Racial ideology, oppression and the battle over entrance to the new South African university

The University of Cape Town’s “new” admissions policy appears to be not only imperfect, it also looks incomplete. It generates a racial profile of admission offers similar to the old model, but it does so using a conceptually muddy pretext and might still exclude “disadvantaged” black applicants in favour of similarly capable white applicants who’ve performed only marginally better at school. I reviewed the parts of the policy that are public and tried to make sense of how a policy that seems to be a move in the right direction came to be an overwrought capitulation to the pressure from politicians and the dangerous lobbyists for race blindness. I also looked at the broader social implications.

A few years ago, at the Steve Biko Students Union building at UCT, I listened to a young black woman speak about why being black did not put her at a disadvantage. She was the president of the university’s student representative council at the time and a member of the Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (Daso). On that day, she was presenting Daso’s submission to a commission tasked with investigating alternative criteria to be used when deciding which new applicants to the university were disadvantaged and thus deserving of redress – other than race, that is.

She said by virtue of being middle class and having a first-language command of English, black students like her have been afforded ample opportunity to realise their academic potential in high school. In her mind, the university was inculcating dependency, victimhood and low self-esteem in such students by, as the old policy did, automatically grouping applicants by race and lowering the threshold black students (and black students only) needed to meet to be offered a place at the university.

That evening I spoke to another young black woman, a fourth-year medical student who maintained she was disadvantaged because she was black. Even though she could be considered middle class and had a first-language command of English, she said she was not playing in the same league as white students. This was because of the effects this country’s history of racist policies have on her, not because she might not be intrinsically capable.

She said black students who wanted the admission policy changed to remove race as a consideration were doing so out of self-interest. They realised, she said, that society attaches an unfair social stigma to the beneficiaries of affirmative action, and they did not want to be prejudiced by it. She maintained that she had no qualms about being a recipient of affirmative action because she understood her abilities and how being black in South Africa, regardless of social class, militates against their being fully realised. She said she, too, would write to the university’s admissions commission.


Race as oppression

It struck me then, as it does now while reading the revised admissions policy documents, that wrongheaded ideas about race continue to pervade this debate. This is particularly true of the relationship between race and disadvantage, which, as I tried to argue on a recent discussion on radio, should be called oppression, if we are to be precise.

The word disadvantage dissimulates the nature of the social arrangements we are speaking about. It leaves it open-ended about whether they, as circumstances that keep black students from performing to their potential, are external or intrinsic to the students.

Oppression, on the other hand, makes it clear that the intention is to compensate students for unjust social arrangements external to them that weigh against their ability to realise their potential. The word also obviates any anxieties students may feel or judgments society may pass over this compensation.

Writing in the Cape Times a few years before his death, UCT professor Neville Alexander tried to spell out the direction of the relationship between race and oppression in South Africa. He wrote:

“The National Party and its ideologues used the arbitrary notion of ‘race’ to promote and justify their inexcusable oppressions, but it was not because people were ‘black’ in skin colour that they were disadvantaged; it was, among other things, because they were forced to go to underfunded and generally under-resourced institutions, such as schools and bush colleges.”

In other words, race is not the cause of the oppression; it was not the why. It was the arbitrary what that apartheid ideologues used to determine who should be oppressed. Thus it is “an insult of the first order to believe, even implicitly, that I am disadvantaged because of the colour of my skin or the texture of my hair”, wrote Alexander.

He was critical of using the same ideology as the Nats to reverse the effects of their policies. He realised race could get us only so far and that if we do not have our conceptual wits about us when using it, it is possible to set back efforts to remove racial ideology from our society. He accused UCT and its vice-chancellor, Max Price, of doing just that, and of being too cowardly to stand up to the post-apartheid government, whose representatives he said were the new purveyors of racial ideology.

I’m not sure cowardly is the right word, and nor am I convinced that the post-1994 government is acting with ideological intent anywhere near comparable to the Nats. But I do see his point about maintaining conceptual clarity, which, despite his warning, UCT has not done with its revised admissions policy. And for that, Alexander was right to inveigh against Price and the university for doing the struggle against racial ideology no favours.


The new old policy

Under the “new” policy, the top 15% of new applicants will receive offers based on an admission score calculated purely on their results in either the national senior certificate, the national benchmark tests, or a combination of both (band A). The next 60% will receive offers based on the same calculation as band A, with a weighting to increase their admission scores based on the applicant’s socioeconomic circumstance (band B). The final faculty-specific 25% is reserved for black applicants only, ranked in descending order of admission score (band C).

According to UCT, this means 75% (bands A and B) will be selected without reference to their race, making this a “race-conscious admissions policy that achieves a substantial move away from a reliance on race classification”; “race-conscious” because it still uses racial classification to model the effect and measure the progress of the policy.

But the university’s claim here is true only if you ignore that the racist ideology and policies in effect in this country for almost 350 years are the single most definitive sculptors of the socioeconomic factors considered in band B. The university doesn’t ignore this entirely. It explicitly mentions it earlier in the proposal, but there appears to have been no cognitive dissonance when it concluded later on that 75% of new admissions will be “race blind”.

For conceptual clarity, UCT should have recognised that it is implicitly considering the social effects of race and this country’s history of racial oppression in band B, meaning the reality of the revised proposal is that only 15% of new admissions can really be considered as not correcting the historical effects of racist policies.

What the university seems to be trying to say could be better stated as:

We expect, over time, assuming the extrinsic factors that oppress black people specifically diminish, that black students will not make up a disproportionately higher number of the applicants whose admission scores we adjust in band B. At the present time, they do. The extrinsic factors that keep people in capitalist societies from realising their potential oppress black people disproportionately more because the racial ideology of the colonial and apartheid administration unjustly selected them as the targets of oppression, and that has had deep-seated and long-lasting intergenerational effects.

The effects of the conceptual muddiness on the policy become more apparent when you look at why the university says band C was considered necessary. The policy reads:

“Our simulations have shown us that were we to rely on the second band alone as the basis of redress in our admissions, the proportion of black students admitted to UCT would drop. This is because band B, while favouring black students, also brings in disadvantaged white students, and even with the disadvantage weighting, there may be a large number of white students with still higher scores.”

So here the university is conceding that there are some factors in the oppression black applicants experience that have not been captured adequately or completely in the measures and weighting used in band B. This concept, too, can be stated more clearly:

We used “home disadvantage” and “school disadvantage” as the two categories of oppression for which we will compensate applicants by adjusting their admission score upwards by up to 10% (20% in health sciences). These, for now, represent the closest we could get to quantifying the oppression applicants experience, and we will endeavour to improve the precision of these in future revisions to the model.

We recognise, too, that, despite our best efforts, it’s impossible at university level to compensate black applicants completely for the effects of the oppression they suffer. We need some threshold that establishes whether the knowledge the student possesses in combination with the university’s programmes will result in that student attaining a bachelor’s degree in the prescribed time. For the time being, the results of the national senior certificate and national benchmark tests help us establish that threshold – our minimum faculty point score. Only the application scores of students who’ve met the minimum faculty point score are adjusted.

We also recognise that a growing number of white applicants have begun to experience oppression after the protections they had by virtue of being among apartheid capital’s favoured few fell away. They, too, are compensated under our model.

Together, these considerations mean our admission numbers will, in all likelihood, still be skewed towards accepting a disproportionately higher number of white applicants.

Or at least I hope that’s what they’re saying. If they aren’t, then they are implying that there is something intrinsic to black students that keeps them from reaching their potential in high school relative to comparatively capable white students. This, to be blunt, would be a racist insult of the highest order.

Such is the risk of being misunderstood this seemingly well-meaning policy opens itself up to. The problem is that conceptual muddiness has inhibited UCT from recognising that lived experiences of racial oppression are qualitative in that they vary in nature, timing and extent from person to person. And that the revised admissions score calculation includes, for 60% of the offers made, the mechanistic act of quantifying that experience of oppression at the individual applicant level and compensating the applicant accordingly. An applicant’s race isn’t helpful for this purpose not because we are “moving away” from race, but because it does not tell the university how much they have been oppressed. It is only a yes-no indicator of the probability they were oppressed.

The muddiness is no accident. Although Alexander was right to say universities have been under political pressure to admit more black students, they’ve also been under pressure from lobbyists for literal race blindness. For their own ideological reasons, race-blind lobbyists would rather wipe the ledger clean and pretend that the future equality we strive for is a substantive reality today. It’s difficult to see the university’s sloppy declaration that this revised policy is a bold move away from considering race and that it is race blind 75% of the time as anything else but a subliminal message to those lobbyists.

And it’s between this race-blind devil and that political deep blue sea that the conceptual confusion was birthed.

The university’s desire to appease the race-blind lobby is further borne out in the examples it provides to show what effect the supposedly new policy will have. In the three examples, which are modelled using the 2013 applications, the numbers of black students accepted increase by 15% in mechanical engineering and 5% each in science and health sciences. The numbers of coloured students increase by far less, and not at all in one scenario. And, despite the increase, the relative proportions of the five race groups UCT uses to measure the effectiveness of its redress measures remains comparable to those under the old policy.

A question this modelled example for mechanical engineering raises is why fewer Indian students are accepted into the faculty when the numbers of white students increase.

So, based on its potential effect, the revised policy is not a significant departure from the old way. It is the old way, reverse engineered with a new, very confused overlay.

And for now it’s also impossible to engage any further with the model because the weighting methodology has not yet been made publicly available, and the examples provided in the proposal aren’t complete enough to show the university-level effect of the policy.


When black aspirations hurt

It’s clear the measures and weighting the university uses in the revised admissions policy aren’t complete enough to adjust for the oppression to which black students are subjected, but maybe we can have some fun speculating from the little we do know about where the shortcomings in the measures might be.

During the radio discussion, I told Price that the most glaring omission in my mind was net capital wealth. By definition and function, capitalist society – whether colonial capitalism, apartheid capitalism or a mixed economy – skews the odds of economic success and the ability to dictate social and cultural norms and practices in favour of the owners of capital and others it deems worthy. It is designed to ensure these odds and the capital that skews them are heritable from parent to child.

Price suggested that the studies on which the revised model’s measures are based, which are also not yet public, did not identify wealth as a factor in performance at school or that its effects are captured in the other measures. He also said the university does not have access to parents’ net capital wealth data.

Until I see the full methodology behind the measures and weighting, I can’t offer a response to that. I can, in the meantime, suppose it’s that increasing the applicant’s admission score – by 6% where their home language isn’t English or Afrikaans, up to a further 3% if neither their parents or grandparents have university education, and a by further 1% if they receive social grants – makes up for the effects of not owning capital or being among capital’s chosen few.

I’d initially thought the home language adjustment compensated applicants for the oppression experienced by those living outside of the linguistic and cultural hegemony. But let’s park that for a second, because I’m now not convinced the measures can be neatly compartmentalised like that. In fact, I think the university is making a mistake by arbitrarily bifurcating “disadvantage” into home and school.

To illustrate this, let me paint two scenarios.

Scenario 1: Aspirant black couple

An aspirant black couple – both township-resident teachers with diplomas from teaching colleges – have aspirations for their children and know education might help those aspirations be realised. They inherited very little real and social capital from their parents, who did not have university degrees, and weren’t among apartheid capital’s chosen. Realising that apartheid could not last forever, they used the little income they earned to educate themselves further and improve their skills. And using the additional earnings they generated, they entered into debt arrangements in the 1980s to fund their bachelor’s degrees at a so-called black university. This allowed them to land jobs as bureaucrats in the public service. With the increase in earnings from that, they again entered into debt in the 1990s to move out of the township to a more affluent neighbourhood they believed would provide the safe, well-serviced home environment necessary for their children to do well at school.

And with that they sent their child to a former model C school whose students’ average final exam results on a five-year rolling basis place it in the top 76% to 80% of schools.

The deracination takes its toll. The family feels alienated in their new neighbourhood, which causes tension and arguments in their marriage. All of this affects their performance at their new jobs and breeds further discontent, and degrades the quality of home life for their child, who is a slightly above average performer.

Under UCT’s revised policy, the admission score of these parents’ child will increase by 8% for “school disadvantage”. “Home disadvantage” will not factor into the calculation. At 7% (6% because their mother tongue is an indigenous African language, and a further 1% because their grandparents were not university educated), it is too low. The policy adjusts the score only by the higher of the two.


Scenario 2: Stable white couple

A white couple, one a teacher, the other a university lecturer, live in Emmarentia, Johannesburg, in one of the partner’s childhood home. They’ve inherited the house from that partner’s university-educated parents. Being among apartheid capital’s chosen, they’ve had no materially adverse restrictions to their freedom of movement and have established vast social networks of others who are among apartheid capital’s chosen. This allows them to create a safe, happy, stimulating and stable home environment for their children.

They have debt, but they use it mostly to acquire capital, not to pay for living expenses. Using their current income, they acquire the labour of a poor black woman (which they get at a rock-bottom price because the supply of poor black women far exceeds the demand) to clean their home and look after their children after school. This frees up their time to do better at work and to spend their time at home making sure their children are doing well. Their child, who attends the same model C school as the children of the aspirant black couple, is also a slightly above average performer. But the quality of their home life allows that child to perform slightly closer to their potential, which is better than that child’s peers’.

Under UCT’s revised policy, this couple’s child’s admission score would also receive a boost of 8% for “school disadvantage”. The “home disadvantage” would be 0.

Comparing these scenarios, the policy would treat the two children as though they were equally disadvantaged despite the significant differences in their lived experiences. And it’s entirely possible in this scenario that the white child could receive an acceptance offer from UCT and the black child not if the white child does only marginally better at school than the black child.

I suspect Price would say, in response, that the black child will in all likelihood receive an offer by virtue of falling into band C. But given the large numbers of black people in this country and how commonplace scenario 1 is, band C could get very crowded in some faculties and that black child could still be turned away.

In such a situation, aspirant black people who access the means of social advancement available in capitalist societies are potentially pricing their children out of access to the redress on offer in UCT’s admissions policy.

I suspect the problem here (in addition to the potential problems from not considering net capital wealth, if any) is that “home” and “school” disadvantage interact in the real world. Education interventions like Strive in the United States and the home-grown Amandla Development have realised that although the classroom is where learning happens, an intervention needs to consider and respond to learning environment engendered by the community in which the school is located as well as that in the home.

UCT has chosen to separate home and school. I’d very much like to see the reasoning for this. Given the abysmally low numbers of black students attending university, the university should be expected to do more for redress in these marginal cases. This policy does not do this.


Diversity isn’t in the numbers

Throughout the documents and in discussions about it, reference is made to how the policy aims to create a more diverse university, a university for the new South Africa. But, yet again, this is a case of conceptual looseness that potentially inhibits the attainment of the stated outcome. If UCT believes that simply increasing the numbers of poor black students it accepts will automatically make it more diverse, it is wrong.

The reason diversity is desirable is because all right-minded people understand that languages and cultural norms and practices vary, and each has its own merits. The ones we are all expected to learn and practise in South Africa today (because they have social currency) were forged in the fires of the racist exclusion of other languages and cultures, and were established by the apartheid hegemony as the linguistic norms and practices of success instead of linguistic norm and practice of success.

If UCT really wants to be diverse, it needs to begin undoing the effects of having been insulated by racist ideology from being influenced by the languages and cultural norms and practices of black people. The language question is easy enough. UCT will not be diverse until it offers a broad range of courses and produces plays, books, films and cultural analysis in at least isiXhosa, Afrikaans and hopefully other indigenous African languages in addition to English.

I can already hear the moaning now about how it would be impracticable. But Alexander has already addressed this. In ‘Language is the New South African University’, an essay including a posthumously published collection, he writes:

“My position is brutally frank and honest, even provocative: we have to change the inherited linguistic habitus in terms of which English is the only feasible candidate for language of high status – a view which, among other things, implies that it is the language of science, mathematics, technology and business.

“It would be hard to find any South African intellectual who on grounds of sentimentality and politics would not immediately answer the question [of whether there is a need to develop African languages for use in higher education] in the affirmative. With a few exceptions, however, most of these ladies and gentlemen would immediately relegate their affirmation to the category of mere rhetoric on grounds of ‘pragmatism’ and cost-benefit considerations.”

But, he contends, English and Afrikaans are demonstrably not serving their function as languages of tertiary education adequately, let alone as languages of reconciliation. Lacking in proficiency and the intuitive grasp of idiom in these languages, many black students whose home languages are not English or Afrikaans do not pass, let alone excel, once accepted into university. Alexander also points out that scholarly and academic achievements in an equitable society are to be communicated widely, so privileging the production of knowledge to a colonial language further privileges a small, well-off minority, and perpetuates inequality.

He notes, too, that elsewhere in history, and as was the case with Afrikaans in South Africa, a class or political project to develop a language to one deemed worthy of use in higher education preceded that language’s “ascension”. This should tell us that no language has an inherent dominance or complexity that makes it preferable to the others as a medium of instruction for topics in higher education, business, science or technology. That this is not happening, at least not at the pace it should, tells us more about the unyielding and closed manner of those who’ve captured power than it does about anything else.

And perhaps some cultural diversity will sneak in as the university expands its language base. But the real difficult work of cultural diversity comes with the institution retraining its officials, professors and support staff to see the value in other cultural norms and practices. Currently, owing to the racially exclusionary way the university’s culture developed, only Eurocentric cultural norms and practices have social value. Diversity here involves much more than changing dress codes at events to read “black tie or traditional” and hosting Africa Day celebrations; it requires actively investing in learning indigenous norms and practices, identifying their value and disseminating them throughout the institution and society.

So although the debate about admission policy is important, it should not be conflated with plans and actions to increase the university’s diversity.


The peril of bowing to the race-blind god

Many intelligent people have worked on the revised admissions policy for a long time. They reviewed submissions and consulted widely, and conducted research. So I have tried to be thoughtful in my critique and circumspect about believing I see things they have not already considered. Perhaps when more information is published, the time I’ve spent writing this will prove to have been for naught. I hope so. Because if the top-ranked research university on the continent is unable to navigate the complexities of the effects of racial ideology and capitalist oppression, what hope do the rest of us have?

This policy will probably be the model followed by other universities. Wits is already considering making similar revisions to its admission policy to medical school. So there is more at stake than what one university is doing.

In addition, the concepts behind the policy foreshadow future approaches to quotas in sport and affirmative action in the workplace. So critiques should consider their potential effect throughout all of society, where the same wrongheaded ideas about race pervade and tensions exist between political pressure for expedient racial transformation and the lobbyists for race blindness.

What we need to keep clear in our minds throughout all of this is that these interventions are reparative; they step in after the oppression has taken place. Thus when we describe people as oppressed, or “disadvantaged”, if you prefer euphemism, then we are saying that they are being oppressed (or “disadvantaged”) in our midst, in the here and now. These interventions might compensate the few who meet the requirements, but many still fall through the cracks as the interventions do not change the structure that, into perpetuity, will hold people back from realising their potential.

Apartheid was useful in a way because the moral objectionability of its racist ideology gave us the tools to attack the oppressive structure, which shrouded itself in a cloak of normalcy. By arbitrarily selecting black people as those who should be oppressed, apartheid rendered the structure visible to those who care to see it. This is why throughout the struggle, and even now, black consciousness advocates spoke of total liberation from oppression.

The race-blind lobby is dangerous because it wants to take this acuity away from us. We must resist its cause.


Pic Credit: University of Cape Town Upper Campus by Adrian Frith

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