On Common Ground: Number 8, Winter 1998


South African Partnerships

By Richard A. Donovan

As you drive toward Cape Town from the airport, your eyes seek Table Mountain in the distance, then strain for the city's skyline and glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean. But you are distracted from Cape Town's panoramic beauty by the devastated lands that surround your drive. To the left and right, encircling you, sprawls Khayelitsha, South Africa's largest and perhaps most impoverished shanty town, reserved for Cape Town's black population.

On the outskirts of Cape Town, between Khayelitsha and the city itself, lie the remnants of District Six, a once-pulsating "colored" (or mixed race) community of 60,000 persons that the apartheid government bulldozed in 1966 to make room for a "whites only" settlement. In protest against the government—for thirty years—liberal whites have eschewed District Six. While there has been talk about rebuilding these wasted lands, no plans have materialized; the ruins are too charged with anger, guilt and pain to "correct" superficially.

Here and there throughout the country, areas like Khayelitsha and District Six stretch, great scars across South Africa's beautiful face. Everywhere one sees the ravages of apartheid and the complexity of its aftermath. The historic 1994 elections formally rejected apartheid and resulted in a change of governments, but too many issues of basic human survival were uncovered to be addressed at once.

Education, obviously a key to South Africa's future, is just one of a list of competing priorities. Enrollment statistics capture the scope and urgency of the problem: while college-going rates for South African Blacks have increased recently, less than 1 percent of Black 20-24 year-olds attended college or university in 1993-1994, as opposed to 61 percent of South African Indians and 54 percent of South African Whites.

Yet Nelson Mandela's government cannot afford to look solely or even primarily at education. In Cape Town, gang violence erupts in the townships of Cape Flats, while to the north the government must contend with the lack of housing, water, electricity and roads in the townships of Soweto and Alexandra near Johannesburg, resolve the legal, ethical and practical problems of squatters' communities like Cato Crest in Durban, and address the acute absence of essential services in rural areas. Everywhere, it must do all things at once, and in no place will governmental efforts be enough.

The shortage of physical resources to address elemental problems, however, represents only one crisis facing South Africans. The lack of trust, a second legacy of apartheid, is another—the scar under the scar. Today, which institutions and individuals truly affirm the new South Africa? While the country's historically white universities began integrating their campuses well before the 1994 elections, to many South Africans freshly empowered by apartheid's demise, universities fashioned on European models and staffed by largely white faculties may represent too-ambivalent converts to the "new" South Africa.

To a visiting American, South Africans face a daunting challenge: to rebuild their country, to reconnect those parts that still function, and to establish trust. Yet the hope, the urgency, the sheer love of the land shared by blacks and whites, to say nothing of the moral force that the repudiation of apartheid has unleashed—these are dazzling resources for South Africa to draw and build upon.

I was asked to help South Africans design partnerships to link community groups and higher education. The goal is to reduce the tension and historical isolation between educational institutions and their communities and increase the exchange of resources between them. If the work of these local partnerships truly attracts university students and staff to the country's reconstruction and development activities, students will develop practical skills even as universities engage in activities that will benefit the new South Africa and themselves simultaneously. Communities, in turn, would have greater access to the changing and growing higher education sector. My organization, the National Center for Urban Partnerships, was honored to be asked to participate in this grand experiment.

The Urban Partnership Program

South Africa's political and economic situation may be less stable and more extreme than America's, but South Africans and Americans concur on at least two powerful themes that make broad-based partnerships attractive. Both countries agree that if their economies are to thrive, universities must graduate more skilled workers and clear thinkers. Most Americans and South Africans would also agree that if their societies are to cohere, then leadership must not only be skilled and thoughtful but representative as well—skilled workers and capable leaders must include groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education.

The National Center for Urban Partnerships, formerly called Networks, has been helping establish educational partnerships since the mid 1970s. In 1983, we began working with two- and four-year colleges to promote transfer opportunities and improve transfer rates between systems with little history of collaborating with one another. But while promising collaborative programs emerged through these efforts, colleges and universities largely seemed to regard such initiatives as institutional fine-tuning, not as anything more fundamental or potentially transformative.

We had come to believe that collaboration had a far richer potential. In 1989 we persuaded the Ford Foundation and the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education to co-fund the pilot program of a broader, more radical effort. In this decade-long initiative, the sixteen sites that comprise the Urban Partnership Program (UPP) aim to help more underserved, urban students successfully complete baccalaureate degrees. UPP teams are achieving this mission by creating enduring, city-wide partnerships to effect systemic change in the educational system. These partnerships include K-16 educators and representatives from community, corporate, and political sectors. Because barriers to success occur disproportionately at the transitions from one educational system to another and between college and work, despite the emphasis upon the attainment of BA degrees, UPP partnerships often concentrate on three critical junctures: between middle school and high school, high school and college, and two- and four-year colleges.

While data are still emerging from UPP teams, preliminary findings have been encouraging. Community college students from Santa Ana and Los Angeles participating in a residential summer institute at the University of California, Irvine, and year-round follow-up programs are matriculating at four-year colleges and universities in dramatically heightened numbers. In Virginia, a newly created Family Resource Center has substantially increased parental participation in school activities and, coupled with curriculum revision and staff development efforts, correlates with greater student persistence and progress. In New Jersey, freshly created matriculation agreements between Essex Community College and nearby four-year institutions have led to a doubling of two-year transfer students. Systematic dialogues among school, college and university teachers have led cross-disciplinary teams in New York, California, and New Jersey to joint curriculum development and fresh discussions of testing and pedagogy.

More importantly, in most cities, a collaborative "culture" has been emerging. Postsecondary and community leaders now consult and plan with school colleagues and are beginning to accept some responsibility for student performance in the schools—in effect, they are broadening their mandate in critical ways.

The South African Partnership Program

Alerted to these American partnership efforts, in June, 1994, shortly after the landmark South African elections, a 10-person study group representing five South African universities and communities visited the United States. They stayed with UPP teams in the Bronx, Queens, Newark and Memphis, and attended our annual meeting in Richmond. In their group report, they noted the importance of UPP's mission for themselves, stressing the collegiality and flexibility of UPP teams—essential characteristics for planning in the new South Africa. They also observed that with so many problems confronting South Africa, the American emphasis on B.A. degrees might not be theirs. After decades of distrust, frequent conversations among the principals would necessarily precede the setting of goals.

Later that fall, a six-person American team visited South Africa and participated in wide-ranging planning sessions. Clearly, redressing some consequences of apartheid was foremost in most South Africans' minds. The Pietermaritzburg team in Natal, for example, was deeply troubled by the "lost generation" of 18-35 year-olds who had earlier dropped out of secondary school because of violence or the fear of it. At the same time, teams were interested in capacity-building — helping to train the next generation of African leaders. Since the universities of Natal, Witswatersrand, Cape Town and Western Cape had all participated in substantial internship programs, there was a widespread hope that interns might be used to address some of the major problems staring at everyone.

During 1997, Carolyn Williams, President, Bronx Community College; Margaret Harrington, Chief Executive, New York City School Programs; and I visited South Africa to help local teams plan and to begin discussing the creation of a national partnership center that would offer teams a long-term resource. In 1997, Ford awarded planning or full grants to four of the original five universities and the Northern Teknikon Transvaal, and South African teams visited New York-area sites and participated in the national UPP meeting in Phoenix.

Through future reciprocal visits, Americans and South Africans will assist and learn from one another. In addition, theCenter will help South Africans determine if a South African partnership center is desirable. From July 31-August 7, 1998, in conjunction with South African colleagues, the Center will co-sponsor a Study Trip/Conference in Cape Town and Durban.

It seems to me that rich potential exists, whatever the form South Africans pursue partnerships. The value of a partnership emerges from how a team sets goals, sustains membership, incorporates newcomers, and makes ongoing decisions in ways that respect an agreed-upon plan and tap into the energy and passion of team members simultaneously.

South African and American leaders recognize that the educational, political and ethical challenges they confront are so formidable and interdependent that no one institution or sector of society can engage them alone. Both countries recognize that alliances between groups and institutions historically at odds or distant from one another may represent the direction of the future. No group can rebuild District Six by itself.


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© 1998 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

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