Away with minorities, away with democracy?

June 20 2014

The Mail & Guardian article titled “Too few black students, says Stats SA” states that South Africa cannot generate high-level skills from a 3.2% attendance at higher education by black students. Statistician general Pali Lehohla suggested that the racial distribution of students attending universities – 3.2% black, 18.7% white, 9.2% Indian, Asian and 3.1% coloured – showed that the number of black students needed to rise.

Rather than examining these statements and figures critically, the article presents them as valid facts. They are not. To put the numbers in their proper perspective, the article could have listed the racial distribution of students enrolled at higher educations reported in the Statistics South Africa statistical release P0318 rev October 2013: 62.7% black students, 23.2% white students, 9.2% coloured students, 5% Indian or Asian.

This means that the number of black students comprises almost two thirds of the total number of students at higher education. The figures presented by Lehohla are “corrected” for the ethnicity distribution of the South African population. It tells us that among the black and coloured populations, the relative number of students going to the university is lower than that of other ethnic groups. 

This does of course not validate the statement that the number of black students at higher education needs to rise because it is disproportionate to the demographic distribution in South Africa. It certainly does not imply that the economy will improve if this would be the case. 

This questionable presentation of the statistics must also be considered against the relevant trends that have not been mentioned. For example, the fact that while there is an increase in participation in education at lower levels, the percentage of youngsters participating in higher education between the ages of 18 to 24 (census 2011) have dropped since 1996.

Lehohla then moves away from statistics onto a dangerous path when advising ” … that perhaps a proportion of blacks similar to that of whites is what’s necessary … ” 

This is a disturbing logic (to get the economy going) as it is the number of skilled people that gets a national economy going, not the distribution of those skills among its ethnic groups.  

With black people representing 80% of the population and the remaining 20% representing the other three racial groups, to implement this logic, the already high entrance threshold based on ethnicity and not on academic performance will have to be increased. The consequences are evident. 

The number of students from this minority group not getting higher education increases and discriminates the right of these students to attend higher education. Those who are lucky to study oversees will leave, and the unfortunate ones are severely victimised by having the wrong ethnic background. 

It looks as if the concept of what democracy stands for is replaced by what is called representative democracy. Whereas the first is characterised by interaction between a majority and a minority, the virtue of which is that the majority respects and considers the minority, the latter, representative democracy, justifies the vilification and even exclusion of the minority, basically considering it as an enemy.  

More and more statistical data appears selectively presented to support rather than test a desired outcome. Take the recent electoral outcome for example: that outcome was only considered relative to the population that took the trouble to vote. If it would have been considered also relative to the (larger) population that has the right to vote, then non-voters with voting rights would weigh the interpretation of the electoral outcome. 

This would imply that those who felt lost in the degradation of electoral debates – those who lost their confidence in the electoral principle or worse in the government as such and therefore refused to vote – do send a message of which the significance could not be ignored.

Accordingly, it would be impossible for the government to say that it will only consider the input of the biggest union in a labour sector when advising and implementing a policy affecting the entire sector, just because smaller unions are considered unrepresentative.

What might improve our economy, our education and our society would be to set an example of critical and ethical thinking, sensitising the readers, and train our students into critical and ethical thinking; to make them critical citizens that can understand and question research outcomes and make them look through government propaganda.

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