Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu visited the University on Tuesday South African apartheid and receive an honorary degree, attracting more than 3,000 people to Northrop Auditorium.
Tutu discussed the South African education system under apartheid with University Vice President and Executive Vice Provost Robert Jones, who helped Tutu recruit black South Africans to study in the United States.
“What happened in education in South Africa was what happened in other spheres of life,” Tutu said during his conversation with Jones as a part of the College of Continuing Education’s “Great Conversations” series.
The South African Education Program was created in 1979 as a way to “compensate for the lack of educational opportunities for black South Africans,” Jones said.
The program accepted between 110 and 125 black South African undergraduate and graduate students each year to study in the United States at more than 200 U.S. colleges and universities.
Jones became involved in the program when he was approached by then-University President C. Peter Magrath about going to South Africa to help recruit students.
White academics from the United States had problems recruiting black students, Jones said.
“A lot of these students hadn’t had contact with whites in general, and it was very difficult for these white academics to get these students to open up during the interview process,” he said.
Jones agreed to help the program, and he and another black scholar split the job of going through applications and interviewing students.
“I not only felt it was something I should be involved with, but something I had to do,” Jones said.
Several of the students in the program attended the University, Jones said, including one student who worked on her agronomy doctorate with Jones.
During their discussion, Jones and Tutu recounted the impact of the program on an apartheid South Africa.
“One of the most important things we were seeking to do is make our children know that they too could reach for the stars, that they too could say ‘the sky’s the limit,’ ” Tutu said.
“Even if only one child goes on to experience this liberation and develops their potential to the fullest possible extent, that would be a success,” he said.
The program instead saw hundreds of students receive an education in the United States, only to go back to an oppressed society.
“What was quite amazing was that over 90 percent of those who came away from South Africa went back,” Tutu said. “It was almost for many people perverse.”
The impact, Tutu said, was far-reaching, because it became apparent to many blacks in South Africa that they could change the system of apartheid.
“They were able to spread quietly the message we were trying to give our children: that you too can make it,” Tutu said.
In his visits to South Africa after the end of apartheid, Jones said, he saw South African Education Program graduates in leadership positions.
“It’s interesting to go back and find these people in interesting and, in some cases, powerful positions in the country,” Jones said. “They didn’t come here to get an education for their benefit – it was for the common good.”
Tutu won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent work against apartheid, but he said Tuesday he owes much of his recognition to the youth who fought in South Africa and the international pressure put on the apartheid regime.
“It was a crazy time, but also an exhilarating time,” Tutu said. “We knew the world was supporting us.”
Elizabeth Dunbar covers international affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]