No entry for Ms Reddy

Racial quotas are operating at Natal University medical school.

MS PRAVINI REDDY, the brilliant young Indian student — she got six As in her matric — who has been refused admission to Natal University medical school is not the first Indian student to be turned down despite her merit. Not long ago the daughter of an Indian doctor teaching at the medical school was refused admission even though she had better marks than at least one of the whites accepted. The doctor resigned in fury from the school and most of the Indian faculty took his side.

Under apartheid the medical school was the only one reserved for blacks. Even when apartheid was abandoned many of the school’s Indian staff were keen to keep it that way. While white medical students favour UCT, Wits or Stellenbosch, Indian medical students, with their strong family tradition, prefer to stay at home while they study. Given that the medical school is in Durban, home to half the country’s Indian population, the arrangement worked very snugly and there was great resistance to its becoming non-racial and opening up to competition from equally well-educated whites.

The solution — officially denied but always applied — is a system of racial quotas. To have any legitimacy at all such quotas have to have some relationship to demography. Indians make up only 2.5 per cent of the population of South Africa yet have always been the largest group in the medical school. The school found a way around this by taking into account that there are slightly more Indians than whites in KwaZulu-Natal. In addition, it argues that whites were the advantaged while Indians were part of the previously disadvantaged population — though many of the Indian applicants were the sons and daughters of affluent professionals and not a few had been to top private schools such as Michaelhouse and Hilton.

With these considerations in mind the school settled on a white quota of 3 per cent, a Coloured quota of 9 per cent, an Indian quota of 19 per cent and an African quota of 69 per cent. Since it is always difficult to fill either the African or the Coloured quota with candidates who are likely to be able to graduate, the medical school has adopted a policy of filling any shortfall in these disadvantaged groups on a quota of six Indians for every one white, again in clear defiance of demography.

The government’s policy, however, is to increase the number of African doctors. To comply with this the school decided to expand its intake of 97 in 1996 to 186 in 1999, though this is more than either the laboratories or the hospital wards can cope with. This expansion was the only way to bump up African numbers without cutting back on Indian entrants. It has not only allowed Indians to retain their dominant position in the school but to increase their numbers from 50 entrants in 1996 to 83 in 1999. The result is that Indians currently have 45 per cent of the places (over twice their quota) whereas not much more than half the African quota is filled. Despite all that, there are still Indian students as well qualified as Ms Reddy being refused admission.

No wonder the notion of founding a wholly private medical school is often discussed in Durban, the assumption being that it would operate on a strictly meritocratic basis and, as a result, be almost exclusively Indian. This might not turn out be true however. With the country’s other medical schools wrestling with affirmative action admission policies, one that was run on academic merit would quickly rise to the top of the league and attract the best and the brightest from every community.