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CAPE TOWN — The University of Cape Town was once a citadel of white privilege on the majestic slopes of Devil’s Peak. At the height of apartheid, it admitted few black or mixed-race students, and they were barred from campus dormitories, even forbidden to attend medical school postmortems on white corpses.

South Africa’s finest university is now resplendently multiracial. But it is also engaged in a searching debate about just how far affirmative action should go to heal the wounds of an oppressive history, echoing similar conflicts in the United States, where half a dozen states have banned the use of racial preferences in admissions to public universities.

“Are we here because we’re black or are we here because we’re intelligent?” asked Sam Mgobozi, 19, a middle-class black student who attended a first-rate high school in Durban and finds affirmative action offensive, even as he concedes that poor black applicants may still need it.

The University of Cape Town was supposed to have settled this debate last year when its professors — seven out of 10 of them white men — supported a policythat gave admissions preferences based on apartheid racial categories to black, mixed-race and Indian students.

Instead, unease with the current approach has spilled out over the past year in fierce exchanges on newspaper editorial pages and formal debating platforms. Sixteen years after the political ascent of the black majority, the university’s dilemma resonates across a society conflicted about how best to achieve racial redress, whether in corporate board rooms or classrooms.

Professor Neville Alexander, a Marxist sociologist who was classified as mixed race under apartheid, has roused the campus debate with the charge that affirmative action betrays the ideals of non-racialism that so many fought and died for during the struggle against apartheid. Alexander, who spent a decade imprisoned on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, insists that the University of Cape Town, which is public, must resist pressure from the government to use racial benchmarks in determining how well the university is performing.

“The government under apartheid did the same and we told them to go to hell,” he said in one standing-room-only campus debate.

Affirmative action’s champion on campus is Max Price, the vice chancellor, who was himself detained as an anti-apartheid student activist in the mid-1970s. Price, who grew up as a child of white privilege, contends that preferences based on apartheid’s racial classifications provide a means to help those harmed by that system to gain critical educational opportunities.