EDUCATION : S. Africa Students Say Colleges Failing Lessons of Democracy


One man beat a makeshift metal drum and a few women clanged soda cans, but most of the 40 or so protesters sang as they marched in a gray drizzle at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Except for the noise, the demonstrators Thursday did little to disrupt one of South Africa's most prestigious universities. But they were a vivid reminder that the peaceful political revolution that accompanied last April's democratic elections has yet to recast some of society's most valuable institutions.

In the last few months, students, most of them black, have gone on strike, smashed toilets, broken windows, taken hostages and battled with white students and police to protest what they consider racist policies at half a dozen colleges, technical schools and universities across South Africa.

Campuses have been polarized and scores of students have been arrested, expelled or injured. In the worst case, police firing birdshot wounded 11 Technikon students last week in Bloemfontein. Seven students were hurt in racial clashes there the week before.

At issue are a host of complaints and demands, from lower tuition to more student participation in school government. But they boil down to "transformation," the national buzzword for the push to redress inequities left by a race-based education system. The question is how, and how quickly.


Under apartheid, blacks were deliberately denied proper schooling to keep them subservient to whites. Math, for example, was considered unnecessary for blacks. Partly as a result, most college-level students, faculty and administrators are white in a population that is 86% nonwhite.

Witwatersrand, known as Wits, is a case in point. Although it is arguably the nation's most progressive school, 60% of the 18,500 students are white. The university council, similar to a board of regents, has 43 members; all but nine are white. And only three are students.

Vice Chancellor Robert Charlton says he is moving as quickly as possible to bring blacks to Wits while maintaining academic and professional standards.

"There are pathetically few qualified black faculty across the country," he said. "Your angry, impatient youth doesn't accept that. He wants to see 80% blacks at every level of the university overnight."

Charlton does not agree with such demands, but he acknowledges that many students are frustrated. "I think they feel cheated out of a real revolution," he said. "We had a transfer of political power, but life goes on as usual on campus."


Muzi Sikhakhane, president of the Student Representative Council, says the problem is the administration's refusal to adapt to a new political order.

"Like most people in power, they don't want to relinquish power," the 28-year-old law student said. "They still see this university as belonging to white people. They let black people in, but they act like we should be grateful."

Sikhakhane does not agree that few blacks are qualified for work at Wits.

"White education produced generations of racists in this country," he said. "Education is not just about learning to count or use a computer. It's about inculcating values."

So far, protesters have caused at least $15,000 in damage this year at Wits. One of the worst rampages occurred earlier this month moments after two emissaries from President Nelson Mandela had pleaded for an end to the vandalism, not reinstatement of expelled students and fired workers.

"That was a reflection of the depth of the anger," explained Sibusiso Zulu, head of the radical Student Congress that has led most of the protests. "People's patience has been exhausted."

Zulu said Wits must adopt "a conscious bias" toward blacks, including redirection of the budget. "Black students say they need more books, more classrooms, more financial aid," he said. "White students say they need more parking places."

But Maria Liz Lange, a white graduate student, complained that Wits already is "far more lenient" toward blacks than whites. "It's politically correct rubbish taken to its most disgusting extreme," she said.

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