The Ecphorizer

A South African Adventure
Herb Grosch

Issue #09 (May 1982)

Computer-sided education systems break through the apartheid barrier

Editor's Note: Herb and Nancy Grosch, Mensans from Silicon Valley, are a husband-wife team of data processing consultants and lecturers. They are presently roosting in Holland, but jet all over the world on consulting jobs.

Nancy and I

Computers have unique advantages for teaching South Africa's blacks.

were nervous about the racial problem in South Africa, although my own hesitancy was much reduced after an earlier trip to lecture for Burroughs. Still, she felt some pressures at work; the Dutch are very anti-SA. These diminished when I got a one-day commission from Control Data headquarters to inspect a computer shop near Capetown.

The University of the Western Cape is colored (that is, for halfbreeds and East Indians and such). It has 4,000 students, most of them quite poorly prepared; almost none have cars or even mopeds, and many hitchhike both ways every day. The head of the school, about whom more later, recognized many years ago that computer-aided education, with its lack of prejudice, [quoteright]infinite patience, and 24-hour availability, could very usefully supplement the usual lectures and discussion periods, and at least help even with laboratory work. In cooperation with Control Data, which has an industrial foothold in Johannesburg 800 miles away, the university installed a PLATO system - now up to 64 terminals, and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. I was asked to visit it with Nancy and make an informal report.

First we had lunch with the man who had the vision, a Dr. van der Ross. He holds the first Ph.D. granted a colored person from the (white) University of Capetown, is the founder of the (colored) Labor Party in the Cape region, and of the first newspaper to support it; is the colored member of many of the multiracial commissions the Pretoria government promulgates (some, fronts - others genuine). He is handsome, magnetic. Our CDC hosts had chosen a restaurant where he would be welcome (all fancy restaurants and hotels in the Republic are now "internationalized, but van der Ross is not personally popular with the harsher whites!) He drew so many salutations from other patrons we had to swivel him around with his back to the entrance, to talk to him!

He is primarily an educator - in fact, has taught lower grades as a young man, as well as done research and been a politician and a publisher. Magnificent guy! He sent us off to inspect his school, and later dispatched a copy of his latest book (accurately autographed) which caught up with us while we were touring.

The best story is about the biochemistry department, which has computerized some coursework in Afrikaans (students in black universities even have trouble with Afrikaans, since elementary schools teach in tribal languages -- Zulu, Xhosa and so on). Preparation for biochemistry is so poor that the pass rate for the national-level examinations is 10 percent.Last year there was a student strike, an apartheid action. It lasted until just before exams, and included a boycott of all classes. The department head expected no "passes" at all; instead, there were 15 percent! Answer? The students came in and did their computerized work, standing in line (along with the students from other courses) for the 32 terminals then installed. The department head is now a major PLATO supporter, country-wide.

The scene now shifts to Bophuthatswana, a former native enclave recently granted independence as a "homeland" (a term which the blacks despise). I was featured speaker at a big conference in Sun City, which is a Vegas-type operation outside apartheid and puritanism: gambling, bare breasts, a mixed black and white chorus, a championship golf course. They have already been entertained by Frank Sinatra, Cher (and Herb Grosch!).

There was a fancy dinner not only for the conference but to celebrate the inauguration of a South African computer society federation (including user groups and the manufacturer organizations as well as the technical societies). And guess who sat between the banquet speaker and the new confederation president? Nancy! And guess who the speaker was? The Minister of Manpower of the Republic - liberal enough to come to Sun City with his wife, and to speak in English, although still a rock-ribbed National Party official.

After he quizzed the poor doll about every American president back to McKinley, he asked her about her adventures in SA. She gave him one minute of Kruger and a torrent about the University and van der Ross, PLATO (which he knew hardly anything about), and how to solve his teacher shortage and training problems. Great scene! I was on the other side of a big table, and watched proudly as she laid it on him - was much too far away to help.

I've suggested to Control Data that they make a Big Thing out of the PLATO success and the minister's interest. Whether Norris & Co. will or not I can't tell -- the opportunity is there, but of course the SA venue is extremely touchy.

My impression from two visits is that the U.S. and British (ICL) suppliers, most of their customers, are giving blacks and colored real opportunities. It is perhaps the best single aspect of SA commercial/industrial life. But the racial problem presses in - you see the dirty old busses and unairconditioned trains carrying away the working blacks to Transkei and such at the end of the day, and you remember the black miners underground, and the poorly educated kids. Question is, do you want to go, and help the good side - or stay home and boycott the bad? On balance, having seen van der Ross and his ambitious students, we're glad we went.  

Jet-setter Herb Grosch is a true computer pioneer; he was the first IBM employee to wear a beard.  He is on the editorial staffs of Datamation and ComputerWorld magazines.

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