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[Opinion] As a black student on the brink of graduation from UCT, Insaaf Isaacs thinks the status quo should be maintained

November 18, 2013

In light of recent developments in the discourse on the UCT admissions policy, I decided to put finger to keyboard as a concerned black South African student on the brink of graduation from UCT and share why I think the status quo should be maintained.

As South Africans we can, and hopefully do, all agree that no person is innately more intelligent than another person by virtue of the fact that they are of a certain race. However, it is clear that this view does not accurately describe the current situation in South Africa, which continues to be characterised by a racialised past.

Given this context, the role of higher education in the development of South Africa is critical and it goes without saying that redress should be one of the key drivers of higher education policy and policy reform. However, the challenge lies in the measures taken to effect redress in a meaningful manner that is best suited for the kind of South Africa envisaged by the constitution.

As it relates to higher education, transformation aims to ensure that all peoples who were previously denied access to quality higher education are given a fair opportunity to partake in higher education programmes, so that the human capital and ideological output of institutions can reflect the true diversity of the people of South Africa. Part of the unambiguity on this matter, which must not get lost in translation, is that transformation is some kind of institutionalised discrimination against white people. This is not true. South Africa ideologically belongs to all who live in it.

Many critics of race-based affirmative action are of the belief that UCT’s approach to its current admissions policy is a form of apartheid-style racial discrimination against white people in favour of black people (in broad terms). Their proposed solution is to urgently move towards non-racialism in higher education and to adopt race-blind policies for redress.

Contrary to its objectives, the noble initiative of higher education transformation has been mystified by people failing to understand its initiative of demographic inclusivity and diversity. Many misinterpret its multifactor existence by confining it to some kind of confused poverty eradication strategy. This is because incumbent critics of race-based redress argue that socio-economic status is becoming a more reliable proxy for redress since the emergence of the black middle class.

This is premised on the convenient assumption that the black middle class has already managed to buy its way out of educational disadvantage and the use of a race proxy in university admissions is becoming less accurate, and needs to be supplemented with socio-economic status, a proxy which currently reflects a negligible correlation with educational disadvantage.

International research on affirmative action has provided concrete reasons for continuing to rely on racial categorisation, which UCT vice-chancellor Dr Max Price has explained in many articles and discussions in the media on the university’s current admissions policy. Even when challenged on the constitutionality of the current admissions policy, the university obtained the independent opinion of senior counsel, who confirmed that the status quo is indeed consistent with the South African constitution and is not prejudicial.

The ideological interest of deracialising society must never come at the expense of effectively addressing the legacy of racial inequality of apartheid. Hence, I am of the view that the danger is not within a race-conscious society; what is wrong and dangerous is a race-prejudicial and – oppressive society which breeds discrimination. In order to create a truly non-racial higher education system and society, the racial inequalities have to be eliminated to a point of non-existence.

What race-based redress does is to provide a more inclusive higher education system, whereby the races which were previously denied access to higher education are also given fair opportunities to participate in the educational programmes of higher education. The desired result is to get to a point where the higher education system is reflective of the demographics of our country.

While I appreciate the efforts of UCT to make a lasting contribution in understanding why schools fail and how they could begin to address the problems they face, with the hope of using such information to inform the development of a more accurate proxy to measure disadvantage, it remains erroneous to insist on non-racialism without having dealt effectively with the question of racial inequalities which are still poignantly reflected by the university’s student and staff demographic profile.

Analogically, a policy like the current UCT admissions policy is redress. It seeks to close the gap between the historically advantaged and disadvantaged. I stand in firm support thereof.

* Insaaf Isaacs is a former UCT SRC president

Courtesy of IOL

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From → Education, Opinion

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