New Opportunities for South Africa

The struggling country is counting on industry-education partnerships to meet its desperate need for new engineers and to provide its black citizens a chance for a better life.

By Don Boroughs

By Don Boroughs At 8:15 on a February morning, Kefilwe Wechoemang sits in a lecture hall with 66 of her black peers, their eyes riveted on lecturer Gus Garrens. It is the first day in the academic year at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg's leading tertiary institution, and Garrens is explaining the grueling schedule for the Pre-University Bursary Scheme that will occupy Wechoemang for the coming year. There are lectures and tutorials in mechanics, physics, mathematics, chemistry, communications, computing, and graphics; Wednesday afternoon field trips to factories, laboratories, and mines; and Toastmasters public speaking nights on Mondays. Certain weeks will be devoted to life-skills workshops, encompassing everything from assertiveness training to cocktail-party behavior.

Wechoemang will also spend six weeks of the year working for her sponsoring company, diamond mining giant De Beers. For her efforts, she will earn no course credit, but if the 16-year-old survives this year, she will have at least as good a chance of hanging an engineering degree on her wall as any white kid from a suburban high school. The enthusiasm in the room runs strong. "Inside, I was born to be a metallurgical engineer," Wechoemang gushes.

Even before South Africa embarked upon its political miracle, a much smaller but equally surprising miracle started taking shape in the nation's engineering classrooms. Until the mid-1980s, only a handful of black engineers graduated from major South African universities. Just a decade and a half later, black students actually make up the majority of the incoming engineering students at South Africa's largest English-speaking universities. Though many challenges remain, this achievement puts South African engineering departments at the forefront of the effort to repair the educational inequities of the apartheid past.

Old Problems, New Solutions

The minuscule number of black engineering graduates under the old regime was no accident. In 1959, Parliament forbade the admission of black students to white universities without special permission from the minister of education. Apartheid authorities insisted that prospective black engineering students first obtain a science degree at one of the inferior black universities before starting a "white" engineering degree. The hurdle was too high for all but the most determined few.

In time, enforcement of the dreaded law waned, and black students began trickling into engineering programs. But nearly all of them failed. Learning in English-a second language for most black South Africans-and grounded with a second-rate apartheid education, they had little hope of completing the most demanding degree offered by South African universities.

Clearly, opportunity alone was not sufficient. Black engineering education needed a corporate kick start. The first sign of action came in 1980, when Anglo American Corporation awoke to the fact that South Africa's chronic shortage of engineers could be solved only by tapping the broader population. But the half-year cram course that Anglo founded with the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) and a similar "bridging" course at the University of Cape Town were dismal failures. Since the programs were not integrated into the schools of engineering, where the faculty understood the kind of foundation that engineers needed, most bridging students were ill-prepared for the demands of the degree.

So the WITS engineering faculty started from scratch in 1986, launching the Pre-University Bursary Scheme (PBS). This one-year program supplements academic coursework with a broad introduction to the world of engineering. Students coming into the program have "zero exposure to engineering," explains Jeff Hillman, director of the WITS Academic Development Center, "whereas most of the white kids have spent time watching dad fiddle around with the car, or building model airplanes."

The introduction includes several lab projects, and once a year students compete in groups to design and build the sturdiest crane from wood, glue, and string. Even in the communications class, students build a span out of Styrofoam cups before writing a report on the results. Weekly factory field trips expose students to practical applications. PBS graduate Kennedy Mogotsi says the trips "really opened up our eyes. . . . We could then say, 'Ah, I remember on the factory tour we saw this, and this is how it works.'" Today, Mogotsi, along with two other PBS graduates, are partners in one of South Africa's first black engineering consulting firms.

Beyond the Basics

Hillman, who helped found PBS, believes that it is equally important to introduce budding engineers to skills far from the normal engineering curriculum. "Chemistry, math, and physics are important, but if we don't develop these students personally, they just don't cope with the academic demands," he explains. So time management, interpersonal communication, and public speaking take their place with vectors and catalysts. By the end of the course, each student must qualify for a Toastmasters certificate. Graduates rank the speech-making experience as one of the most valuable elements of PBS. "There's a saying that the difference between a scientist and an engineer is that an engineer can communicate his ideas," says Mogotsi. "The whole Toastmasters thing prepares the students to communicate their ideas in a corporate environment."

The change in curriculum brought about remarkable improvements. Students from the first four years of the PBS program who continued on to the degree program had a 57 percent chance of graduating, a success rate equal to that of their white peers. More significantly, the comparable graduation rate for black students who chose to go directly into their freshman year without participating in PBS-or who lacked a PBS scholarship-was a mere 17 percent. Samuel Matemane readily admits that his township schooling "wasn't very good," but with the help of PBS he is now just two years away from a degree in electrical engineering. "I don't think I would have made it if I had gone straight into first-year," the 21-year-old acknowledges.

Other universities offer different paths for black engineering students who want or need help. At the University of Natal in Durban, students in the bridging year earn credits for their mathematics and technical drawing courses. Robin Reynolds, who heads up the program, says that adding the two credits in 1994 had a "significant effect on levels of motivation and success rate." At the University of Cape Town, bridging students are even more closely integrated into the mainstream curriculum, but the first two years of the degree are spread over three years to ease the transition. Jeff Jawitz, the engineering school's education development officer, believes that black students work better if the university shows some respect for their high school studies. "Forcing them to do courses without credit is a recipe for fomenting anger and resentment," Jawitz warns.

High-school students are most often recruited to engineering by corporations. Anglo American identifies promising black high school seniors and brings them to the city of Durban twice a year for a week of intensive instruction. The best of those students are selected for scholarships. The national electricity company, Eskom, has one employee who works full time visiting hundreds of schools to promote engineering careers and distribute scholarship applications. Since 1986, 32 companies have sponsored more than 700 PBS students. In exchange for five years of free tuition and dormitory fees, the scholars commit to working for their sponsoring company after graduation.

Those in charge of selling the engineering profession to South African high school students and their parents face a daunting challenge. "There's no status associated with being an engineer in the black community," says Hillman. "Your mom wants you to be a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher." And black students who are familiar with South African workplaces have another reason for avoiding the field. A job in engineering, particularly one in the mines, is likely to bring a young black person in contact with some of the most racist white South Africans. When the PBS program first began placing students on work sites as part of their training, two black students were beaten up at a formerly "whites-only" dormitory for skilled mine employees.

Ongoing Challenges

The work environment is continually improving for black engineers, as affirmative action opens up more opportunities. But engineering educators worry that the supply of potential engineering students is shrinking. In the past five years, the number of South African high school seniors taking the advanced mathematics required for entrance into engineering programs has fallen from 88,000 to 69,000. "The pool we can draw on has diminished, and there are more people fishing in the same pool," grumbles Jan Reynders, WITS's engineering dean. One reason for the decline is that schools try to inflate their scores on the nationwide exams for seniors by encouraging students to avoid advanced math-and the more difficult exams that come with it. Improving scores for advanced math is difficult because apartheid education is largely intact. Many of the same undereducated and undermotivated teachers are still running classrooms.

Universities and corporations have begun to do their part to rectify engineering's pale past in South Africa, but the transformation will not be complete until the public education system begins preparing junior engineers from the day they arrive in primary school.

Don Boroughs is a freelance writer and photographer in Johannesburg, South Africa.


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