The rise of elitism among South African University students (Part 1)

2015-03-23 08:14

It seems to me that human beings were born out of a desire to dominate. Hegemonic relations never cease to exist even in places that one never thought such existence will be served on silver platters, institutions of higher learning. There is a sense among university students in South Africa that university that you go/ went to defines your intellectual prowess. It is easy to pick this pattern right from high school, where learners would almost exclusively apply to only a select few universities. My argument is consistently simple: your career future does not depend on the university you went to but on what you do with what you have. I allude to this with such a conviction because I experienced this first-hand. Whether you aspire to be a brilliant scientist, educator or entrepreneur, your university does not guarantee that, ngwaneso as my friend Bonang Mochochoko would say.

What bothers me is the tendency by most of the students who go to universities such as University of Cape Town (UCT), Wits, and University of Pretoria (UP) and to some extent University of Kwazulu Natal UKZN and Stellenbosch who think they are the only students who possess the skills that no other students outside of the “Ivy League” possess. This is evident in how they speak of other students who study in apparently third-world universities or those that do not feature anywhere in continental rankings, let alone intercontinental rankings. You talk to a student from the “Ivy League” the first thing you sense is pride that even a mouse can’t eat. I feel for my sisters and brothers who go to colleges instead.

You attend classes and the lecturers every now and then remind you that being a ‘Witsie’, for instance, comes with huge responsibilities. They go on to remind you of how many laureates of, say, Noble Prize, Man Booker Prize etc. they have produced. Everything is just about dominance and elitism. By implication this means none of the accolades would be in your palm had it not been of your institution; such a shallow assumption. I have often heard some of my classmates say “Wits is Wits”, meaning “everything here is world-class and your future is safe with us!” I am not saying students should not have pride in their universities but we should always remind ourselves that life does not have a therefore—my parents are rich; therefore I am going to be rich or I got straight ‘As’ in school; life is going to be easy for me.  When universities obsess with positioning themselves as leaders, they should be careful not create unhealthy rivalry among students—a culture they are likely to cling on even when they are supposed to work together in the workplace.

If these universities pride themselves in being the cream of the crop, they should remember that their “lowly” counterparts were deprived of all sorts of resources by the P.W Botha government—the playing field is still by large dominated by former white universities, the ones that consider themselves the “elites”.

I for one went to University of the Free State, a university that has undeservedly earned itself a reputation of being a segregation hub. This is a university that has offered me ample opportunities that I would not have obtained anywhere else in South Africa. I am unapologetically one of the best student leaders in the country and I did not go to any of these institutions. I can intellectually compete with any young person in the world despite my poor background. You see, it does not matter where you study; you are personally responsible for the fertilization of your soil.  Why did you choose to study at UCT? “Because it is the best.” What? Who determines the best? Against which background and standards is this best determined?

In these tough socio-economic times, my conception of South African universities is where there will be collaboration than competition. I fully agree with the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits., Prof. Adam Habib, when he argued in his inaugural public lecture that we need to distinguish between research and teaching universities so that each university can fully focus on its differential core business.

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