Best proxy: Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, Reverend Njongonkulu Ndungane and Dr Max Price listen attentively as Prof Neville Alexander gets a point across.
Opinions and loyalties were, to put it mildly, divided as panellists and audience members expressed their views on UCT's admission policy at a debate on 2 September.
While most agreed that some form of redress is needed in South African society and in who gets a seat in a UCT lecture theatre, there was no such like-mindedness on the afternoon's bone of contention - the use in UCT's admissions policy of race as a proxy for disadvantage.
On the panel, vice-chancellor Dr Max Price reiterated the university's stance that, for now, race serves as the best proxy as the vast majority of South Africa's disadvantaged are black. In contrast, Professor Neville Alexander, Price's opposite number in recent media debates on the topic, argued that the use of old labels would undermine any effort to create a non-racial, multicultural South Africa, and instead retrench racial identity and racial prejudice. In turn, Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, president of the Students' Representative Council, supported using race as a proxy (for a while), saying that racial schisms run so deep that even black students fortunate enough to have attended an academically respected school would not automatically shake off all disadvantage. Professor David Benatar then suggested that the years-long debate has now progressed to a stage where even proponents of the race-as-proxy approach are uncomfortable with it, and singled out some of what he called the "distasteful" and potentially "dangerous" practices of racial classification at UCT. Finally, the chair of Council, Reverend Njongonkulu Ndungane, drew from his own pastoral experiences to underscore the value that black students and parents place on a spot at a university.
Session moderator, Judge Dennis Davis, then cross-examined the panellists. How can South Africa ever realise its ambitions of creating a non-racial society when asking people to still apply apartheid-era classifications to themselves? he asked Price. But, he posed to Alexander, if we did nothing and did not use race as a proxy, would we not end up with the same "pristinely white university" that he, Davis, experienced in his days as a student? And why should a black student and a white student from a good school not be measured by the same yardstick? he challenged Mpofu-Walsh?
While answers were few (listen to the podcast for some more questions and suggestions), Price did point out that UCT is working on a new measure of disadvantage, and could well implement such a measure within the next few years.
Summing up, Davis commended the university for staging the discussion. "But what is absolutely clear to me from this debate is we've got a long way to go before we can actually get some consensus on, quite frankly, how we resolve the problems of the past and move forward," he said.
"The more debates we have at this university on these issues, the more we become a university community."
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