when he opened the university's doors to students from every racial and ethnic group has led to more than greater student diversity; it has led to an exercise in building a nonracial, democratic society.

``One of the exciting things about UWC is that in many ways we find ourselves in a kind of South African microcosm, almost a sort of laboratory situation, and that we undergo experiments that nonracial, democratic South Africa will have to undergo at some stage,'' he says. That laboratory almost blew up in 1988 when factions on and off campus led smear attacks against the rector, published hate-filled pamphlets, and tried to foment divisions between races.

``It was painted as controversial by the establishment press - as a transformation process gone wrong, riddled with problems,'' Gerwel explains. ``But by and large, the academic leadership, the student leadership, and the administrative leadership believed in what we were doing. It did have its exciting moments,'' he says with a smile. ``It wasn't a smooth thing. We really had to work at it.''

FOR many at UWC, the struggle has been worthwhile. For Hambly Matthews, a Colored student, it has meant an opportunity for self-discovery.

``Because of the Group Areas Act, we've always been separated,'' he says. ``Blacks there, Coloreds there, and whites there. When you were in high school, you thought of whites as superior. But we come here and we see the real world. I learned about being proud of yourself. Almost like learning to love yourself.''

``People see a reason for doing things here,'' Prof. Phillip Hirschsohn explains. ``The staff [of professors] has been willing to accept some of the sacrifices because of the change in the political atmosphere in the country. There's a larger reason for what they're doing.''

Vries concurs. ``I like to think we're preparing the leaders of the new South Africa,'' she says. ``A lot of professional organizations that matter in this country - there are a lot of our alumni there.''

For Skweyiya, UWC has provided an opportunity to practice democracy through participation in the protests and demonstrations that he and other student leaders organize. When several students taunted police at a recent march, he was quick to intervene. ``That is not part of our agenda,'' he told the students as he led them away.

Reflecting on the changes his institution has gone through, Gerwel has some advice for those trying to build the new South Africa.

``Based on what we've learned here in trying to build a nonracial, democratic institution, one must always remember to take democracy very seriously,'' he says. ``People must feel that they are participants in a transformation project. The best idea, unless people feel it's their own idea, stands to be opposed.''

Despite many obstacles, UWC is starting to make its experiment in nation-building work.

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