Dons dig in to defend 'racist' standards

A liberal professor kills himself in despair. Violence is rife. South Africa's campuses are in upheaval again, reports Mary Braid in Johannesbu rg

In The violent unrest that has swept through South Africa's universities there is no shortage of ugly racism. In campus confrontations white students drape themselves in the old South African flag while the enemy - their black classmates - goad them back by chanting "one settler, one bullet" in chorus.

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Neil Young performs on stage at Hyde Park
musicAnd his Hyde Park set has rhyme and reason, writes Nick Hasted
News
Women have been desperate to possess dimples like Cheryl Cole's
people Cole has secretly married French boyfriend Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini after just three months.
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Extras
indybestThe tastiest creations for children’s parties this summer
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Paolo Nutini performs at T in the Park
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Campaign Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency is currently ...

Software Engineer - C++

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Software En...

Software Team Leader - C++

£40000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Software Tea...

Sales Executive - Central London /Home working - £20K-£40K

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Sales Executive - Ce...

Day In a Page

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor