Sophie Lalla tosses her backpack and skateboard down onto the library steps. She sits down and gazes out over the University of Cape Town (UCT)’s central campus, a scenic expanse punctuated by lush rugby fields and ivy-covered classrooms. Students are gathered in small clusters, some giggling and many hard at work—after all, they’re enrolled in what many call the top university in Africa.
“You know, I could never have gotten into this place if I were white,” Lalla says.
Her friend Gordon chuckles, rolling his eyes.
“No really,” Lalla insists. “In high school my marks were good but they weren’t perfect. I’m at one of the best schools in the world, but I got in because I applied as someone non-white. That’s the truth.”
Lalla isn’t the only student heavily attuned to the University’s affirmative action program. UCT’s administration is remarkably open about their race-based admissions policy. To be admitted, white students must have the equivalent of straight A’s, while black and colored (mixed race) students are accepted with much lower grade point averages. White students applying for a bachelor of medicine, for instance, must have a minimum Admission Point Score of 540 out of 600, colored students must have a minimum of a 500, and black students may be admitted with a 480. The policy isn’t hush-hush—in the University’s prospectus, admission cutoffs are listed by race.
“Historically, UCT was a largely white, elitist institution,” said Director of Admissions Carl Herman. “The current admissions policy is geared toward transforming the profile of the student body. If we didn’t have an affirmative action policy, our student population would be white and Indian.”
South Africa’s troubled education system has problems far outside the scope of UCT admissions policy. In 2013, only 21 percent of high school graduates in South Africa earned grades good enough to meet the standards for any of the nation’s colleges, and University of Cape Town professors say that even students who attended affluent high schools struggle to perform academically at the post-secondary level. Furthermore, the educational segregation enforced during apartheid lingers in elementary and high schools, so the academic opportunities accessible to students are defined heavily by race.
In 1953, the South African government implemented the Bantu Education Act, imposing racial segregation on educational institutions. The government was able to enforce educational segregation easily because of the country’s geographic divisions; major cities like Cape Town were kept predominantly white, and black communities were forced to live in underdeveloped townships. Township schools were neglected, and the Minister of Native Affairs who designed the Bantu system declared his goal of ensuring that black students did not receive a proper education. Today, predominantly black high schools remain under-resourced and poorly staffed, according to Sam Musker, a Johannesburg high school student who leads an education equality non-profit called the Johannesburg Junior Council. Musker said that 93 percent of black public schools don’t have libraries and 90 percent don’t have computer centers. White students, on the other hand, primarily attend high-end public schools called “Model C schools,” which have ample textbooks and technology. Model C schools are found in predominantly white neighborhoods, and often get more government funding because their students achieve higher scores on standardized tests.
“My school in Johannesburg did not have enough resources,” said Lucas Man, who attended a predominantly black school before transferring to the prestigious African Leadership Academy, where he is currently in his first year of high school. “Teachers didn’t attend class regularly. There were broken windows and leaking pipes, so the infrastructure didn’t motivate students to work hard.”
The University of Cape Town’s administration maintains that a race-based admissions policy is the only way to heal the wounds created by decades of racial segregation. But today’s students, many of whom were born as the apartheid was ending, are deeply divided over the merits of affirmative action. Both black and white students criticize the policy, pointing to the racial tensions it creates, particularly in high schools.
Jay Benson, a white third-year university student, said that at his high school students competed heavily to gain admission to University of Cape Town. They often discussed the school’s affirmative action program, complaining that it was unjust and a form of “reverse racism.”
“White students would get mad and say they didn’t have a fair chance to get into university, and black students disliked affirmative action because they felt like they were getting free passes, like getting into UCT was an empty success,” Benson said.
Meanwhile, student Gordon Hening said he and his friends have coined the phrase “too pale, too male,” joking about the unjust disadvantages white males face in university admissions and even job applications, given that South Africa’s Black Economic Empowerment program has implemented affirmative action in the workplace.
Racial tensions run even deeper at the University of Stellenbosch, a school several miles outside of Cape Town. At Stellenbosch, resistance to the college’s affirmative action program remains strong and widespread, but regardless the student body demographics have shifted radically in recent years. In 1990, the year the dismantling of apartheid began, black students constituted only 5.4 percent of Stellenbosch’s student body. Today, this group represents 33 percent of Stellenbosch students, and the Vice-Chancellor of the University has committed to raising the number to 50 percent by 2018. The University is working to make its student body more reflective of the country’s overall demographics, given that more than 79 percent of South Africa’s population is black.
“We want to break down the perception that only white Afrikaans students go to Stellenbosch,” said Celeste Nel, the Deputy Director of Stellenbosch’s Center for Prospective Students. “We’ve seen other institutions diversify their student body, and we started a little late, but Stellenbosch has never been more ready for transformation.”
White students at Stellenbosch have voiced strong opposition to the university’s race-based admissions policy. Gerhard Keuck, a white student at the university, called the affirmative-action program unfair, and said that since he and his peers played no role in constructing the apartheid, they should not have to suffer the consequences of overly competitive admissions processes. Student Luvuyo Mjoto said many of his classmates worry that as Stellenbosch grows more diverse, the campus culture will change and the Afrikaans language—spoken primarily by white students—will die out.
“If you want us to be totally honest,” said white Stellenbosch student Russel Packard, “we don’t like this affirmative action policy.” He gestured toward a large group of his friends. “None of us think it’s fair.”
But the policy faces opposition from all sides—while students like Packard and Keuck bemoan its injustice, others claim that affirmative action does not go far enough in compensating for the evils of apartheid. Critics maintain that affirmative action doesn’t actually help the underprivileged black citizens who suffered most under apartheid. At the University of Cape Town, according to Benson, most black students benefiting from affirmative action come from wealthy families and elite communities.
“Race is not a fair way to determine who’s been educationally disadvantaged by apartheid,” said David Benatar, a philosophy professor at the University of Cape Town and an outspoken critic of the school’s race-based admissions policy.
Some recommend redesigning affirmative action programs by crafting policies that favor students based on socioeconomic background rather than race. Others, such as Musker, say that any type of affirmative action program is problematic. Musker’s chief argument: by focusing entirely on diverse university admissions, the government has avoided fundamentally reforming the education system and building high schools with better resources and staff. He recognizes that at present affirmative action is the most effective method for diversifying college campuses, but he hopes that the government will begin tackling the source of educational inequities to ensure that the country can progress to a point where affirmative action is no longer necessary.
“Under the status quo the country is too reliant on affirmative action and the government has avoided dealing with the root causes of inequality,” Musker said. “We need to be moving toward a society where affirmative action is no longer necessary so that we can have diversity and justice. We want to end the perception that black students are in university only because of government quotas.”
Advocating for a more sustainable solution to educational inequality, organizations like the Johannesburg Junior Council and Equal Education have decided to take South Africa’s Department of Basic Education to court. These non-profits are pressing Minister of Education Angie Motshekga to revise and implement a document called the Minimum Norms and Standards Act, which would dictate the basic level of infrastructure that schools need in order to function properly—including toilers, running water, libraries, electricity and perimeter security. Judge Dukada of the Bhisho High Court will hear Equal Education’s case against Minister Motshekga in the coming months, and the outcome of the case will determine the fate of the Minimum Norms and Standards bill.
As the country awaits the court’s decision, the national education system is increasingly becoming a platform for larger debates about the pervasive nature of racism in post-apartheid South Africa. University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch students say affirmative action has become a frequent topic of conversation, forcing students to reevaluate their own attitudes on inequality.
And even as the country struggles to address the tensions bubbling on college campuses, South Africans recognize that the battle over affirmative action is only the first step in the country’s long process of post-apartheid unification. Anima McBrown, a black University of Cape Town student, said current controversy over affirmative action is indicative of much larger challenges the country has to tackle regarding race and prejudice.
“Because South Africa has this label of being a rainbow nation, people try to pretend there is harmony and unity,” McBrown said. “But in reality, race is a big boogeyman that looms over everything. And in the end, you can make the student body diverse, but you can’t force people to believe in diversity and tolerance unless they really commit to it.”
Emma Goldberg ’16 is in Saybrook College. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This article has been cohosted from The Yale Globalist