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Higher Education and Social Transformation in South Africa Since the Fall of Apartheid

Enseignement supérieur et transformation sociale en Afrique du Sud depuis la chute de l’apartheid
Thiven Reddy
p. 121-145


L’article situe les développements post-apartheid de l’enseignement supérieur dans un contexte particulier de transition par “transplacement” (un compromis entre l’ancienne classe dirigeante et un mouvement nationaliste modéré). Il suggère que la politique macro économique néolibérale d’après 1994 a eu pour effet de limiter la capacité de l’État à transformer la société civile selon sa propre vision. La troisième section discute des politiques clés concernant la transformation de l’enseignement supérieur. L’auteur estime que la politique universitaire post-1994 est immanquablement sujette à interprétations contradictoires. La dernière section discute de l’impact de l’enseignement supérieur sur les sphères politique, sociale, économique et culturelle de la société post-apartheid. L’auteur conclut que l’enseignement supérieur a contribué à l’émergence d’une classe moyenne noire et, ce faisant, à la consolidation des acquis démocratiques, mais que les politiques suivies par l’État et les pratiques universitaires ont aussi exclu la majorité des étudiants pauvres, révélant par là même l’émergence des nouvelles dynamiques de classes de l’Afrique du sud post-apartheid.

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1In post-apartheid South Africa much has been achieved by the democratic government on the legislative policy front to transform higher education institutions to make them more socially responsive and critically engaged in deepening and broadening South Africa’s democracy. However, the interpretation of these policies has attracted intense debate and implementing them has proven to be a slow, arduous and ambiguous process; impressive gains sit alongside old patterns reproducing themselves both within the higher education sector and in the relations between this sector and society.

2This paper offers three arguments. First, that the type of transition experienced by South Africa is a transition by transplacement – the evolution of a conservative macro-economic policy and the politics within universities frame the parameters within which we can understand the ongoing conflicts about transformation of higher education in the postapartheid period. Second, that higher education policies produced by the state to transform the sector are open to two contradictory discourses. Third, that higher education’s impact on societal transformation has contributed to the creation of a new black middle class and has thus consequently enhanced the consolidation of the post-apartheid democratic gains, but has helped reproduce and maintain the class divisions inherited from apartheid.

3The paper is organised as follows: the first section locates postapartheid developments in higher education in relation to the nature of the transition (one of compromise between the old ruling elite and moderate nationalists of the liberation movement). The second section discusses the neo-liberal macro-economic context adopted post-1994 and its effect of limiting the state’s capacity to transform civil society in terms of its own vision. The third section discusses the key policies concerning higher education transformation. It suggests that the post-1994 policy towards higher education is inevitably open to opposing readings. The state demands that universities contribute towards economic and socio-political transformation, yet the nature of the transition from apartheid to a democratic regime, its macro-economic state policies and the conception towards globalisation by state elites have led to two contradictory tendencies. In the first, universities are expected to perform as viable ‘corporate enterprises’, producing graduates to help steer South Africa into a competitive global economy. In the second, universities are expected to serve the public good and produce critical citizens for a vibrant democratic society. These two tendencies need not be inherently contradictory, yet in a country with deep class, race and gender divisions they do contain the possibility of pulling in opposite directions. The final section analyses the relations between higher education and its empirical impact on the economic, political, social and cultural spheres of post-apartheid society. It concludes that higher education has contributed towards the creation of the emerging black middle class (and in doing so assists in consolidating the democratic gains), but also that state policies and university practice exclude the majority of poor students, displaying the emerging class dynamics of post-apartheid South African society as well as the re-emergence of white liberal discourses dominating public debate on state-civil society relations.

Understanding the South African Democratic Transition: Transplacement

4The reform of South African higher education institutions post-1994 and the capacities to implement them is best related to the nature of the democratic transition, the relationship between the state and civil society under particular macro-economic policies, and processes internal to universities and the higher education sector itself (Badat 1998; Reddy 2004).

5The transition of the regime from an apartheid authoritarian one to a democratic political system did not amount to a fully-fledged social revolution, where the latter in Skocpol’s sense means the fundamental change of both the state and class structures brought about by large-scale uprising from below (Skocpol 1979). The change of regime was substantive but limited largely to the political realm, amounting to a change in status of blacks from that of discriminated subjects under apartheid into voting citizens.

6The path describing the transition is of paramount importance to understanding the capacity of the new democratic state (O’ Donnell, Schmitter et al. 1986; Ethier 1990; Linz 1990; Huntington 1991; Karl and Schmitter 1991). South Africa’s democratic transition can be located in the so-called ‘third wave’ of democratisation (Huntington 1991). From the mid-1970s onwards many societies changed regime types, from authoritarian regimes to democratic ones. Transition theorists classify three types of democratic transition: 1) Transformation: when those in power take the lead and play the decisive role in ending the authoritarian regime; 2) Replacement: when those in the Opposition are stronger than the regime forces and the Opposition determines the collapse of the old regime; and 3) Transplacement: when both regime elites and Opposition elites together determine the collapse of the old regime. Each type of transition is likely to produce a certain configuration of the democratic regime and in turn has important implications for its vision and institutional capacity to change civil society (O’ Donnell, Schmitter et al. 1986; Diamond, Linz et al. 1990; Linz 1990; Huntington 1991).

7In the extensive literature on democratic transitions and consolidation, South Africa serves as the classic case study of pacted-transplacement (Friedman and Atkinson 1994; Lijphart 1998; Southall 2000). Besides the global factors applicable to all third wave transitions, factors specific to South Africa produced the crisis of social control that forced the National Party elites to negotiate in the 1990’s with the representatives of the liberation movement. Saul and Gelb (1986) focus on the importance of what they refer to as the ‘organic crisis’ of racial capitalism, highlighting the structural contradictions of the country’s racial capitalist system. The causes of this crisis, and the factors forcing it into negotiations with the liberation organisations, include the changing labour requirements of an ascendant manufacturing capital and the political policies designed to produce unskilled black labour, the limitations of the domestic consumer market, the dependence on outside capital, the emphasis on capital goods in production, and finally, the contradictions of Bantu Education and influx control for unfettered capitalist growth, particularly the constant complaint of a skills shortage (Price 1990). Besides these ‘economic’ imperatives, and more importantly, apartheid also suffered a crisis of rule. The regime reached a point in the 1970’s when it was unable to establish and maintain social control, or make compliance of everyday rules commonsense for black citizens possible on the terms of the state (Reddy 2000). This was both a cause and a consequence of the student struggles on the campuses in the early 1970s.

8The overthrow of colonial rule in the neighbouring states of Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe also had a profound symbolic effect on struggles in South Africa. Remarkably, black nationalist ‘Marxist-oriented’ governments assumed power in these countries, changing the regional political map significantly, which allowed the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) to operate closer to the South African border, receiving financial, ideological and military support from these governments (Lodge 1983). The South African military regularly invaded these countries, bombing homes and assassinating suspected ANC and PAC activists, and destroying the infrastructure. In Angola and Mozambique, the apartheid regime participated in a conventional war by supporting proxy military forces to overturn events in those countries. Although these governments were not toppled, the years of destabilisation had a marked effect on their socio-economic development. This protracted conflict between South Africa and its neighbours prevented it from easily extending its consumer market into the Southern African region. The integration of South Africa’s post-WW2 economy in the global capitalist system made the successful campaigns demanding sanctions, disinvestments, and cultural and sports boycotts all the more effective in mounting additional international pressure for regime change.

9The state crisis of social control produced divisions within the ruling elite between reform-minded (‘Verligte’) and conservative groups wanting to preserve old style apartheid (‘Verkrampte’). During this crisis the community organisations and state structures increasingly entered into negotiations to resolve local conflict situations (Murray 1987). The Botha government opened informal talks with Nelson Mandela and a growing dialogue between regime elites, the Opposition and international observers became a regular news item, developing inevitably a new ‘democratic discourse’. This discourse sat uneasily with the government and the ANC keeping alive ‘traditional’, pre-apartheid conflict rhetoric, and viewing the transition in ‘zero-sum’ terms. The release of Mandela and other long-term political prisoners in 1990 set the tone for an intense period of high-level negotiations for a new democratic constitution, where each side attempted to protect what it saw as its fundamental interests (Sparks 1994).

10The discussions first focussed on removing obstacles to negotiations; then on the structure of the negotiating forums; and, lastly, on the content of the post-apartheid political system and the basic rules of the democratic state. The negotiations proceeded along in stages: first the ‘talks about talks’ stage, where the two sides met informally to establish ‘equal playing fields’; then the formal negotiations identified with the negotiating forums, the Congress of a Democratic South Africa meetings (CODESA 1 and 2) and, lastly, the series of agreements outside CODESA focusing on specific issues, such as the violence between political organisations and state forces (Friedman and Atkinson 1994).

11Joe Slovo proposed a ‘sunset clause’, which guaranteed the jobs of the civil service (mainly government supporting whites) after a change of regime. Both sides agreed to an interim ‘power-sharing’ government of five years, with an elected constituent assembly to decide on the final constitution based on 34 agreed principles. The strategy out-manoeuvred the ‘spoilers’ whose first preferences were sidelined; the ‘moderates’ in both camps dominated the proceedings. At the multiparty talks, the last stage of negotiations, the government and the ANC formally agreed to a coalition government of all parties obtaining 5% of the vote, a party-list proportional representative electoral system, two houses of parliament, a constitutional court, and an independent judiciary. This essentially amounted to a compromise, protecting the existing property relations yet incorporating the majority of South Africans into the political system (Marais 1998).

12It is against this macro-political background (of transition by transplacement) that policy debates about higher education restructuring and reform have to be analysed. Additionally, as a result of global pressures specific to the 1990s, the macro-economic choices made by the new government delineated the parameters within which government ‘outputs’ (state policies) were to be framed and implemented. It is this macro-economic context that we will now briefly discuss.

The Macro-Economic Debate: Framing Public Policy Output

13Since the 1960s the ANC espoused a left, welfare-oriented socialist ideology (Lodge 1983). In the first democratic elections the ANC proposed the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) (1994) as the core plank of its election manifesto. This was the ANC’s outline of how it aimed to overturn hundreds of years of state and civil society racism. From 1996 onwards the government adopted a market-led neoliberal macro-economic framework called the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy. More recently, since 2005, after some drastic austerity measures that saw reduced spending on social programmes (contrary to the expectations of affected social constituencies) and the resurgence of competitive growth rates, the government has increasingly spoken about its role as that of a ‘development state’ – a framework that retains the emphasis on market led development but assigns to the state the role of key regulator and stimulator of growth through infrastructural expenditure and addressing more systematically the ‘skills shortage’ (Southall 2006). The aim is to attain a 6% growth target by 2010 and halve poverty and unemployment by 2014 through its most recent policy framework – the Accelerated Shared Growth Initiative (Asgisa 2006).

14The RDP document was the product of many years of debate within ANC circles and outlined more than narrowly defined economic policy, indicating how the ANC envisaged transforming post-apartheid society generally (Marais 1998; Lundahl 1999). The five broad goals and related principles suggest this: to meet basic needs, develop human resources, build the economy, democratise the state and society, and implement RDP projects. The principles to guide the attainment of these goals included integration and sustainability; a people-driven process; peace and security for all; nation building; linking reconstruction and development; and democratization.

15Initially, the ANC’s Department of Economic Policy (DEP), strongly under the influence of Cosatu thinking on the subject, produced a blueprint for extensive state intervention, or what can be called ‘growth through redistribution’ (Marais 1998: 125). The ideas were Keynesian, where the state enacts policies to redistribute wealth; this spurs growth, and the rewards of this growth will meet the basic needs of poor people for houses, health, education and a better quality of life. It advocated an active role for the state in planning industrial strategy and to respond to the legacies of apartheid.

16The ANC document caused fear among South African business circles, who accused it for being too socialist. In response, business published a series of counter-proposals demanding an investor friendlyclimate involving slashing budget deficits, aspiring towards low inflation, increasing exports, and liberalising the currency. In keeping with global trends they advocated a drastically reduced role for the state. The emphasis was on the market rather than the state, towards privatising state assets, pleasing investors by reducing the strength of trade unions and reconfiguring the educational system to prepare young people for skills needed in the labour market (Marais 1998).

17The ANC government, largely without consultation within its organisation and with political allies, changed macroeconomic policy to encourage direct foreign investment and the export of South African goods. The Growth, Employment and Redistribution policy (GEAR) was announced. It outlined liberalising reforms to the South African economy and abandoned state and regulatory protection by opening up the South African economy to global markets, hoping that in the long term the economy would become globally competitive in selected niche sectors. It reduced or dropped tariffs protecting South African goods and allowed easier movement of goods and currency into and out of South Africa. It fixed (and reduced) government expenditure by setting the government budgetary deficit (normally over 5% of GDP) to within 3% of GDP. To reduce inflation, the GEAR framework seemingly encouraged (or rather did not discourage) the Reserve Bank to keep interest rates high, thereby lowering higher consumer demand, price increases, and making the economy attractive to foreign investment and those who have savings (Lundahl 1999). The wide-reaching, almost surprising, changes announced by the GEAR policy produced outcomes that are ambiguously inconclusive. The economy has grown, but not substantially enough to reduce the high unemployment or make a substantial dent to the backlogs inherited from apartheid.

18The more open market has left the most vulnerable, the poor and unskilled working class, without the technical skills that the intensely disputed ‘new’ economy values: skills supposedly easily transferable from one job to the next, given that the economy expects people to move regularly between jobs. In the booming sectors of the economy – tourism, construction and retail/wholesale – the government and private business has decided to attract skilled labour from foreign countries. GEAR desires that the South African labour market become more ‘flexible’, easily dismissed and re-hired. The result is increased labour productivity, a growing economy and the majority of black citizens not better off than previously, because of what is labelled ‘jobless growth’. In 2005 the unemployment rate was close to 5% or about 4.49 million of the employable population, the highest among 61 countries tracked by Bloomberg; this despite the country experiencing its longest boom period ever with an average growth rate of 3.5% since the late 1990s and with predictions of 4-5% growth for 2006 (Wessels 2006). Working within tighter budgetary constraints under GEAR, the government has not spent as much on social services as was anticipated from a ‘post-apartheid dividend’. The result is the creation of a two-tier service system in health, education and social security: one private one public. The private service sector provides relatively high quality products and services for those who can afford them; the public sector serves those without the choice and who remain dependent on the less-resourced state sector. Consequently, the racial and class inequalities of the past remain. More worrying is that the policy, its emphasis on the market as the valued distributor of goods and services, has left the historically privileged classes, the majority of whites and a rising black middle class, as the main beneficiaries. These societal divisions have played themselves out in the higher education sector, despite ambiguous efforts contained in government policy on higher education to address past apartheid legacies.

Higher Education (HE) After Apartheid: The Policy Front

19Higher education policy is conceived as part of a larger government vision called the National Qualifications Framework. This is an idea to establish a certification framework, regulated by the state, by organising, arranging, and recognising educational qualifications from pre-primary to tertiary level into a single system of certification (1996/97). This objective can be traced to the extensive report of the National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE) (1996) setting out proposals to reform the higher education sector. The NCHE report was published in 1996. Its major recommendations informed the Green Paper on Higher Education (1996), the Draft White Paper on Higher Education (April 1997), and eventually the White Paper on Higher Education (1997) and the National Plan (2001).

20The NCHE document not only influenced the legislation regulating higher education but, as a detailed and extensive study of higher education, it serves as a useful introduction to the key issues, ideas and debates surrounding higher education in the democratic period, to ascertain in some modest sense higher educational discourse, even though in recent years many of the proposals such as ‘massification’ have been steadily eroded and all but abandoned by the government. The NCHE was established with the broad mandate to advise the Minister of Education on restructuring higher education to contribute towards reconstruction and development in 1995. The Commission assumed ‘that higher education can play a pivotal role in the political, economic and cultural reconstruction and development of South Africa’ (1996: 1). The goals of higher education were considered to complement each other even though they could prove to be contradictory. These were to: train a skilled labour force; develop a research infrastructure; contribute to community development; and contribute towards the ‘building of a new citizenry’ (DOE 1996: 24). It chose the following values to guide policy formulation: the equitable distribution of resources and opportunities in higher education; the need to redress historical inequities; the requirement that the system and individual institutions operate on decision-making procedures that reflect democratic, representative and participatory governance; the importance of balancing the development of ‘material and human resources’; and finally, to take seriously the quality in higher education services and products, such that these are globally competitive (DOE 1996: 4).

21The key problems facing the post-apartheid higher education sector and the areas requiring change were organised into three categories – participation, responsiveness and governance – now standard notions in higher education discourse. Participation deals with the problem of increasing access to higher education and changing it from an elitist to a ‘mass’ system,’ a process referred to as ‘massification’. The opening of access to more poor and black students into universities and technikons, the commission argued, requires diverse programmes; curricula and qualifications; ‘multiple entry and exit points’; changes in institutional functions and structures; and more funding. A single system will address inherited inequalities, inefficiencies, and be able to plan and ‘manage’ increased access.

22The idea of responsiveness refers to the need of higher education institutions to engage with problems in the broader society. This engagement should be reflected in course content, pedagogy, and programmes. Lastly, the Commission called for partnerships – co-operative governance – to define relations between the state, higher education institutions and various ‘stakeholders.’ The state’s role is defined as a ‘steering and co-ordinating role’. Institutional autonomy is to be exercised within the limits of accountability. The state will use financial incentives and other steering mechanisms as opposed to ‘commanding measures of control and top-down prescriptions’. From these it derived specific proposals, expanding further its ideas in the three areas of a ‘single, co-ordinated higher education system, co-operative governance and goal-oriented funding’.

23The NCHE was a massive endeavour. Moja and Hayward (2000) recognise its contribution as having initiated a discussion on higher education by providing a common starting point, establishing an admirable example of transparency, consultation and democratic participation. Despite the ideologically varied composition of the commission, the final report tilted towards the progressive approach by demanding greater access for poor, black students to universities and technikons without seriously undermining the narrow conservative conception, reducing higher education to the role of responding to the needs and demands of the economy. The final report was criticized for not identifying ‘a coherent philosophy of education’ such as the Africanisation of higher education, for marginalizing and silencing the views of some stakeholders, for not developing any proposals on curriculum development and language policy, and for not going far enough to redress past racial imbalances.

24In December 1996, a Green Paper on Higher Education endorsed most of the recommendations of the NCHE report, only differing on the issue of governance. Instead of the two statutory bodies (the Higher Education Forum and Higher Education Council), the Green Paper proposed a single body called the Council on Higher Education (CHE) to regulate and produce expert knowledge about higher education, to advise the Minister of Education on all policy matters and to take responsibility for quality assurance of the sector. In July 1997 the Education White Paper 3 was released. Building on the language developed in the Green Paper, it acknowledges the several goals of higher education enunciated in the NCHE report. It mentions the following:

  1. Increase equity of access and ‘fair chance of success’ while at the same time ‘eradicating all forms of unfair discrimination and advancing redress for past inequalities’.

  2. Teaching, learning and research to meet ‘national development needs’ including employment skills training for industry.

  3. ‘Support a democratic ethos and a culture of human rights by educational programmes and practices conducive to critical discourse and creative thinking, cultural tolerance, and a common commitment to a humane, non-racist and non-sexist social order’.

  4. Support all forms of knowledge/scholarship and address problems/demands of ‘the local, national, southern African and African contexts, and uphold rigorous standards of academic quality’.

25The principles and goals reveal the competing discourses (globalisation, empowering the people, economic needs, democracy) that coexist in the text in an uncomfortable tension. Ironically just when the RDP was about to be replaced with GEAR, it suggested that higher education should “contribute to and support the process of societal transformation outlined in the RDP, with its compelling vision of people-driven development leading to the building of a better quality of life for all”. Yet also in keeping with the GEAR policy, which emphasised the demands of globalisation and a globally competitive market economy, it wanted higher education to meet the development needs of society and to provide a skilled workforce for a ‘knowledge-driven and knowledge-dependent society’. The text locates the transformation of higher education in the broader ‘political, social and economic transition’, which is constrained by globalisation. It expects higher education to provide the training, skills, innovations, and knowledge so that the South African economy can integrate and interact with the dominant global economy on a competitive footing. Higher education must be “internally restructured to face the challenge of globalisation, in particular, the breaking down of national and institutional boundaries which removes the spatial and geographic barriers to access” (DOE 1997: 5).

26Based on these different and perhaps opposing challenges, the White Paper reiterates the NCHE report and the Higher Education Green Paper, emphasising the importance of increased and broadened participation, responsiveness to societal interests and needs, and cooperative partnerships of governance. Yet the meanings of these terms were open to conflicting interpretations and at times practical implementation that remained contested at the level of higher education institutions themselves.

27In 2001 the Department of Education released an important document called the National Plan on Higher Education (DOE 2001), which outlines the practical steps that the state would take in changing the higher education sector in accordance with the aims set out in the White Paper. These included producing graduates with the skills to meet the economic needs of the country, to create ‘demographic realities’ of staff and student bodies that reflect the whole population, help produce a more diverse mix of course and programme offerings, promote research to meet the development goals of the country and to foster regional collaboration by ‘restructuring the institutional landscape’. The CHE also announced guidelines and created the Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC) to regulate the quality provisions set out in the legislation. Lastly a new formula to distribute public funds to higher education institutions, defined as a goaldirected funding system which linked public funds to institutions demonstrating movement towards the goals set out in the White Paper and National Plan, was adopted to enable the state to steer the changes required by the Act.

Higher Education and Social Transformation in South Africa

28A roadmap of contemporary policies, debates and practices in South African higher education ought to be referenced against the history of racialised oppression, the multitude of struggles to overcome it and the determined efforts to restructure higher education in democratic South Africa. The determined policy changes advocated by the new government in the post-1994 period are a matter of only a few years and any assessment of the ‘impact’ of higher education on social transformation is bound to be limited and tentative. The following section discusses internal dynamics within the higher education sector and the impact of higher education on the economic, political, social and cultural aspects of society, and argues that while the higher education sector has made important contributions to the consolidation of democracy by assisting largely in the creation of a new black middle class, it has however also (given the nature of the transition and the macro-economic choices of the political elite) helped reproduce the race/class exclusions, of the poor majority, that apartheid created and served as its foundation.

29To a large extent student intake, throughput and white staff domination of the higher education sector attracts the most attention in higher education literature and discussions. By contrast ‘institutional culture’ and the internal power dynamics within institutions, the relationship between the state and the higher education sector, and curriculum content receive less attention. Somewhat surprisingly for a country claiming to lead a continental African renaissance, curriculum content has received marginal attention among the issues dealing with ‘transformation’. This was not always the case. In 1998 some might recall the ‘Mamdani Debate’. In this instance, in curriculum debates concerning the undergraduate programme at the University of Cape Town, African academic Mahmood Mamdani argued for asserting African Studies more centrally into the Humanities programme, with a course that problematised the key themes in discourses about and on Africa. While this marked an interesting and perhaps exciting point in the transformation debate at UCT, Mamdani left the university in the face of strong white conservative criticism and the issues raised were quickly marginalised and not allowed to threaten the dominant Eurocentric institutional culture as the university settled into its old established patterns.

30The student, staff and research production at higher education institutions in 1994 reflected the skewed racial structure inherited from apartheid. The main challenge the democratic state faced was that the number of students entering or historically excluded from higher education, the fields of study, degrees, throughput rates, staff composition, research outputs and funding were all strongly correlated to race and gender factors. Ten years into democratic South Africa, the majority of black (African, Coloured and Indian), working class and poor students lag significantly behind white and black middle class groups in entering universities, emerging with a degree qualification if they manage to obtain financial aid, and challenging the elitist content of institutional culture.

31The NCHE report drew attention and provided a detailed analysis of skewed student enrolment trends. It asserted that with state funding amounting to 0.7% of GDP in 1995, South Africa was spending the same as the average budgeted for higher education in OECD countries. Yet the enrolment patterns in the mid 1990s resembled an ‘inverted pyramid’, contradicting the international pattern where universities have the lowest number of enrolments in higher education. In South Africa university enrolments exceed those in the other tertiary education sectors. It is likely that with the more recent growth of ‘private higher educational institutions’, this pattern may be reversed as more and more students choose to study in these institutions rather than the established public universities, as more choices become available to students.

32In keeping with its ‘massification’ commitment the NCHE expected student enrolment to increase from 17% of the population to 30% by 2005 based on the prediction that school-leavers would increase by 10% per year and university enrolments would increase by 4% per year thereafter. Despite increases in student numbers and other costs incurred by the sector as a whole, state funding has not increased where in 2005 it amounted to 0.68% of GDP. The funding has actually declined for higher education as a percentage of tertiary education and has generally hovered between 0.7 and 0.8% of GDP (De Villiers 2005).

33Student enrolments in the higher education sector have fluctuated over the years; they declined from 1997 to 1999 and then increased again from 2000 onwards. From 277,115 students at universities and technikons in 1986, enrolments reached 601,936 students in 1998, decreased to 540,039 in 1999, and then increased again to 579,257 students in 2000 (SAIRR 2003/4: 260). If we take the three universities in the Western Cape, UCT (HWI and historically English), Stellenbosch (HWI and historically Afrikaans) and UWC (HBI and historically ‘Coloured’) we can get a sense of the changing trends in student enrolment. As indicated in the Institute of Race Relations annual surveys from 1959 to 2002, each institution has retained as a majority the ‘race’ group that the university has historically served. African student numbers have increased in the HWIs, but remain, a ‘minority’ within the institution. In 1968, during the height of apartheid, UCT had 3 African students; in 1999 there were 4,094, and in 2002, 5,265 (in comparison the enrolments for white students are 7,001 in 1968, 8,051 in 1999 and 10,131 in 2002). As a percentage of the student body black African students have been hovering at below 50%. At Stellenbosch University, African students in 2002 numbered 3,277 compared to 15,361 white students. At the UWC, African student numbers increased dramatically in the 1990s to 6,662 in 1994, then declined in 1999 to 4,979 students, and increased slightly again in 2002 to 5,635. Coloured student numbers declined from 9,106 in 1989 to 3,461 in 1999, and then rose again to 5,826 in 2002 (SAIRR 2003/4: 261).

34The ‘massification’ of education has not taken place. The former Afrikaans language universities and distance education providers attracted the highest number of black students but overall the number of students qualifying for university admission has steadily decreased. The proportion of students obtaining a university entrance pass in the matriculation examination has declined steadily from 31% in 1980 to 19% in 2003 (SAIRR 2003/4: 255). In provinces with larger numbers of poorer and rural schools the decline in matriculation exemption rates have been more pronounced. For example, in the Eastern Cape the proportion of students qualifying with a university entrance pass has declined from 14% in 1994 to 10% in 2003. In all provinces less than 30% of students writing the matriculation examination qualify to enter universities. The Educational Policy Unit at Wits University supports the view of declining student numbers qualifying for university entrance and highlights the high drop out rate of students who fail to complete their degree programmes (SAIRR 2003/4: 274).

35For white and the increasing numbers of Coloured and Indian middle class students, mainly graduating from the resource-rich former Model C schools, the avenues of access to higher education are easier in comparison to the majority of Coloured, African and Indian working class students, whose township schools and surrounding social environment produce students ill-equipped to pass, let alone achieve a matriculation exemption for university entrance. Equally worrying is the concern that many who qualify for university are unable to make the grade. A study conducted by Bellamy Hough Language and Reading Specialists claim that 82% of first year students are functionally illiterate with a literacy level not above grade eight (SAIRR 2003/4: 274). Consequently, despite government and university management pressures to increase throughput rates, too many students take longer to complete their degrees or drop out. Those who do graduate in sought after areas and from universities such as UCT and Wits, particularly in the natural sciences, engineering and medical fields, are tempted to join the ‘skills drain’ by being recruited with attractive employment packages in the UK, US, Canada and Australia.

36A mixed bag of factors have been proposed to account for the decline in student enrolment and low university throughput rates, some of which include the following: the increase in unemployment and the jobless growth associated with GEAR, the stringent admissions policies of universities, the limited number of courses offered at universities, the poor recruitment and outreach practices of the universities, the low high school matriculation pass rates, the growth of private education institutions, the declining growth of the population, and the death toll caused by HIV/AIDS among the youth.

37Among academic staff no major changes in the race and gender disparities inherited from apartheid can be identified and at the institutional level, especially at HWIs, the racial patterns have remained relatively unchanged. While whites made up 82% of the total academic staff in 1995, Africans accounted for a mere 11%. There has been a slight increase in African academic staff from 7% in public universities in 1993, 12% in 1999 and 23% in 2002. By contrast white academics numbers have decreased from 80% in 1999 to 68% in 2002 (SAIRR 2003/4: 263). The CHE could confidently assert that ten years into democracy “the overall higher education workforce remained dominated by white staff and thus extremely unrepresentative” (Education 2004: 78). At the universities, the professorial and upper management structures have remained in white hands (around 75%), while recently appointed black academics are concentrated in the lecturer and senior lecturer levels (Education 2004: 85).

38The historical patterns between the HWIs and HDIs continue. At the latter, the institutional weaknesses, poorly prepared students and resource constraints account for the greater burdens faced by the historically black universities. Consequently, the historically white universities, given their range of past advantages, remain better resource-endowed, grant many more postgraduate degrees and produce more of the research output, although these are dismally low by international standards. The controversial policy to merge ten institutions was motivated in large part to address some of these historical imbalances; these processes are still in their early stages and it is difficult to pronounce the policy as either a success or as a failure, but the merges have not been smooth as former HBIs view themselves as being ‘taken over’ by former HWIs.

39Turning to the relationship between higher education and the economy, it is difficult to ignore the influence of GEAR on higher education discussions. The macro-economic policy embraced by the democratic government has enormous implications for the role of higher education insociety. With the governments’ neo-liberal economic policy two themes are emphasised. The first is that the university should become more ‘entrepreneurial’ in its own organization, outlook, research and curriculum content. The second is that the predominant mandate of the university should be to produce the person-power and knowledge that would make South Africa globally competitive by helping it reconfigures itself into a ‘knowledge economy’. Students are encouraged to take degrees in the natural sciences and commerce, rather than the arts and the humanities. Critics of the GEAR policy challenge these themes. Instead they emphasise other ‘non-economic’ values of post-apartheid development, in particular the role of universities in contributing towards the promotion of critical and active citizens in public affairs.

40The received view wanted to increase the numbers of students at higher education institutions and to encourage them into the Science, Education and Technology (SET) fields. This emphasis has some basis as on average pass rates in the languages in the matriculation examination hover above 60%, whereas in Biology, Mathematics and Physical Science matriculation pass rates are below 20% (SAIRR 2003/4: 257). The National Plan of Education (2002) calls for reducing the numbers of students taking Humanities courses from 49% to 40% and that numbers in Commerce and the Natural Sciences should each increase by 30%.

41However, the increased emphasis on science and commerce entails a narrowly conceived view of fulfilling both the ‘participation’ and ‘responsiveness’ functions set out in the post-1994 legislation. While entrance and access remain important concerns, the content of ‘knowledge’ in relation to its usefulness to the ‘new knowledge’ economy has assumed increasing prominence. Two assumptions guide thinking and discussion within this viewpoint. The first relies on the view that ‘globalization’, freight-train like, imposes a different kind of capitalist economy on all in its path and that the South African economy is becoming or should become a ‘new economy’, requiring new kinds of labour skills. Consequently, and this is the second point, universities should change and reconfigure themselves to produce the type of graduates the economy requires and help make the South African economy more competitive in this new globalization era.

42Further, some who adopt a rigid, unidirectional causal relationship between higher education and the labour market assume that university graduates will be employed by a ‘colour-blind’ labour market and the inherited racially skewed occupational structure will change as a consequence (Bunting 2000). This is not necessarily the case. Aculture and history of racism remains pervasive in South African society and this directly affects labour market employment practices. Two contradictory trends were registered in the South African labour market. Between 1970 and 1995 highly skilled, graduate students were in demand; the lower the level of qualification and skills the less the demand. The growth in the total number of jobs was 17.6%, but the massive demand approached over 2,000%. School-leaving jobs rose by 350% and for those students with some high school qualification by 53%. Those with only primary school education and below showed negative growth rates - the economy had no jobs for them. After 1995 these trends changed. Surprisingly the demand for ‘degreed’ workers fell, while the largest increase was for those with a school-leaving certificate and even for those with primary education. The demand for the latter rose some 421%. More astonishing is that employment for black students with degrees actually declined by 11.84%. Employment for Coloured students with degrees increased only slightly by 3.1%, but those for Asian and White students increased by 15.1% and 10.5% respectively. The conclusion that the labour market is ‘colourblind’ does not apply yet in South Africa (Bhorat 1999). Additionally, to assume that South Africa will easily slip into a ‘knowledge economy’ remains problematic. The South African economy is highly differentiated. Any role that higher education will play in producing graduates for the labour market will have to work with a much more differentiated notion of the South African economy and the racially influenced hiring practices of the labour market.

43The typical contribution of higher education to the political system lies in the creation of elites and thereby influences the role these social strata are likely to play in the reproduction of dominant social relations. These tend to dominate the sphere of politics, to contribute towards the creation and reproduction of the dominant ideology, and to serve as a source of ‘knowledge’ from which perhaps good public policy positions can draw. There are many links between universities and the polity in post-1994 South Africa – formal and informal, direct and indirect. Higher education institutions have in the post-1994 period produced significant numbers of graduates who took up positions in the public sector. Some universities, such as the University of the Western Cape, lost many of its senior academic staff to the public sector. Without this input the success of the transition, the bases for democratic consolidation and the quality of governance would have been less secure. The role of higher education institutions in policy-making and evaluation has also increased dramatically since 1994, with many academics supplementing their university incomes by contentiously doing consultancy work for the state. Higher education institutions provide a social and cultural space for both academic and political elites to meet and establish relationships. In a country like South Africa with its new political system and a legacy of deep division the importance of a forum for communication, bringing people from diverse backgrounds together, is vitally important for the consolidation of its democratic dispensation. At the same time the relationship between universities and the state is not an easy one. An inevitable tension exists between the expectations of the state and the role universities see themselves playing in relation to the political system.

44The steady growth of the black middle class has continued in the post-1994 period with many more opportunities for upward social mobility. Graduates from both black and white universities have taken jobs in the state, private sector and civil society. They have moved into former white neighbourhoods, their children in the main attending former white schools, and are participating in civil society structures formerly reserved for whites. In this middle class sense, some public spaces in South Africa have become deracialised and universities, in the creation of the emerging black elite, can be held indirectly responsible for this social impact.

45By helping to produce the new elite, higher education institutions indirectly contribute to the economy and a lifestyle that can have transformative implications. The growth of the South African economy from the decade-long period of recession and political turmoil of the 1980s can be attributed in large measure to having the people to take up high level skilled employment. No doubt, the problem of the ‘skills shortage’ continues, but from the political perspective, the transition may not have reached a point of institutional stability, had the economy not grown at all. Indirectly, the increase in the purchasing power of the new black middle class has directly helped the economy grow. The quality of life of the new middle class empowers this class. Given the degree of a civic socially responsible ideology encouraged by the state and embraced by this class, it is positioned to put resources, skills, time and ideas back into the impoverished communities from which many have come. More explicitly, at the political level transition theorists have long established that without a significant middle class, societies undergoing democratic transition are less likely to consolidate their democratic institutions (Diamond, Linz et al. 1990; Lijphart 1990; Linz et al. 1990; Lijphart 1990; Linz and Stepan 1996). South Africa’s black middle class may not be big enough, but it has been able to give the new institutions a great deal of legitimacy. Linz (1990) argues that a test for democratic consolidation is that when given a serious crisis, key elites will choose to abandon the democratic institutions of their society. This seems less likely in the South African case, demonstrating the importance, legitimacy and value that both the middle and working classes bestow upon the hard won democratic institutions of the society.

46It can be argued that the culture of democracy, of values of tolerance and the respect for citizens’ rights have slowly taken root in South Africa. Universities, which were once directly active participants in the racist, apartheid project, have contributed to a new democratic culture. Many of these new democratic practices can be traced to the student resistance of the 1980s, more firmly located within the historically black universities, but also influencing practices in the historically white universities, as students and academics moved from the former to the latter institutions. The many forums, seminars and lectures by prominent speakers, most identifying closely with a democratic ethos, help to spread such values and consolidate them beyond university settings. This is not to deny that undemocratic values still pervade the society, but the democratic trend appears to be dominant. The corporate media, which have adopted a critical stance towards the new government, has nevertheless also experienced internal changes. Many of the new journalists received their education at South African higher education institutions and are products of the 1980s student revolts. In their new role in a powerful site of ideological production, they contribute towards spreading information, democratic values and critical analyses, thereby enhancing South African democracy.

47However, racist practices in South Africa still continue in a multitude of forms, affecting all classes of blacks. Those among the poor and the working class daily bear the brunt of such abuse. Many from these groups find it difficult to get into higher education institutions because they are unable to afford the fees. The state’s funding proposals and student aid scheme will in time assist these students, but in sociological terms, as a class, access to universities and movement into the middle classes will remain remote. The students from poor and working class backgrounds in the 1990s did enter universities in significant numbers. However, soon the historically black universities complained that they had to increase fees and monitor fee payment more systematically than previously because they did not receive any additional funding from the state. The fees struggle also brought to the attention of students other issues, such as the continued poor quality of student resources at the historically black universities in comparison to the historically white universities, failure to change the curriculum sufficiently to move beyond Eurocentric paradigms, the demand for alternative forums of democratic governance at these institutions and a host of other alternative ideas constituting post-apartheid institutions.

48Unfortunately, by the late 1990s the student movement showed signs of growing weakness as fewer students actively participated in student organisations and student collective action. Issues that have animated students in other parts of the world – privatisation, anti-globalisation, environmental issues, identity politics, public space and HIV/AIDS treatment struggles – have not as yet developed into a serious agenda for the South African student movement, although there are signs that these may take centre ground in the years ahead. The issue revolves around a broader absence of a vibrant civil society movement in South Africa, post-1994 comparable to the 1980’s. Many student activists once firmly located within the anti-apartheid struggle, many fighting within the fold of the ANC, now face the ANC as government. They and other progressive social forces are in the process of deciphering new ways of expressing their differences towards government policies and practices. The transition in social activism has been cautious given that the ANC is still fighting entrenched racist practices and is often itself a player in contemporary resistance discourses in South Africa.

49To conclude, the post-1994 agenda for transformation in the higher education sector is the site of many contestations. In the main, it can be argued that it mostly reflects the values and goals repeatedly conveyed during the freedom struggle: to overcome the legacies of racism and exploitation. Yet the content of these are variously debated. Gradually though a minimal consensus shows signs of emerging to address the material ‘backlog’, the material and psychological poverty suffered by the majority of citizens which disadvantages them in exercising the rights enshrined in the new constitution, and accessing the resources available in society. Due to the nature of the transition and conservative macro-economic policies and elite ideology, higher education institutions, located as they are in the sphere of civil society, were in a relatively strong position in relation to the state. These institutions assumed the role of either reproducing inherited social relations or changing them. They tend to reproduce inherited social relations and change them more slowly than the state and the majority of South Africans who participated in the struggle against apartheid wished.

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Thiven Reddy, « Higher Education and Social Transformation in South Africa Since the Fall of Apartheid », Cahiers de la recherche sur l’éducation et les savoirs, 5 | 2006, 121-145.

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Thiven Reddy, « Higher Education and Social Transformation in South Africa Since the Fall of Apartheid », Cahiers de la recherche sur l’éducation et les savoirs [En ligne], 5 | 2006, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2012, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL :

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Thiven Reddy

Senior lecturer, Department of Political Studies, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

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