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Building a People’s University in South Africa: Race, Compensatory Education, and the Limits of Democratic Reform

reviewed by James H. Williams - 2004

coverTitle: Building a People’s University in South Africa: Race, Compensatory Education, and the Limits of Democratic Reform
Author(s): Gregory M. Anderson
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0820449547, Pages: 244, Year: 0820449547
Search for book at Amazon.com

Education is tasked with many of the aspirations of the modern state—economic development, nation-building, peace, equalization of opportunity, and, from time to time, redress of historical inequalities. Despite these ambitions, the processes by which education achieves, and can be made to bring about, such goals remain murky. Our understanding of how to use education to redress historical “disadvantage” and social inequality, for example, is largely theoretical and somewhat naïve, uninformed by critical comparative analysis of experience across contexts or by evidence of what has actually happened when such initiatives have been attempted.

Gregory Anderson, in his extraordinary book, provides invaluable documentation and analysis of the successes and failures of compensatory education at

South Africa ’s University of the Western Cape (UWC). His cautionary tale tells of the possibilities and limits of democratic action from the platform of a single institution. Valuable from a broader perspective, the book unravels the complexities of change that must take place for a university to compensate for systematic inadequacies of schooling among its students. Even when there is will, the way is difficult. Well-intended, progressive initiatives encounter unanticipated roadblocks and unintended consequences. Still, the detailing of problems that UWC encountered provides a kind of roadmap of the way toward a true pedagogy of the oppressed.

The book is also a telling of UWC’s story, from its founding as a “bush college” through its revolutionary adoption of an open, non-racial (and illegal) admissions policy in 1982. The book tells of the University‘s assumption of intellectual leadership in the anti-apartheid struggles of the 1980s through the fall of apartheid in the 1990s and the University’s work to build non-racial democracy through higher education. The story is theorized in the sociology of education. UWC’s experience is related to compensatory initiatives in comparative contexts, particularly the open admissions policy of the City University of New York (CUNY).

Anderson begins with a history of the Western Cape Province , its racial-ethnic mix of “Coloured” (mixed race) and indigenous African peoples. He discusses the effects of apartheid on schooling, work, and relations between the different peoples, both oppressed but with quite different experiences. UWC was established as a bush college, its purpose to educate, albeit in a limited way, but also to win Coloured support for government and thus to divide Coloured from African. Despite government intent, UWC was heavily influenced by the Black Consciousness movement of the 1960s and 70s, leading to the University’s decision in 1982 to renounce its apartheid role, identify with the struggle for liberation and ultimately the non-racialism of the ANC.

Non-racial open admissions led to major increases in enrollment, especially of African language students, [1] many of whom were ill-prepared for university work. Severe cuts in government funding, high failure rates, tensions between Coloured and African language students, all in a context of heightened political activism, led to a deepening of “the politics of scarcity.” As a result, despite UWC’s official non-racial policy, campus life was largely segregated, with students interacting mainly with members of their own ethnic-racial group.

Anderson examines these developments within a Gramscian understanding of the limitations of struggle within state-controlled institutions. UWC’s oppositional role served both to challenge the state and help legitimate its role. UWC was “allowed” to assume responsibility for educating an entire generation that apartheid and resistance had severely disadvantaged but was not given sufficient funding to do so. The University, Anderson finds, was “far more successful at ideologically representing the masses in their struggles against apartheid than in furnishing a pedagogically effective compensatory education for its diversely ‘disadvantaged’ student body.” (p. 13)

Still, UWC implemented an impressive series of pedagogical and curricular reforms. The book devotes special attention to UWC’s compensatory efforts in language development. A course entitled “English for Educational Development” set out to develop a “pedagogy of the oppressed that not only resonated with the experiences of the most ‘disadvantaged’ and excluded members of South African society but also culturally affirmed their histories of struggle and triumph against the apartheid order” (p. 14) The class, however, attracted African language students not Coloured. While providing an instructional context for students to overcome the detrimental effects of apartheid, the classes did little to enhance communication between the two groups or to encourage shared understandings of each other and their histories. Race relations did not improve on campus. Moreover, the classes did not help African language students acquire the formal academic rules and codes and analytical modes of thinking embedded in university culture and required for success. Anderson draws on Basil Bernstein’s theories of “code” to make sense of the story—the resistance of university faculty to reform, tensions among Coloured and African language students, and failures of compensatory curricula to achieve the larger transformation.

The book concludes with lessons for UWC’s experience, and relates UWC’s experience to CUNY’s experience with open admissions and ongoing debates over standards, access, and remediation.

Anderson ends with pessimism as to the prospects for transformational reform under the pressure of fiscal austerity and standards-based accountability.

Anderson ’s book can be read for theory and for practice. As a comparative educator interested in praxis, I identified four lessons. First, the decision to address historical disadvantage is only the first step in redress. At a minimum, the social relationships damaged by inequity must be reconstructed at both personal and ideological levels. UWC’s non-racial ideology did not allow it to see and confront the ongoing effects of apartheid at work among its students. At the same time, shared opposition to apartheid was not sufficiently strong, once apartheid fell, to overcome the day-to-day tensions resulting from resource shortages and centuries of divide and conquer.

Second, a true pedagogy of oppression requires more than development of a compensatory curriculum but deep changes in institutional practice. While UWC developed its innovative Academic Development program, it left untouched the structures of “code” and practice that excluded students who suffered under apartheid from membership in communities where “codes of privilege” were acquired. By valuing the experiences and language of ‘black’ students, English for Educational Development engaged the students of apartheid, but it failed, in Anderson’s view, to equip them for success in the only partially transformed world of the university and society. A true pedagogy of transformation must,

Anderson would likely argue, do both.

Even in a context of strong political will, such steps are difficult to undertake under conditions of austerity, accountability, and external standards. Doing so in a democracy, requires that societies consistently give preference to the poor, a substantial commitment in the best of times, and a profound social challenge when there isn’t enough to go around.

South Africa has gone further than most, but the fight is neither completed nor over.


Anderson uses this term, admittedly awkward, to refer to students of more or less pure indigenous African ethnicity as opposed to students of English, Boer, Indian, or mixed ethnicity.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 8, 2004, p. 1576-1578
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11297, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 10:42:11 PM

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About the Author
  • James Williams
    The George Washington University
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    JAMES H. WILLIAMS is Assistant Professor and Director of the International Education Program at The George Washington University.
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