A university in turmoil Wits: South Africa's leading liberal university finds conflict accompanies majority rule.

September 06, 1996

THERE WAS A TIME in the late 1970s when Johannesburg's University of Witwatersrand was regarded as such a hotbed of anti-apartheid agitation that South Africa's security services had fewer than five agents watching one another as members of the student government's executive board.

As the country's leading liberal and English-language university, privately operated Wits -- as it is commonly called -- was also an institution that found strict segregation laws distasteful. It admitted blacks, coloreds and Asians to its predominantly white student body and featured them as speakers.

Ironically, now that majority rule has come to South Africa, Wits finds itself in the middle of protracted protests.

At the center of all the tension is a dispute about the school's academic and societal role. Some non-white faculty members and students charge European domination has not ended at the school and that whites have too much power. Meanwhile, some whites say that a sudden influx of black students -- 50 percent of the first-year students are black -- has resulted in lower academic standards.

There is probably no easy solution to these tensions that are being felt at other South African universities as well.

One of apartheid's great tragedies was that the apartheid Nationalist government, in making black education more difficult, managed to destroy the few reputable schools for blacks that existed. Among them was the University of Fort Hare, the Cape Province institution that was the alma mater of both President Nelson Mandela and Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe. Thus, black African academic excellence and traditions were largely killed. That is why transformation at historically white schools like Wits can be such a painful process.

Pub Date: 9/06/96

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