Amnesia at HDIs - A different perspective

Prof B Figaji, vice-chancellor of Peninsula Technikon, responds to RW Johnson's article in Focus 26.

Dear Sir

In your last edition Mr RW Johnson makes a case for the consideration of academic merit as the sole criterion when judging issues involving higher education in South Africa. This case is made in opposition to a threat from the minister of education about the introduction of racial quotas.

However, Mr Johnson first heaps praise on the minister of education for turning a page in South African history by at last "merging most of the HDIs with formerly all white institutions so that most of them disappear".

I am not sure that the minister would agree with Mr Johnson's summary of his merger proposals, but I think all the HDIs will agree with Mr Johnson that this is the result of the minister's proposals.

What the HDIs, and I in particular, have great difficulty with is the generalisations and obvious racial bias in the arguments put forward by Mr Johnson to support his hypothesis.

Allow me to make two points before responding in detail to Mr Johnson:

1) It is a fact that prior to 1948 the English language White liberal universities enjoyed great financial and political support from the state and the ruling party at the time. After 1948 the Afrikaans language White institutions had their period of support from the Nationalist Government.

During these many years of overt government support, the White institutions were able to build up huge reserves and develop capacity that would be very beneficial later on in establishing their superiority.

Prior to 1994 and, indeed after 1994, the black institutions were hoping to experience their era of support and capacity building from a government elected to bring about greater equity. Unfortunately this did not happen at all, even though Mr Johnson claims that "… from 1994 on the government was clearly minded to give them preferential treatment of every kind".

2) Apart from the discriminatory periods of support that some institutions enjoyed from their politically aligned governments, one further factor that impacted significantly on higher education in South Africa was the burden of having to deal with angry young people.

It is naïve to believe that, because our transition was peaceful, there was no cost. I believe that to a large extent the HDIs absorbed the anger of the youth who fought valiantly for the liberation of this country.

Young people at higher education institutions, mainly at the HDIs, were very involved in the protest against the previous regime. When in the early 90s the political dispensation started changing, students used their power to focus on changing the situation they found themselves in at the individual institutions. This ranged from a demand for free education to demanding the relaxation of admission criteria and academic standards.

It took the next 5-7 years of social change in South African society and the hard work of institutional staff to convince students that the struggle for liberation was over, and that the new struggle was against poverty and unemployment. Though many institutions experienced periods of unrest and conflict, it was largely experienced by the HDIs because this was where the majority of angry students were.

With these two points as background I wish to respond to Mr Johnson's article as follows:

  • I find it strange that the HDIs are associated with "separate development" policies, which by implication means that all the white institutions must have been part of a democracy. But every single South African institution was part of the separate development plan.
  • It is true that some institutions experienced leadership problems, but to claim that the HDI management teams "uniformly failed" is a gross exaggeration. I can name quite a few that did not fail, but I will volunteer our institution for closer scrutiny so that Mr Johnson's generalizations and assumptions can be dispelled before they poison some more innocent South African minds.
  • The comment on "tiny fiefdoms" and the reference to brightly coloured mock-medieval costumes are not only condescending, but clearly come from a South African that has been badly affected by years of repeated racial indoctrination.
  • The post-1990 periods of unrest at some HDIs caused students and staff to migrate to more stable surroundings, weakening the HDIs and strengthening the white institutions because they could select the best black students and staff. Though unfortunate, this was part of the political adjustment going on throughout the country.

Prof. B Figaji
Peninsula Technikon