SLICE: Coloured students underrepresented in the Wits rainbow

After three years at Wits, it has slowly dawned on me that I am bothered by the small number of coloured students.

On any given day, I have seen just one or two during my time on campus. So it has always been clear that we are demographically underrepresented on Wits campuses. In an institution with thousands of students, we are a drop in the ocean.

According to the 2018 Wits Annual Report, of the 39 953 Wits students, coloureds were just 1 659 (4,15%). The comparable figures for the rest of the student population were: African – 26 452; white – 6 392; Indian – 4 814; and Chinese – 211.

The low numbers are especially stark when one considers that in the 2019 population estimate by Statistics South Africa, the coloured and white populations make up 8,8% and 7,9% respectively.

These figures are not restricted to Wits. The percentage of coloured students is similar even in a distance learning institution such as Unisa where they make up 5,6% of the 400 000-strong student body.

Reflecting on the low numbers of coloured students in these institutions is disheartening for me as I consider the possible work opportunities and positive impact that learning in the university environment has meant for my future earning capacity.

When one considers that students could come from Johannesburg’s coloured residential areas such as Eldorado Park, Westbury, Riverlea and Ennerdale, one cannot disregard the socio-economic factors prevailing in these areas.

Visiting family in these areas is always a reminder that there are many communities that still face high levels of poverty, gang violence and proximity to substance abuse in friends or family members.

Being well aware of the privilege of being able to study at university, I feel sanitised from the experiences of many coloured people my age. There is hardly a correlation between the theory-filled bubble of university life and the issues that young coloureds face.

University of Johannesburg master’s candidate in industrial relations and political science, Robyn Williams, echoes the observation that coloureds are under-presented in university spaces.

“As the first individual of colour in my family to attend university, I can safely say that tertiary education has not been the first priority for school leavers. [Instead, it has been to] finish matric, go work and help your family. I can never take my privilege lightly,” she says.

I am grateful that my parents always spurred me to set my sights on a higher education and that I was confident enough to do so. However, I am aware that I am not the first in my family, and my family had the financial means.

Seeing more coloured students on campus would allow me to hope that they would be able to break the cycle of poverty in areas such as Riverlea, Westbury or Eldorado Park, that a university education would create opportunities to good jobs.

It is important for coloured youth to be encouraged to study. I believe that their resilience due to the tough community circumstances surrounding them could be just the weapon to help them to do well in the pressurised university spaces.

FEAUTURED IMAGE: Leah Wilson, a student journalist at Wits Vuvuzela

Race talk needs to be aired

Race relations have taken over the South African media platform for two straight weeks: The UCT poll on “the most attractive race”; the senior advocate who quit the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) amid disagreement about transformation; the Stellenbosch University’s residence-placement policy and (closer to home) a Wits Vuvuzela reporter who was called a “house negro” by a senior member of a political party on campus.

Although race is a sensitive issue in this country, the public trial on social and mainstream media regarding the UCT race poll was harsh. The paper is run by students and the article didn’t incite hate speech. One can argue that those students haven’t learnt the value of “political correctness” or lack the desperation to uphold the delusion of “the rainbow nation”. You can argue that the poll should not have been promoted as a “study” and that statistical inference should not have been made – that was the main flaw in the article. Students should not be taken to the Human Rights Commission (HRC) based on their preferences or writing about their preferences.

Transformation is also a highly contested subject. Advocate Izak Smuts resigned from the JSC reportedly accusing it of being “against the appointment of qualified white male candidates”. Affirmative Action (AA) rears its ugly head again and the proverbial question regarding transformation policies versus the hiring of qualified candidates was debated in many newspapers nationally.

Amongst others, City Press editor Ferial Haffajee, wrote about the distinction between transformation and qualified candidacy, saying the two are not necessarily exclusive.

If affirmative action and qualified candidacy are seen as exclusive, an “either or” choice, does this mean Wits graduates, across the race spectrum will be subjected to this limited scope in pursuing our careers?

Stellenbosch University’s residence-placement policy also came under media scrutiny. The university has finally been given the green light to accommodate more black students in its residences. The policy under review explicitly states that residence allocations should be: 66% white, 23% coloured, 10% black and 1% Indian. Stellenbosch alumni have spoken out against the policy and called for it to change.

To bring the matter closer to home, the chairman of a campus political party called one of our reporters a “house negro” last week.

While we discussed the best way to deal with the incident, one of our staff members said it was funny how “house negros” always get a bad rep when they started some of the slave rebellions in the US. He was referring to Nat Turner.

How and why some terms become derogatory is part of the debate. But the main point is South Africa is marred with racial tensions. These issues should not be denied, rejected or suppressed but should be debated.