Universities in South Africa are wrestling with an issue familiar to many Americans: affirmative action.
South Africa is still coping with the aftermath of apartheid and a lingering educational gap between black and white. Now, a series of public debates about college admissions has reopened a national dialogue on race.
During apartheid, the University of Cape Town, which sits on the lower slopes of Devil's Peak, was an all-white university. But now, there are black, white, Asian and mixed-race faces in nearly equal numbers — it's the kind of diversity usually reserved for promotional materials.
But the way in which the university has achieved this diversity is somewhat controversial. To be admitted, white students must score the equivalent of straight As. Meanwhile, black and mixed-race students can get in with plenty of Bs. The University of Cape Town doesn't make this policy a secret — admission cutoffs are listed by race in the prospectus.
The vice chancellor, Max Price, says the policy reflects the fact that black students in South Africa are still highly disadvantaged.
"Even 15 years after the end of apartheid, it's still the case that 80 percent of black students go to very poor township schools or rural schools," he says. "Their teachers are poorly qualified, the schools are poorly equipped, and the result is that on the national exams, they perform poorly."
The government has gone to great lengths to improve an educational system that once taught black students how to wash dishes rather than learn math and science. And though some improvements have been made, the gap between black and white is still immense.
Price says that without race-based admission goals, schools would be nearly as white as they were during apartheid, despite the fact that whites make up less than 10 percent of the population. He says that would be unacceptable.
"People would think there was something wrong," he says. "It would produce social unrest; it would produce a sense that the country hasn't changed."
Bringing Positive Change
Across town, engineer Michael Tladi reviews blueprints for a new government hospital. Tladi is black and grew up on the streets of Pretoria, bouncing between children's homes after his mother abandoned him. He went to an underfunded township school and earned good — but not great — marks. His teachers saw his potential, and encouraged him to apply to the country's top schools.
He was elated when he received an acceptance letter from UCT.
" 'You have been chosen to come and study at UCT' — I didn't even read further. I just ... I was so excited," Tladi recalls.
But like many disadvantaged students, he was overwhelmed when he arrived.
"I was not prepared financially, I was not prepared academically and I was not prepared for the new environment," he said.
He struggled and almost dropped out, but he eventually completed a degree in engineering and got a job with the provincial government. He also volunteers at a children's home and says he hopes his story can inspire underprivileged kids.
"I just hope that my success out of UCT can bring a positive change," he says. "Because they know that I was in the same place, same lifestyle — they can see that they also can do it."
Creating A Sense Of Entitlement?
Back on campus, Cynthia Ngebe sits with friends in the cafeteria. She says affirmative action is a necessary evil.
"It's giving people an opportunity," she says. "Like, in some families now, they're going to have engineers for the very first time, you know?"
But others, like Amanda Ngwenya, disagree. She worries that the policy is creating a sense of entitlement among her black peers.
"It means they think that, 'Because I'm black, I deserve special privileges. Because I'm black, I need to be treated differently,' even though they are just as capable," Ngwenya says.
It's a sticky debate, complicated by the legacy of apartheid. But as South Africa's past grows more distant, the question becomes: When, if ever, should race not matter? Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.