Rioting, looting and violence have become common on campuses from Johannesburg to Cape Town. As the black majority clamours for education long-denied, lectures have given way to sit-ins, demonstrations and the occasional invasion by police firing plastic bullets.
It was against this violent upheaval that Professor Etienne Mureinik, 42, dean of the faculty of law at the prestigious Witwatersrand (Wits) University, booked into a Johannesburg hotel this month, took the lift to a room on the 23rd floor, removed his brown slip-on shoes and jumped out of the window.
It was a tragic conclusion to the life of one of the country's most precocious academic talents: and it has shaken the white liberal establishment to its roots. Whatever personal demons contributed to Mureinik's apparent suicide, his death has become a symbol of the growing dislocation and depression of the white liberal elite, who expected to play a full part in the new South Africa but find themselves marginalised and under fire.
For this is a country where the once-cherished leaders of the white liberal classes are routinely denounced as racists, and accused of conspiring to subvert the "transformation" of higher education: even Mureinik, human rights champion, opponent of apartheid and drafter of the new Bill of Rights - a man of impeccable liberal credentials.
Mureinik the liberal became Mureinik the racist at the end of last year when he and 12 colleagues - the "Wits 13" - questioned the qualifications of Professor William Makgoba when he was appointed the university's first black deputy vice-chancellor. A six-month battle ensued in which Mureinik was particularly outspoken. He railed against "the present goal of putting any institution of importance under African control".
Makgoba eventually gave up the post, admitting some of the claims in his CV were "open to misinterpretation". Despite his willingness to lead from the front, friends say the episode hurt Mureinik and the slurs stuck on a campus as ridden with racial tension as any other.
Professor Carole Lewis, one of the Wits 13, says "the liberal and social democratic values we treasured and fought to get into the constitution are not cherished by people currently in government and by small groups of students and staff. Everything these days is dismissed as Western, Eurocentric and as having no place in Africa. It is just reverse racism. When people talk of Africanisation all they mean is making staff and students almost entirely black."
Since 1984 when Wits - andMureinik - started defying the law to admit black students, black student registration has risen from 14 to 44 per cent. But that is too little progress for some.
"They want this place changed into a black university overnight," said Lewis. "That is understandable but impossible if you want to keep a university with an international standing."
The legacy of inferior Bantu education, received by blacks under apartheid, means there is a dearth of well-educated black students and academics. To even point that out is now considered racist.
"It is also racist to say that you think a vice-chancellor should be chosen by academic staff and not the gardeners or cleaners," says Lewis. "It was particularly difficult for Professor Mureinik because he had the moral courage to say that an academic institution should be run by academics.
"Few speak out now. There is a feeling in this country that if you are white you must be a racist."
Her frustrations and sense of alienation are shared by Professor Charles Van Onselen, another of the Wits 13. Campuses, he argues, have become battle grounds not just for the educationally starved but also for the power hungry. At the University of Durban, Westville, closed after weeks of rioting, he says Trotskyists and "Africanisers" are struggling to wrest control.
While he sympathises with black expectations he claims universities are struggling under the weight of unrealistic demands. Funds are being diverted from research as universities metamorphose into institutions of social control. "Cohorts of apartheid-scarred African youths park themselves in the tertiary education institutions of a society that lacks the dole as a means of protecting its most economically vulnerable citizens ... education and welfare are becoming hopelessly blurred."
In the commotion the ANC-led government is playing a double game. In some ways it is to blame, as during the 1980s it encouraged students to make campuses the focus of the struggle. Last month President Nelson Mandela told students crime would not be tolerated. They must learn to present their grievances democratically. But he also said he shared their disappointment at the rate of change.
Tomorrow vice-chancellors, students and unions are being brought together by the government for a national forum on the crisis. To broker a deal between the white academic establishment and its challengers will not be easy. The first national forum in February was a disaster.
Prishani Naidoo, vice-president of the Union of Student Representative Councils, says the main demand is more money to allow poor students to study. Without that there will be notransformation. Black students are registering in greater numbers but are often too hard up to finish degrees.
"At historically white and Afrikaner institutions black students are most affected by poor funding so they campaign. But whites, who are not affected, and think they should just be able to get on with it, want business as usual," she said.
And, she insisted, the pace of change was too slow. "Even where transformation panels are operating, white administrators want to control things so they can maintain their position of privilege." She dismissed academic claims that the pressure would lead to falling standards. "Whose standards? We want the universities to deliver the kind of education that benefits the majority of South Africans. Standards and progress should be measured against that. That is more important than whether a professor from Wits can present the best paper at a conference in Oxford."
She has no sympathy for the liberal elite. "If they had the commitment to South Africa that they say they have, they would take a back seat and allow others to get on with it. They just don't want to lose control."
That is a view shared by at least one white. Ken Owen, one of South Africa's most respected commentators, recently scandalised readers of the South African Sunday Times by suggesting it was time for whites to "butt out".
"Nothing is harder than coming down in the world," he pronounced. "But white South Africans can spare themselves much heartache if they face up to the fact that their loss of status and power is permanent." He argued that Africans - like Afrikaners at the end of British colonial rule - are currently driven by a racially self-conscious sense of deprivation. Redress was more pressing than standards. Referring to the Wits row, he said that even university liberals must realise that "the future, including its institutions and standards, will be shaped by the representatives of the majority; the rest of us sit in".
Whites might aid black leaders to address a woeful past but they should wait to be asked. "It behoves those who have come down in the world to cultivate a decent humility," he concluded.