Looking for consensus

Race is an issue on every university campus in South Africa. How can it be otherwise when we are less than three student cohorts away from legally enforced segregation, when race and class are coterminous for a large majority of the population and when the demographics of the staff of some universities are the inverse of the demographics of the country as a whole? The issue is not whether or not race is a key signifier of identity, or whether there is unfair discrimination on the basis of race. It is rather the absence of an adequate and appropriate language to identify and argue through the issues – a route to effective interventions that will take us beyond the salience of race. A lasting impression of the University of the Free State video is the inanity of the students involved, the fact that they can only express themselves through urinating in food and forcing humiliation on those who clean for them. If all discourse is metaphor, then the UFS video is emblematic of a failure to find any means of communication beyond the scatological. If this has in turn become a metaphor for the state of our universities – or for the state of the nation – then this is indeed the nadir of the South African dream.

What gets lost in these polarised moments is the ground in-between. Those who deny that race is an issue on their campus, or who argue that colour blindness is a democratic obligation in the ‘new South Africa’, contribute to such polarisation and court disillusionment when, indeed, it turns out that something similar to the UFS incident has happened on their campus. This has been a fallacy of both ends of the political spectrum in first reactions to the University of the Free State's plight; both by those who denounce universities such as UCT for taking race into account in admissions and also those in the ANC who call for the University of the Free State to be ‘nationalised’ to cauterize the problem, as if cutting out the cancer on one campus would heal the system. More considered responses – hopefully to an outcome of the Commission announced by the Minister of Education – will look beyond such simplified dichotomies at both the deeper issues and at the interventions that have been tried with varying degrees of success.

At the University of Cape Town, recent concerns with race have clustered in three areas: admissions, employment equity and institutional culture. There is often polarisation on these issues, sometimes constructive debate, rarely consensus and – occasionally – a breakthrough. In this UCT is little different from any other large public body responding to legacies of the past in a time of change and seeking appropriate policies and interventions in a situation where the right thing to do is invariably apparent well after the moment has passed.

The question of taking race into account in admissions is acute for selective universities. For many academic programmes at UCT there are 10 or more applicants for every available place. In a situation where there is profound inequality in the school system the matriculation examination cannot be regarded as a neutral measure of the potential to succeed in higher education. Despite the rise of the black middle class in South Africa and the increase in intra-racial inequality measured by indices such as the Gini Coefficient, study after study has shown that race, family income and educational attainment are tightly correlated. Comparison of school leaving results with subsequent performance has shown that race affects the performance of black and white students who attended the same high school. There will always be exceptional individuals who buck the trend, but such cases cannot be used to determine the admissions policy for a public university as a whole.

Given this situation, UCT has differential admission requirements based on an applicant's self-declaration of race. This is of course controversial and subject to unintended consequences. We would much rather use a more robust indicator of comparative opportunity, such as a fair means test for all applicants, or a classification of all high schools in terms of their educational qualities (which is still in preparation by the Department of Education). But at present, self-declaration of race is the only proxy we have to correct the ways in which prior opportunities distort our evaluation of an applicant's potential in higher education.

Looked at another way, what would happen if UCT stopped taking race into account in admissions? (Remember here that selective universities have a particular problem – for universities or campuses where the number of qualified applicants is much the same as the number of study places available, there is no issue). In effect, we would be reinforcing prior privilege in the high school system. When there are more than ten applicants for a place at university, the difference between at A and a B+ in a single subject makes all the difference – our data show that black (African) applicants in private and ‘Model C’ schools would often lose out to white applicants. Admissions of African and coloured (mixed race) applicants from schools on the Cape Flats would fall dramatically. Despite taking race into account in admissions, 40% of UCT students are white – more than four times the overall proportion of whites in the South African population as a whole. A ‘race-blind’ admissions policy would be, in effect, the continuation of affirmative action for students from already-privileged backgrounds.

The issue of the use of race in admissions is debated intensely, and almost continuously, at UCT – in council, senate, faculty boards, blogs, listserves and tearooms. Many disagree with current policy and say so. There is little doubt that policies will change. What we cannot do, though, is to pretend that race is not an issue.

The question of race in employment is equally significant and has been as controversial as the use of race in admissions decisions. The basis of UCT's employment policy – as with all organisations in South Africa with more than 50 employees – is the Employment Equity Act and the requirement that the university sets equity targets on a three year basis. In itself, this embeds the use of race descriptors for reporting purposes: the legislation requires that each staff member self-describes in terms of given racial descriptors or, if he or she refuses to do so, that the university provide the description. Many find this legislated requirement offensive.

Further dialogue within the university has been on transformation objectives that are in addition to the basic legal requirement. Should employment equity be based on redress – the correction of previous inequity – or should it be guided by the benefits of diversity? Is diversity a benefit? To what extent do prevalent stereotypes result in unfair discrimination in appointment and promotion? Does the use of mandatory racial descriptors perpetuate the culture of apartheid? Is the pursuit of excellence in opposition to the goals of equity? Has excellence been sacrificed for the purposes of equity?

These issues were extensively debated at UCT as well as in the local and national media following a provocative inaugural lecture in which it was argued that affirmative action has no place in a university. Many aspects of the debate were disappointing and were conducted in an atmosphere of incivility, indicating that we have yet to find appropriate ways of talking about race and its relationship to power and opportunity. While some argue that the time has come to take a race-blind approach to staff appointments and promotions, the more cogent position must be that such a policy would be profoundly damaging. UCT must attract and retain talented individuals from the South African population as a whole if it is to retain its competitive national and international position.

There are many indications that we are not succeeding in these objectives to the extent that we should. Again, the point here is that race is not just a ‘Free State problem’. If there were to be a ‘winner’ in the debate about affirmative action at UCT, the subsequent discourse would remain immersed in the issues of race, either because race would continue to be taken into account in making staff appointments, or because the university would have to defend a return to a staff profile similar to the 1980s and earlier. Race is an unavoidable topic, and finding a better way to talk about it is an urgent priority.

Institutional culture – the traditions, practices and norms of behaviour that together define the university's character – is to a large extent a function of both student admissions and staff recruitment. As students and staff from diverse backgrounds challenge established ways and bring in new attitudes and attributes, so the institutional culture will change. Inversely, a range of surveys and interviews conducted at UCT have shown that students and staff who find themselves to be minorities, or marginalised, within the UCT community may be rapidly alienated.

While UCT has still to conduct a systematic survey of student attitudes, we did complete a second Institutional Climate Survey in 2007, which has provided a basis for refining interventions and focusing on key issues. The findings of the survey are sobering. A range of detailed responses indicate the continuing saliency of race in individual experiences of university culture. Thus 50% of white males and 52% of white females agreed that they have not been treated differently because of their race and gender. However, all categories of black staff had the inverse response. Similarly, asked whether staff members of different identities are equally valued and respected at UCT, white males and females agreed while black staff disagreed. This polarisation began to break down with perceptions of the wider institutional climate, with a significant number of white staff expressing concern. Thus 53% of all respondents saw the lack of racial diversity at UCT as a problem and 37% of all respondents regarded racial harassment as a problem. Eighty respondents (7.7% of the sample) reported that they had personally experienced racial harassment at work.

UCT's 2007 Institutional Climate Survey repeats the broad patterns identified in an earlier, comparable, survey carried out in 2003. Following this first survey – and a traumatic incident in which a lecturer was killed by a colleague, and discussions with representative staff organisations, caucuses and student leadership – the vice-chancellor launched a major intervention, known as Khuluma (to speak out), in which groups of 20 staff come together in an intensive three-day workshop to confront internalised racial stereotypes of superiority and inferiority. To date, more than 650 UCT staff have attended Khuluma workshops which have been regarded by a significant majority of their participants as successful in enabling deep conversations about race and its implications. The challenge for UCT is to extend participation in such programmes to a greater number of academic staff, and to translate the insights and energy generated by the Khuluma dialogues into meaningful change.

If UCT has been successful in anticipating the events at the University of the Free State it has been through launching Khuluma and similar programmes (such as a major intervention in the Health Sciences Faculty) that have identified and interrogated the sort of derogatory racial stereotypes that can lead to active discrimination and outbursts of rage and violent abuse. However, we have yet to develop an effective way of reaching the far more transitory community of some 20,000 students including each year's intake of some 3,500 new students. While there have been a number of leadership programmes and pilot projects in diversity education (both in South Africa and in a number of US universities), I know of no Khuluma-type model that could be viable from an entire student intake. To this extent, universities must remain passive barometers of society at large.

So where are we at UCT? Some 20 years after UCT introduced policies and programmes designed to recruit and support educationally disadvantaged students and to increase the diversity of our staff, we are beginning to find a language to talk and argue about race and its associations with position, power and opportunity, about stereotypes and assumptions that limit our ability to move on as a institution of learning in a changing world. Many of these dialogues are stimulating and constructive and point to new possibilities. But to argue that what happened at the University of the Free State could not happen at the University of Cape Town is to miss the point that we are still far from understanding the antimonies of race, or achieving a consensus as to how the constitutional principles of redress and fairness can be given their full substance.

* Professor Martin Hall stands down as deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town in August this year. He writes here in his personal capacity.

Sources for the policies and reports mentioned here can be found at: