CAPE TOWN — The University of Cape Town was once a citadel of white privilege on the majestic slopes of Devil’s Peak. At the height of apartheid, it admitted few black or mixed-race students, and they were barred from campus dormitories, even forbidden to attend medical school postmortems on white corpses.
South Africa’s finest university is now resplendently multiracial. But it is also engaged in a searching debate about just how far affirmative action should go to heal the wounds of an oppressive history, echoing similar conflicts in the United States, where half a dozen states have banned the use of racial preferences in admissions to public universities.
“Are we here because we’re black or are we here because we’re intelligent?” asked Sam Mgobozi, 19, a middle-class black student who attended a first-rate high school in Durban and finds affirmative action offensive, even as he concedes that poor black applicants may still need it.
The University of Cape Town was supposed to have settled this debate last year when its professors — 70 percent of them white men — supported a policy that gave admissions preferences based on apartheid racial categories to black, mixed-race and Indian students.
Instead, unease with the current approach has spilled out over the past year in fierce exchanges on newspaper editorial pages and formal debating platforms. Sixteen years after the political ascent of the black majority, the university’s dilemma resonates across a society conflicted about how best to achieve racial redress, whether in corporate board rooms or classrooms.
Prof. Neville Alexander, a Marxist sociologist who was classified as mixed race under apartheid, has roused the campus debate with the charge that affirmative action betrays the ideals of nonracialism that so many fought and died for during the long struggle against apartheid. Professor Alexander, who spent a decade imprisoned on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, insists that the University of Cape Town, which is public, must resist pressure from the government to use racial benchmarks in determining how well the university is performing. “The government under apartheid did the same and we told them to go to hell,” he said in one standing-room-only campus debate.
Affirmative action’s champion on campus is Max Price, the vice chancellor, who was himself detained as an anti-apartheid student activist in the mid-1970s. Dr. Price, who grew up as a child of white privilege, contends that preferences based on apartheid’s racial classifications provide a means to help those harmed by that system to gain critical educational opportunities.
The university has an openly stated policy of admitting blacks who have substantially lower test scores than whites, but whites still outnumber blacks almost two to one — 45 percent versus 25 percent — among the 20,500 South African students at the university. In South Africa, 79 percent of the population is black and only 9 percent is white.
And even with extensive programs of compensatory instruction on campus to help disadvantaged students, just over half of the black students graduated in five years in recent years, while four out of five whites completed their educations in that time, university statistics show. “We’re getting the best here and the best is struggling,” said a deputy vice chancellor, Crain Soudien.
The situation is even bleaker in higher education across the country. In engineering, law, the sciences and business management, only about a third or fewer of black students manage to get a degree in five years, researchers have found. The country’s efforts to produce black professionals remain crippled by failing public high schools in impoverished rural areas and black townships that the post-apartheid government has proved unable to fix.
Social class is another complicating factor. There are wide disparities in income between white and black South Africans, but also among blacks. The job market rewards graduates of top universities — black and white — while punishing the ill-educated, who are overwhelmingly black.
Students and professors here ask whether children of the emerging black middle and upper classes should continue to get the same break on admissions as impoverished black students. The university is developing nonracial measures of disadvantage — for example, whether applicants’ parents went to a university, or the quality of the high schools the students themselves attended.
But the university now only has enough staff to base its admissions decisions for most students on their scores on a national subject-based examination for high school seniors and their apartheid racial classifications.
Even when reliable proxies for socio-economic disadvantage are developed, Dr. Price contends, race should still be considered. He estimated that about half of the most privileged black applicants would not make the cut without racial preferences. In such a situation, he said, whites would dominate the top ranks of the class, while many disadvantaged blacks struggled with failure, reinforcing stereotypes.
Even in the most prosperous black families, he said, parents often attended inferior schools and their children do not perform as well on the national high school exam as white students whose families have been university educated for generations.
But Prof. André du Toit, who taught generations of students here the history of South African political thought, disagreed, saying the central question about what he called the university’s “elitist version of race-based affirmative action” is whether it will reproduce an elitist society.
In “The Next 25 Years,” a new book of essays on affirmative action by South African and American scholars, Professor du Toit writes that as black applicants increasingly come from the best high schools and well-off families, affirmative action will provide “an ideological justification for privileging established black elite groups, at the expense of the African majority.”
On a recent afternoon, students sat in the sun on stairs that spill down Devil’s Peak from Jameson Hall. They seemed to be a multiracial realization of Mr. Mandela’s rainbow nation — and in many ways they were.
But on a campus where township students worry about whether their families have enough to eat while rich students ride around in new sports cars, many also sat in clusters divided not only by race, but by wealth.
“The coolest kids on the U.C.T. campus are divided in two, the black elite and the white elite,” said Mr. Mgobozi, the son of a corporate sales manager and former high school English teacher.
Like other prosperous black students interviewed here, Mr. Mgobozi is deeply ambivalent about affirmative action. He said he would have gotten in without it, and explains, “Black students work extremely hard just to prove we are here on the same merits as our white counterparts.”
The most eloquent advocates for racial preferences are students from profoundly deprived backgrounds. Without affirmative action, Lwando Mpotulo, 23, would never have been admitted to study for a medical degree here. His mother died when he was 15 and his father was unemployed most of his childhood. He went to high school in Khayelitsha, a sprawling black township of half a million people, 15 miles and a world apart from the wealthy heart of Cape Town. Mr. Mpotulo lived there in a tiny, rundown house that often had no electricity.
His scores on the national high school exam — C’s in science, biology and English, a B in math and an A in Xhosa, his mother tongue — were much lower than the A’s white students are generally required to attain, but an extraordinary achievement in a township where very few qualify for university admission.
Mr. Mpotulo was in Cape Town when he got the news of his admission and, overjoyed, ran to the medical school campus. But his first two years were ones of humiliating failure. “I felt much more smaller,” he said sadly. He had never had a white teacher before and even his high school English teacher had often spoken Xhosa in class.
But the university provided him with extensive, specialized instruction tailored for struggling students and weekly counseling sessions. Mr. Mpotulo also dug deep into himself. He recently sketched the family tree of relatives depending on him.
“These are the people I worry about,” he said gravely. “I have to somehow find success. If I give up, there will literally be no one employed at home.”
Mr. Mpotulo is now confident he will graduate from medical school, though it will take eight years instead of the standard six. He is considering a career in public health. He believes his mother’s death, of a stroke in her 30s, could have been prevented if she had gotten decent medical care.
In his own difficult life experience, he said, the legacy of centuries of white domination lives on.
“I sympathize with a white student, doing very well, who can’t become a student here because of affirmative action,” he said, “but I think it’s an absolutely necessary evil.”