brad brown_cc.jpgPrior to democratization and the election of President Nelson Mandela, South Africa had a very complex system of higher education. There were universities for English-speaking whites, Afrikaans-speaking whites, Indians, “coloureds” and “Africans.”

In the years just prior to the coming of democratic South Africa, there was some token desegregation but, since then, the scene has shifted.  All formerly white universities are now majority Black. Some are now headed by black presidents. Several schools have been combined into more comprehensive units designed to be inclusive.

Black students from other African countries are drawn to South African universities both at undergraduate levels, particularly in the academically more prestigious schools, and at the graduate levels everywhere.

Many of these students previously would have tried to go to England or North America and the availability of quality academic resources nearby has meant that many more students on the continent can have access to facilities such as high-powered electron microscopes. Resources have been made available to upgrade what South Africa calls historically disadvantaged institutions or HDIs.

I visited the superb new science facilities at the University of the Western Cape, an HDI, and the changes from the late 1990s were impressive.  Energetic newer black faculty members were evident throughout the system. However, when a country is faced with the need to expand the conditions of the small minority living in the first-world environment to the vast majority living in poverty and lack of opportunity, the challenges for higher education are great.

Many of the potential students come from rural or township areas where schooling opportunities are minimal.  For many black students, English is not their first language or the language spoken in the home. Yet the higher education system is designed for entrants to be significantly better prepared than the average student in the U.S.

For example, a science major will take science courses with no opportunity to take an English course to improve his or her writing skills, as most freshmen U.S. students do. Pre-college programs are limited.

The science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields so critical for a country’s economic growth have a dearth of South African black students, in contrast to black students from other countries.

There is a real challenge in getting students through the honors year, which is a prerequisite for graduate school. In graduate school, there is no course work, as the focus is on research efforts with an advisor. For those who do make it through post-graduate studies, the opportunities for rapid upward movement through the science professions are limited and much too slow to bring about the transformation needed to build a successful country and to successfully address critical environmental stresses.

I will be working in some of these areas through the new Project Access and the Ministry of Science is committed to supporting creative efforts.  The challenges are immense but South Africa is a country that successfully threw off apartheid, even though the apartheid system in the Cold War was supported by the West, and they did it without a destructive blood bath.  There is hope.

Brad Brown is the first vice president of the Miami-Dade NAACP. He is also a contractor with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where he works on African coastal and marine projects.

Photo: Brad Brown