A new South Africa tests its leading liberal school


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The raw smell of garbage greeted students arriving this week for the beginning of the term at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa's most prestigious institute of higher learning.

The tipped-over trash cans and chanting groups of workers -- the latest manifestation of a dispute over the dismissal of several black workers -- were baffling to many liberal whites, because protests on campus used to be not against the school but the government.

Wits -- pronounced "Vits," as the school is universally known -- was always against apartheid, its campus a center of anti-government dissent as the school flouted laws designed to keep students separated by race. But, like many liberal white institutions, the school is having to adjust to a new South Africa.

The visions of Wits' past and future can be encountered on the 11th floor of the administration building. At one end of the hall is the office of Robert Charlton, the school's vice chancellor, who has been associated with the school since he entered it as a student in 1946.

"It's been hard to take," Mr. Charlton said of the series of protests that the school has endured since apartheid began to disappear in 1990. "I think it's because we're part of the establishment. And this new lot of students doesn't have a lot to protest about."

At the hall's other end is the office of Malegapuru William Magkoba, the school's deputy vice chancellor, who left South Africa not long after graduating from the black medical school at the University of Natal in 1976, worked as a research scientist in England and returned to South Africa in 1990.

"This is a Western, Euro-centric institution located at the tip of Africa," he said of Wits. "It has to undergo fundamental changes."

For Dr. Charlton, who also is a physician, Wits has hewn as close to the proper path as possible for the last several decades.

He can point to enrollment figures showing the nonwhite student population rising from 4 percent in 1970 to near 40 percent this year. There are programs that attempt to redress the wrongs of apartheid education, especially to give black students the math training they were denied in schools designed to turn them into laborers. And he is proud of the school's affirmative action program.

"I think the majority of whites in Johannesburg think that if more blacks are graduating from Wits, then we must be lowering our standards," Dr. Charlton said. "That just is not the case."

But Dr. Magkoba does not see an institution making the right types of change.

"Students here might know all about Hitler and Bismarck, but they've never heard of [Kwame N.] Nkrumah" -- the founding president of Ghana -- "or other great African leaders," he said.

"The cultural values here are basically those of Europe."

The director of the affirmative action program is Makaziwe Mandela, the 40-year-old daughter of South African President Nelson Mandela. She agrees with Dr. Magkoba that the school's programs have emphasized Europe at Africa's expense.

"There is a distrust of Africa," said Ms. Mandela, whose doctorate in cultural anthropology is from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "It is still considered the dark continent. People have to realize that we are not at Oxford. We are an African university."

Behind these assessments of Wits is the self-image of South Africa's English-speaking whites. They are traditionally the liberals, those who opposed the apartheid imposed by the whites who are Afrikaners. Wits was the liberals' school.

Many of the liberals assumed they would be regarded as faithful allies by the new black political majority. But that has not happened.

"You have to realize that the Afrikaner and the African have a lot in common," Dr. Magkoba said. "We have both made our home in Africa. We share many of the same values, we laugh at the

same jokes, we eat the same foods more or less." And some of the Afrikaners' universities have had an easier time adjusting to the new realities, he said.

"I think some of those universities are doing better," Dr. Mandela agreed. "They have made a 180-degree turn."

By contrast, the traditionally English institutions such as Wits, not understanding that they would have to change, have found the changes all the harder.

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