Thursday, September 9, 2010

We are so race fixated! Its pathetic that 16 years into democracy white kids are still being punished for being white!

Jonathan Jansen: A firestorm has broken out at the University of Cape Town over the question as to whether race should be used to determine admission to university studies.

In the case of its medical school, UCT not only calculates different admissions criteria for white and black students, it further determines differential pass rates for Indian students versus coloured students versus African students.

The vice-chancellor, Dr Max Price, is adamant that this is the best available methodology for racial redress at UCT; his fiercest critic, Dr Neville Alexander, argues exactly the opposite - that race labels do more harm than good in a post-apartheid democracy. The irony of the two positions is itself intriguing: a white man defending racial redress, a black man criticising it.

The question of course is not racial redress: all our institutions, and especially UCT, need to repair the damage of the past, not only as far as the racial demography of its student body is concerned, but especially in terms of staffing equity.

In years past, UCT has been more likely to hire an academic from England, to which the academic umbilical cord still remains firmly attached, than it was likely to hire a top black professor from South Africa. The university as much as acknowledged this fact in its public apology to the brilliant scholar Professor Archie Mafeje for not appointing him despite more than one opportunity to do so.

The central question in the UCT debacle is whether we can correct apartheid's wrongs by invoking the very racial categories that offended and divided us in the past.

I cannot think of anything more bizarre, for the manner in which UCT approaches the question of redress is the best way of keeping apartheid-thinking alive and well in the consciousness of most South Africans.

As critics of UCT's policy correctly assert, using race to determine admission is meaningless in the suburban economy of that institution, where the top academic schools have enrolled more and more black students of all stripes over the past two decades. This means black children at schools like Bishops, Westerford or SACS are less likely to be first-generation university students than was the case 10 or more years ago.

These children are not disadvantaged, at least not educationally or materially; in fact, more and more of these black students appear in the top 10% of their class and assume leadership positions throughout their schools. To advantage such students in entrance to economics or medicine at UCT is laughable.

Some deep thinkers would claim that disadvantage is more than the school you attend or the amount of money in the home. Disadvantage is also psychological, those barriers to confidence that remain long after material differences are resolved between white and black.

Frankly, I find this to be a shaky argument when it comes to the middle classes of whatever colour.

All young people struggle with confidence, poor children more than those from well-resourced families. All young people find the adjustment to university difficult, especially those with less money. Black children from well-to-do homes do as well as white children whose families are similarly well-off. So what is the problem?

The problem is class, not race. There is a much greater disparity (in terms of resources, confidence and university preparation) between black students from Khayelitsha and Manenberg, in the Cape, than there is between a white or black student from Wynberg Boys or Girls High School.

Where you studied matters; where you live matters; whether you parents have a job, or whether there are computers and books in your home, matters. The degree of pigmentation of the student is, to be honest, irrelevant.

Of course what intellectuals like Neville Alexander realise is that retaining those ridiculous four racial categories is a prescriptive act; it not only selects students for studies at one of South Africa's most prestigious universities, it also instils in the minds of young people ways of thinking about themselves and others.

Race categories order the world for students in the same way it did for their parents before the 1990s. This is the great danger facing social transformation in South Africa.

When my student leaders at the University of the Free State came to see me recently, they asked that we do away with racial specifications in the choice of the HKs (Huiskomitees) of each residence.

As one who grew up in the old apartheid system, I was reluctant, for students tend to choose leaders who look like them. That happened in some cases, but there were more good news stories: Emily Hobhouse residence chose their first black koshuis "prime" in their history a few weeks ago. We should listen to our young people.

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