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Sunday Morning News

Black Students in Post-Apartheid South Africa Still Struggling in Quest for Higher Education

Aired February 18, 2001 - 8:32 a.m. ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: As the U.S. marks Black History Month, many black students in post-apartheid South Africa still struggle in their quest for higher education.

CNN's Johannesburg bureau chief Charlayne Hunter-Gault can strongly identify with these students. Four decades ago during the U.S. civil rights era, Hunter-Gault became one of the first black students to desegregate the University of Georgia.

With some personal insight and perspective, she brings us this story.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: If ever there was an institution that resembled the University of Georgia and its historic racial legacy, it was this one, Rau Afrikaans University, founded almost 35 years ago solely to educate Afrikaans speaking white students, no doubt, to take their place alongside the Afrikaner ruling class of the country's racially segregated society.

Known as apartheid, it relegated blacks to segregated, separate and woefully unequal places, including in higher education.


HUNTER-GAULT (voice-over): Now, seven years after apartheid ended with a black led government taking over, two of the finalists in this Rau tradition, the Rag Queen Festival, are black, as are many of the participants. They and close to 8,000 other black students are here, 42 percent of the total, along with Indians, one a finalist in the festival and so-called coloreds, most the beneficiaries of law passed three years ago compelling higher education institutions to provide measures for the redress of past inequities forbidding such institutions to unfairly discriminate in any way, unapologetic affirmative action aimed at what is known here not as desegregation but transformation.

Given my own experience of being a first, I sought out a student who had been among the first admitted to Rau. I was led to Brenda Radebe. Admitted in 1991, even before apartheid ended, but only to attend night classes, it wasn't a mob she had to face, it was language, Afrikaans.

BRENDA RADEBE, LECTURER, RAU: So all the lectures would be in Afrikaans and we're totally lost, no acknowledgement as well to say, you know, if you like, you can contribute in English or whatever.

HUNTER-GAULT: With the help of some sympathetic Afrikaner students, Radebe got through it and went on to earn her master's degree in clinical psychology. In 1997, she returned to Rau, this time hired as a lecturer.

RADEBE: The process, like she says, of looking at options.

HUNTER-GAULT: One consequence of transformation, students can elect to take their classes in Afrikaans or in English. Black and English speaking students tend to choose classes taught by English speakers. Afrikaner students by and large stick to the classes taught in Afrikaans.

UNIDENTIFIED LECTURER: Scientists usually work within a theological framework.

HUNTER-GAULT: Since the higher education act calling for transformation came into being, Rau has recruited some of South Africa's best black academics, like Seveid Machao (ph), a zoology professor and former head of one of the country's historically disadvantaged, or all black, African universities. This is a class for honors students. For most, their first black professor.

GORDON O'BRIEN, HONORS STUDENT, RAU: It's new to us, I must say. It is. We're all developing. We're changing. It's different. But no, I haven't come across anyone specifically that has had any problems with any black professors, not at all.

HUNTER-GAULT: Despite their acceptance, the few black professors here worry about another legacy of apartheid.

CONNIE MOLOI, SENIOR LECTURER, RAU: When you look at the kinds of degrees that they are doing, they are not the key degrees. For instance, you don't find any black students in degrees such as engineering, in the sciences. You find the greatest percentage doing arts, visual arts and in our case, most of them are in education.

HUNTER-GAULT: Blacks are continuing to follow traditional career fields established during apartheid when they were limited by law as to what fields they could pursue. Moreover, most black students enter university after attending schools still suffering from the inequities of apartheid.

SEVID MASHEGO, PROFESSOR, RAU: I'm also a product of, you know, of a black township. I grew up in Soweto. The schools are definitely not equipped at all. When I was studying mathematics and physical science and so on at a school where there were no laboratories whatsoever. Everything had to be done theoretically by studying the books.

HUNTER-GAULT: Rau has established a special high school near its campus to help disadvantaged students overcome that legacy. The school's headmaster says its success, a 100 percent pass rate and the government's emphasis on affirmative action at every level of society, has led to private sector scholarships, a kind of downpayment on well trained future black employees.

When I saw this ritual during freshman orientation week at Rau, my mind went back to less innocent freshman week rituals at the University of Georgia, especially among the Greek letter organizations, one of which used to proudly display the confederate flag, a symbol of the Old South and slavery.

Symbols of the old confederacy could still be seen flying around the campus this year amid much controversy. I talked with some black students here at Rau who complained about its rituals, not so demeaning as foreign and uncomfortable. No problem for Phatudi Mogashwa, who accepts not only Afrikaans, but the Afrikaner nickname the upperclassmen gave him, Keffing Uhk (ph), chain eyed.

Remembering that the black student protests against being taught in Afrikaans in 1976 was a defining moment in the black liberation struggle, I asked Mogashwa, whose native language in northern Sutu (ph), what had changed.

PHATUDI MOGASHWA, STUDENT, RAU: Well, basically, like it's a rumination and it's actually quite cool because they, I sometimes teach in my language, you know? They catch the envy and it's awesome because it's changed dramatically because, you know, it's amazing, actually. I feel at home with them here.

CAREL CRONJE, STUDENT, RAU: We don't see color anymore. We like all students.

HUNTER-GAULT: But some students complained about the appearance of subtle forms of discrimination, especially in the assigning of spaces to black students in the residences, echoes of the discrimination I faced at the University of Georgia when I was placed in a two room suite on a floor with no other students.

SHARON NKOMO, FORMER RAU STUDENT: I think it's much easier for white people to get in than for black people to do so because no matter when you go, when you go talk to them, usually, normally you have to go there all the time to remind them, to ask them if there's any openings and all that. You find that, you know, your name isn't moving. They keep on telling you you're number 23. You stay there, you know? You're not moving.

HUNTER-GAULT: The university says there's no such intent, but acknowledges it may have failed to communicate that. Black students say communication could be improved if they could talk to people in authority who look like them.

DELANI MABASO, STUDENT, RAU: If you have a complaint and you feel that white people are doing this to you, the last person you'd want, the last thing you'd want to do is to go to a white person and tell them no, you're doing this to me.

HUNTER-GAULT: It may be a comfort factor, but students on this campus do tend to gravitate toward their own ethnic groups. Despite the problems, the recently retired head of the university says he's proud of what Rau has been able to achieve. J.C. VAN DER WALT, FORMER HEAD OF RAU: I must really say to you that it's been a miracle. I've never experienced in the 35 years that I've been here and especially in the last 10 years any resistance to the concept that we had to transform to become a fully South African university.

HUNTER-GAULT: In many ways, Rau's transformation, though not complete, has been less eventful than at some other institutions in the country. And while there has been the odd racial incident here and there and the continuing calls for blackening or Africanizing institutions of higher learning, there's been nothing like the massive resistance experienced in Georgia and other states in the Deep South.


HUNTER-GAULT: A few weeks ago, I looked at the statistics on the admission of black students to the University of Georgia 40 years after I walked through its doors. Only six percent of the 34,000 students are black and the university is being sued by whites to end the use of race as a factor in admissions. Even though South Africa's children of apartheid won their freedom some 33 years after the children of American segregation, and even though South Africa has a long way to go towards full transformation, it has come a long way and much faster.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, CNN, Johannesburg.




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