When 24-year-old Nyiko Lebogang Shikwambane left her home on the outskirts of Johannesburg to begin her law degree at the University of Witswatersrand in 2011, she brought with her the aspirations of a family of teachers and nurses—the only esteemed professions most black people living in South Africa could aspire to during the time of apartheid.
The University of Witwatersrand, known locally as “Wits,” is among South Africa’s one-time predominantly white educational institutions, which, during apartheid, sporadically butted heads with the government over their admissions policies. While a small number of black students were admitted to Wits and other similar, mostly English-medium, prestigious universities like the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Rhodes University, their student bodies remained largely white at the time. But within several years of the end of apartheid, the student bodies at many of these universities was majority black.
After beginning her studies at Wits, Shikwambane, who had attended a formerly all-white primary school, observed an unspoken hierarchy in her racially mixed, majority-black classes. “The white kids”—most of whom had gone to formerly all-white primary schools—“were the only ones answering questions in class. They were the only ones comfortable speaking in a class of 120 people,” she said. “The white kids would get the best grades. The white kids would circulate notes from other learners who were there the year before.” Most of the black students took notes using pen and paper, Shikwambane noticed. White students generally had laptops as well as iPads—Wits was the first place she had ever seen one.