Cosatu's Call for the Exclusion of Foreign Students on the Basis of Their Race

by Adv Jacques du Preez
Posted 6 June 2012
Adv J du Preez
The FW de Klerk Foundation

The FW de Klerk Foundation is concerned about a recent statement by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) asking that the admission of foreign white students to South African universities be reduced.

At a meeting of the federation’s executive committee last week, Cosatu called for “more acceptable ratios” between local and international students. Cosatu said that it wants universities to give priority to Southern African - rather than international - students. The federation says it believes that the high number of international students block access for local students. At the same meeting the federation urged that, “equity targets of university campuses be re-debated so that we can ensure that spaces for deserving African students are not filled by foreign white students”.

In terms of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol, South Africa has agreed that 5% of the total enrolments at South African universities should be reserved for SADC students.   We have already reached this target. In 2010, 46 496 (5.2%) came from SADC countries; a further 10 986 (1.2%) came from other African countries and 7 302 (0.8%) came from the rest of the world.  The remaining 93.8% were South Africans.  Since 2003, the percentage of students from the rest of the world has actually declined marginally, from 1% to 0.8%.

It is, therefore, difficult to understand why Cosatu is calling for a further reduction in the number of students from the rest of the world and why, in particular, it specifically refers to “white students”.  There is simply no truth in Cosatu’s contention that white foreign students are preventing African students from studying at our universities.

Anyone interested in promoting the international reputation of our universities should enthusiastically welcome students from all over the world - not just from Africa.   Also, foreign students pay international fees (about R60 000 per annum) compared to the R35 000 - R40 000 paid by South African and SADC students. Is Cosatu telling us that South African students should only be exposed to students from our own continent? Don’t they want students who come from China, India and Latin America? Or is it just white students from the rest of the world that they would like to exclude?

Cosatu’s statement raises two concerns:

Firstly, political interference of this kind undermines the autonomy of our universities. The Higher Education Act 101 of 1997 expressly states that the council of a public higher education institution, after consulting the senate of the public higher education institution, determines the admission policy of that public higher education institution.

Secondly, it is unacceptable to suggest that international students should be barred on the basis of their race. The founding value of non-racialism in our Constitution is just as applicable to foreigners as it is to South Africans. Any move to exclude foreign students from our universities on the basis of their race would take us back to the unacceptable academic discrimination of the past. There is no room in our society and in our Constitution for the idea that white people are less welcome in South Africa than black people.