A Visit to the University of the Western Cape
On Tuesday, January 12 Dr. Layne and I had the opportunity for a meeting at the University of the Western Cape with Brian O’Connell, rector and vice-chancellor, and Jan Persens, director of international relations. O’Connell, an energetic, passionate man, gave an overview of challenges facing South Africa, the African continent, and the University of the Western Cape. I wish that each member of our class could have been present for this illuminating 75-minute meeting, so I will use the blog posting to review some of the highlights.
The University of Sheffield Graphics
Rector O’Connell gave a contextual orientation to the university with a series of graphics produced by the University of Sheffield, showing actual world land masses and how these masses morph if one bases the sizes of countries and continents on various criteria, such as the number of patents awarded, the percentage of the population with university degrees, the percentage of the population with AIDS or malaria, etc. For example, Africa’s land mass expands hugely when “AIDS” is the defining criterion, but shrinks to a small sliver when the criterion is “patents awarded.” This is a clever tool to show the distribution of both world resources and problems.
And Your Parting Gift Is…
The UWC was a leading institution working against apartheid under the leadership of Desmond Tutu as its chancellor. According to O’Connell, in the waning days of apartheid, the ruling regime made one last desperate attempt to show that higher education for blacks and multi-racial people could be separate and still excellent. The regime poured tens of millions of dollars into new construction at UWC, resulting in the modern campus enjoyed today. A principled but pragmatic rector at the time saw the wisdom of accepting the new facilities while still, of course, working to end apartheid. Soon after construction was completed, apartheid finally ended.
On the use of the term “Colored”
Near the beginning of the meeting, O’Connell used the word “abomination” to describe the use of the term “colored” to describe a large segment of South African society. Clearly this is an offensive expression in U.S. and much of Western society, but we have heard use of the term defended as perfectly acceptable by Calvin Johannes and others. On the way to the airport yesterday, I asked Gabby, Calvin’s daughter, to explain this difference in viewpoint to me. Gabby’s view was that the spectrum of people described as colored is, of course, quite vast, including people of blended Khoi-Khoi, Indian, East Asian, European, etc., descent, and that, in her personal experience in Cape Town, the term colored is used with pride among regular folks. As a student in England, however, she scrupulously avoided its use and suggested that in Jo-burg use of the term might be taken differently from the way it is in Cape Town. Clearly “colored” is unacceptable in an academic setting. So, as always, language is powerful, context matters, and we should take care to be sensitive.
On Challenges Facing the University of the Western Cape
Students matriculating at UWC today have received their complete primary and second educations in a post-Apartheid system. According to Rector O’Connell, a great number of students are woefully underprepared for university-level studies. A comprehensive examination was given recently to admitted students at 10 South African universities, including UWC, and the results were quite dismal. O’Connell traces the problem to a weakening of academic standards 14 years ago, a lack of qualified teachers, the relatively low status and pay of educators in South African society, powerful and inflexible teachers’ unions, and poorly funded schools.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Rector O’Connell offers that the solution is for the political leadership of the nation, especially the President, to galvanize the peoples’ attention on improving public education as the single most important factor to ensure South Africa’s success as a democracy and to develop its economy.
Clearly the philosophy of the University of the Western Cape is to encourage each student to persevere, overcome obstacles, graduate, and, for the best students, to pursue graduate education internationally. This may mean that students need to repeat courses and may take longer to achieve their degrees, given deficiencies in their pre-university studies.
UWC has been a major force in creating the new South Africa and will continue to produce some of the nation’s most productive citizens. The question for Elon to consider next is what benefits could come from a partnership with UWC for both institutions. We have extended an invitation for Professor Persens to visit Elon on his next trip to the U.S., where UWC has enjoyed a relationship with the University of Missouri for many years.