My alma mater, the University of Cape Town (UCT) has been in a (seemingly endless, but necessary) debate regarding race-based admissions. Currently it gives preference to black students. That the debate has gone on so long shows just how important the symbolism of race is in South African politics.
The alternative to race-based admission is to use things such as how highly educated a student’s parents are, the quality of the school they attended, and income. Ultimately I do not think this will not markedly affect the pool of people eligible for admission and who get given preference. Black students are the most likely to meet these criteria.
But it changes the symbolism of the process completely. It no longer assumes every black kid is previously disadvantaged (there is a new generation of young blacks whose parents are middle-class and this middle class is growing rapidly) and that every white kid is previously advantaged. Coloureds, who have complained that they are underrepresented in “transformation” may now stand an equal chance. It levels the playing field and I think it has to be done. It is a symbolic step in the direction of a South Africa in which all men (and women) are equal without sacrificing the need to redress the social injustices of the past.
I have stated in previous blog posts my natural aversion to affirmative action. I have, however, no aversion to university admissions policies that take into account more than just the grades of an applicant. Many students with a lot of potential have grades lists that look terrible merely because they had a substandard education for instance. Brazil found with its affirmative action candidates (here the policy also appears to be race-based), called cotistas, that they did not fare much worse than the other students, and in fact caught up quite quickly. This was for two reasons: they worked harder and they had a greater ability than show by their entrance grades because they were not coached for the entrance exams. We want such students in our universities.
Apparently affirmative action was also quite successful in American universities and this has been stated as a reason for continuing race-based admission. That is a fair point, but the redress of social disadvantage is inherently ideological and it seems to me that using clearer indicators of disadvantage fits better ideologically and is likely to give the same (or even a better) result. I do not know if there is research on this. If there is not, then I think we should try it.
I have no idea if South African affirmative action candidates fare well at university. (If you know, please leave a comment). I do know that it is unfair to keep them out. But I think it is counterproductive to force the demographics of the university to reflect the demographics of the country one for one. Find the students with ability, take into account their background (not their race), and give them the opportunity they deserve. The demographic change will come.
disadvantage, education, fairness, race, social injustice, South Africa, UCT, university admissions
It occurred to me after seeing the trailer for Elysium, the new film by the director of District 9, that real life is perhaps not so very different from the situation described there. District 9 portrayed South Africa past. Elysium portrays the world as it is now.
The setting is so ridiculous, so Sci-Fi that it doesn’t immediately register. But the premise is essentially that the divide between rich and poor is enormous and unfair and that the poor are being hindered from advancing.
I know little of immigration laws, but it seems to me that it is quite hard to move from one impoverished country to another more prosperous one. And even then it is hard to be treated on equal terms with the rest of the country’s inhabitants. Much harder still (practically impossible in fact) is breaking out of the poverty of generations of inadequate education, which you will inevitably pass on to your children.
In the Elysium trailer there is some machine that removes minor ailments. It seems unbelievable that those in Elysium should have access to this, but the people on Earth are dying (presumably in pollution, with lack of food, medical treatment, etc.). If you are a middle-class South African or a resident of a first world country, you might not realise how ridiculously unequal the real world actually is. I had my teeth straightened with braces at a great cost to my medical aid when I was in my teens. It now seems to me almost monstrous to have been able to get such a cosmetic procedure when in my own country there are people with no access to clean water. How different is this from the futuristic machine in Elysium?
Of course, I think this is the point the movie is trying to make. We live in a world divided. If you get born into the right home in the right country or the right area you grow up with privilege. But a very large portion of this world is denied even the most basic human needs. We may not have separated ourselves from these people with as much clarity as putting ourselves in a space station, but we are separated from them nonetheless. A part of this separation is geographical (country and neighbourhood), a part of it is in structures (barb-wire fences around our homes), but mostly it is in our minds. We do not just absolve ourselves of guilt: we hardly recognise the need to do so.
I am not going to advocate giving away masses of wealth to the poor or to the poorest nations. Charity is not the solution. But I think we need to recognise we do not live in a cosy world and we need to figure out what to do about that. I hardly have any answers.
charity, fairness, inequality, movies, poverty, South Africa