South African Election: Little Oxford in Africa muses on new identity: Affirmative action is ruffling academic feathers, Richard Dowden writes from Johannesburg

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The Independent Online
THERE is a slight frisson when a visitor asks for William Magkoba or Makaziwe Mandela at the University of the Witwatersrand. Not that anyone in the country's largest English-speaking university, nearly 100 years old, academically excellent and avowedly liberal, would actually say anything. But there is fear of the new Deputy Vice-Chancellor and the Special Projects Development Officer. They are the university's first two black senior staff members, recently appointed, and they trail after them the dreaded double- A word: Affirmative Action.

It would be difficult for anyone to suggest that Dr Makgoba got his job only because he is black. At 41 he is MB, ChB, DPhil (Oxon), FRCP, currently head of Molecular Endocrinology at London University's Royal Post-Graduate Medical School and Deputy Director of Chemical Pathology at Queen Charlotte's and Hammersmith Special Health Authority in west London. He also holds the Chair in the school of Pathology at Witwatersrand University. Until he was 14 he was a shepherd boy, one of nine children of a schoolteacher in the Northern Transvaal.

In 1976 he was South Africa's top medical student but he left the country in 1979 because there were few openings for ambitious blacks, and Oxford offered him a Nuffield Fellowship. Since then he has been offered various posts in South African universities.

'I would not have come back until things had changed' he said. 'It was like kicking against stone.' His manner is quiet but warm and very confident. 'Black people ask if I think I am just a token but I don't think I will operate in that fashion. I am quite independent and have strong views about what I am going to do,' he says.

Ms Mandela is also an academic: she completed her Masters at the University of Massachusetts and worked recently at the African Academy of Sciences at Nairobi. She is Nelson Mandela's daughter from his first marriage and says the name has sometimes helped and sometimes hindered her. There was a deep rift between father and daughter when he came out of jail and she admits to a lot of bitterness over her parents' divorce, when she was four years old. She says that now they get on as 'well as can be expected' but she will not be voting for her father in the election.

She is voting for the Democratic Party. Her manner is tough, perhaps a little abrasive. 'I am not such a diplomatic person,' she says. 'I'm very straight and say what I think'.

The task facing these two is daunting. Although Witwatersrand University, in Johannesburg, has made impeccable statements about its openness to all races, it has done little to implement them. At present the top administrators of the university are all white and male. About 50 out of 1,200 academic teaching staff are black and about 6,000 of the 19,500 students are not white - in a country where the national black-white ratio is about five to one.

'There is a big fear here and to an extent their fears are justified in the sense that they did not expect in their lifetime that we would be where we are today,' says Dr Makgoba. 'We are not going to destroy the university but we want the same access and we want to emphasise slightly different things. We don't want to kick anyone out; we want to help everyone feel involved.'

Ms Mandela says: 'There is a lot of anger and pain among black people and a sense of alienation in this white institution. And there are fears on the part of whites who think affirmative action means they are going to lose their jobs.'

The debate centres on the conflict between affirmative action and academic standards. Until recently the government spent five times as much on educating a white child as a black child. 'There is no doubt a need for affirmative action in South Africa but I can't argue against the academic-standards argument,' says Ms Mandela. 'Affirmative action is a numbers game but that isn't where the debate should end . . . we have to create a balance. We want to maintain the quality but we have to recognise that other people have been left out.'

Ms Mandela has already visited all departments and drawn up a profile in terms of sex and race but she denies that she aims to force the departments to achieve a racial balance reflective of the national average. University education in South Africa is not publicly funded, and students have to find sponsors or borrow money for accommodation and books. Most black students get 95 per cent financial aid, but some of them have difficulty finding the remaining 5 per cent.

Dr Magkoba says: 'My role is to give a vision for academic matters in the new South Africa. It's my fundamental belief that the university has to have an African cultural component. It is not a question of language; it's about a way of doing things. Africans did not arrive here yesterday; they have got cultural traditions. We have got to draw up syllabuses and curricula which reflect that and are relevant to our country, not relevant to Europe.'

'In terms of the vision of the university we must ask: Do we want a little Oxford in Africa or something relevant to the people here?' he says. 'It's a question of culture. In the new South Africa it is not so much who is going to rule as which culture is going to dominate.'

(Photograph omitted)