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In South Africa, universities are wrestling with an issue familiar to Americans: affirmative action. Nearly two decades after the end of apartheid, South Africa is still coping with a lingering educational gap between black and white. Now, a debate about college admissions has reopened a national dialogue on race.

Anders Kelto has our story.

ANDERS KELTO: The University of Cape Town sits on the lower slopes of Devil's Peak. Its red roofs and ivy-covered walls form a striking image against the backdrop of sky and mountains. Class lets out and dozens of students gather on the steps of Jameson Hall.

During apartheid, UCT was an all-white university. But now, there are black, white, Asian and mixed-race faces in nearly equal numbers. It's the kind of diversity usually reserved for promotional materials. But the way in which UCT has achieved this diversity is somewhat controversial. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: During apartheid, the University of Cape Town was not all-white; it had a minimal number of black, mixed-race and Indian students.]

To be admitted, white students must score the equivalent of straight A's. Meanwhile, black and mixed-race students can get in with plenty of B's. UCT doesn't make this policy a secret. Admissions cutoffs are listed by race in the prospectus.

Max Price is the vice chancellor. He says the policy reflects the fact that black students in South Africa are still highly disadvantaged.

Mr. MAX PRICE (Vice Chancellor, University of Cape Town): Although we are now 15 years post-Apartheid, it's still the case that 80 percent of black students go to very poor township schools or rural schools. Their teachers are poorly qualified, their schools are poorly equipped, and the result is that in the national exams, they perform poorly.

KELTO: The government has gone to great lengths to improve an education system that once taught black students how to wash dishes rather than learn math and science. And though some improvements have been made, the gap between black and white is still immense.

Price says that without race-based admission goals, schools would be nearly as white as they were during Apartheid, despite the fact that whites make up less than 10 percent of the population. And he says that would be unacceptable.

Mr. PRICE: People would think there was something wrong. It would produce social unrest. It would produce a sense that the country hasn't changed.

KELTO: Across town, engineer Michael Tladi reviews blueprints for a new government hospital.

Mr. MICHAEL TLADI (Engineer): This is for ventilation systems.

KELTO: Michael is black and grew up on the streets of Pretoria, bouncing between children's homes after his mother abandoned him. He went to an underfunded township school and earned good, but not great, marks. His teachers saw his potential and encouraged him to apply to the country's top schools. He was elated when he received an acceptance letter from UCT.

Mr. TLADI: You have been chosen to come and study at UCT. I didn't even read further. I just was so excited.

KELTO: But like many disadvantaged students, he was overwhelmed when he arrived.

Mr. TLADI: I was not prepared financially, I was not prepared academically, and then I was not prepared to move into a new environment.

KELTO: He struggled and almost dropped out, but he eventually completed a degree in engineering and got a job with the provincial government. He also volunteers at a children's home and says he hopes his story can inspire underprivileged kids.

Mr. TLADI: Because they know that I was in the same plight, same lifestyle, they can see that in fact, they also can do it.

KELTO: Back on campus, Cynthia Ngebe sits with friends in the cafeteria. She says affirmative action as a necessary evil.

Ms. CYNTHIA NGEBE: It's giving them an opportunity. In some families now, they're going to have engineers for the very first time, you know.

KELTO: But others, like Amanda Ngwenya, disagree. She worries that the policy is creating a sense of entitlement among her black peers.

Ms. AMANDA NGWENYA: It means that they think that because I'm black, I deserve special privileges. Because I'm black, I need to be treated differently, even though they are just as capable.

KELTO: It's a sticky debate, complicated by the legacy of Apartheid. But as South Africa's past grows more distant, the question becomes: When, if ever, should race not matter?

For NPR News, I'm Anders Kelto in Cape Town, South Africa.

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