"Academic non-segregation and social segregation": Wits as an "open" university, 1939-1959

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Murray, Bruce
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In 1959 the Extension of University Education Act provided that the 'white' universities in South Africa could no longer admit black students, except in special circumstances and only with ministerial position. Prior to then two of the four English-speaking universities, the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and the University of Cape Town, operated as 'open' universities, supposedly in the sense that their criteria of admission were purely academic, and were applied without regard to considerations of race, colour, or creed. The position in 1959 was that there were 297 black students at Wits, as against 4813 whites, and 633 black students at UCT, including 461 'Coloureds', as against 4471 whites. Neither Natal nor Rhodes were 'open' in the sense that Wits and UCT were. From 1936 onwards the Durban branch of the Natal University College did provide separate part-time classes for blacks, and in 1951 a medical school for blacks was established in Durban under the University of Natal, but otherwise blacks were excluded from the regular classes at the university. As Edgar Brookes confessed in his History of the University of Natal, published in 1966, 'it is not possible to avoid regretting the failure of the University ever to concede real unhindered equality to non—European students'. Rhodes University, for its part, made no provision for admitting black students. While Wits and Cape Town clearly differed from the other too teaching universities in South Africa, they were never completely 'open' universities, and they certainly never granted "unhindered equality" to their black students. The official policy of the University of the Witwatersrand was one of "academic non-segregation and social segregation". In terms of that policy, black students were to be offered the maximum practicable access to the academic facilities available in the University and they were to be treated in academic matters with racial impartiality, but beyond the academic sphere social contact with white students was to be severely curtailed. Outside of the classroom, blacks were excluded from the main residences, the sports fields, and social activities organised by whites. In other words, the University's policy towards black students was that they ware there for academic purposes only, and were not thereafter to participate in the general social and sporting life of the University. In 1952 the Students' Representative Council at Wits challenged the University's policy of "social segregation", but was unable to change it. The University Council, sensitive to the fact that the 'open' universities represented a target for the Nationalist Government which had come to power in 1948, was more anxious to intensify rather than relax the policy of social segregation, and there was little support in Senate foe an abandonment of that policy. In the main, the liberals in the Senate were satisfied with the University's 'middle way' of "academic non-segregation and social segregation"; it allowed blacks access to the University's academic facilities without gratuitously challenging the prejudices of the wider white society. The historic role of liberals in the Senate, notably Professor R.F.A. Hoernle prior to his death in 1943, was to seek to open the University to black admissions; the liberal heirs of Hoernle never challenged the policy of social segregation at the University. Their efforts were directed rather towards obliging the errant departments, particularly Dentistry, to conform to the University's general policy of 'open' admissions. Black students, for their part, also refrained from launching any systematic campaign against the University's policy of social segregation. They sensed that for them to mount such a campaign would only prove counter-productive. Their concern throughout was to ensure access to the University's academic facilities. The focus of this paper is on the University of the Witwatersrand's admission policies between the outbreak of World War II in 1939 and the passage of the Extension of University Education Act in 1959. In 1934 already the University Counci1 had accepted the principle of normally admitting black students to lecture courses at Wits, but prior to 1939 only a very limited number of blacks had enrolled, largely because blacks continued to be excluded from a clinical training in both medicine and dentistry. The war itself served to accelerate the whole process by which Wits, and more especially the medical school, was opened up to blacks. By the war's end there were some 150 black students at Wits, including 82 in the medical school, out of a student population of three thousand.
African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented May 1988
University of the Witwatersrand. History