South Africa Table of Contents

Schools in South Africa, as elsewhere, reflect society's political philosophy and goals. The earliest mission schools aimed to inculcate literacy and new social and religious values, and schools for European immigrants aimed to preserve the values of previous generations. In the twentieth century, the education system assumed economic importance as it prepared young Africans for low-wage labor and protected the privileged white minority from competition. From the 1950s to the mid-1990s, no other social institution reflected the government's racial philosophy of apartheid more clearly than the education system. Because the schools were required both to teach and to practice apartheid, they were especially vulnerable to the weaknesses of the system.

Many young people during the 1980s were committed to destroying the school system because of its identification with apartheid. Student strikes, vandalism, and violence seriously undermined the schools' ability to function. By the early 1990s, shortages of teachers, classrooms, and equipment had taken a further toll on education.

South Africa's industrial economy, with its strong reliance on capital-intensive development, provided relatively few prospects for employment for those who had only minimal educational credentials, or none at all. Nationwide literacy was less than 60 percent throughout the 1980s, and an estimated 500,000 unskilled and uneducated young people faced unemployment by the end of the decade, according to the respected Education Foundation. At the same time, job openings for highly skilled workers and managers far outpaced the number of qualified applicants. These problems were being addressed in the political reforms of the 1990s, but the legacies of apartheid--the insufficient education of the majority of the population and the backlog of deficiencies in the school system--promised to challenge future governments for decades, or perhaps generations.

Early Development

Many African societies placed strong emphasis on traditional forms of education well before the arrival of Europeans. Adults in Khoisan- and Bantu-speaking societies, for example, had extensive responsibilities for transmitting cultural values and skills within kinship-based groups and sometimes within larger organizations, villages, or districts. Education involved oral histories of the group, tales of heroism and treachery, and practice in the skills necessary for survival in a changing environment.

In many Nguni-speaking chiefdoms of southern Africa, highly regimented age-groups of young men acquired knowledge and skills vital to their survival and prestige under the instruction of respected military, religious, or political leaders. The socialization of women, although sometimes done within age-groups, was more often in small groups of siblings or cousins, and it emphasized domestic and agricultural skills necessary to the survival of the family. In all of these settings, the transmission of religious values was a vital element of education.

The socialization of African youth was sometimes interrupted by warfare or political upheaval. More serious disruptions occurred in the late nineteenth century and the twentieth century, when government policies drew large numbers of adult men away from their homes for long periods of employment in mines or urban industries. Women were heads of households for months or years at a time. And after apartheid became entrenched in the early 1950s, security forces sometimes removed entire villages from their land and relocated them to less desirable areas in the interest of white economic development.

The earliest European schools in South Africa were established in the Cape Colony in the late seventeenth century by Dutch Reformed Church elders committed to biblical instruction, which was necessary for church confirmation (see Early European Settlement, ch. 1). In rural areas, itinerant teachers (meesters ) taught basic literacy and math skills. British mission schools proliferated after 1799, when the first members of the London Missionary Society arrived in the Cape Colony.

Language soon became a sensitive issue in education. At least two dozen English-language schools operated in rural areas of the Cape Colony by 1827, but their presence rankled among devout Afrikaners, who considered the English language and curriculum irrelevant to rural life and Afrikaner values. Throughout the nineteenth century, Afrikaners resisted government policies aimed at the spread of the English language and British values, and many educated their children at home or in the churches.

After British colonial officials began encouraging families to emigrate from Britain to the Cape Colony in 1820, the Colonial Office screened applicants for immigration for background qualifications. They selected educated families, for the most part, to establish a British presence in the Cape Colony, and after their arrival, these parents placed a high priority on education. Throughout this time, most religious schools in the eastern Cape accepted Xhosa children who applied for admission, and in Natal many other Nguni-speaking groups sent their children to mission schools after the mid-nineteenth century. The government also financed teacher training classes for Africans as part of its pacification campaign throughout the nineteenth century.

By 1877 some 60 percent of school-age children in Natal were enrolled in school, as were 49 percent in the Cape Colony. In the Afrikaner republics, however, enrollments remained low--only 12 percent in the Orange Free State and 8 percent in the Transvaal--primarily the result of Afrikaner resistance to British education. Enrollments in these republics increased toward the end of the century, after the government agreed to the use of Afrikaans in the schools and to allow Afrikaner parents greater control over primary and secondary education.

By the late nineteenth century, three types of schools were receiving government assistance--ward schools, or small rural schools generally employing one teacher; district schools, providing primary-level education to several towns in an area; and a few secondary schools in larger cities. But during the last decades of that century, all four provinces virtually abolished African enrollment in government schools. African children attended mission schools, for the most part, and were taught by clergy or by lay teachers, sometimes with government assistance.

Higher education was generally reserved for those who could travel to Europe, but in 1829 the government established the multiracial South African College, which later became the University of Cape Town. Religious seminaries accepted a few African applicants as early as 1841. In 1852 British officials in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State acknowledged the right of Afrikaners to establish their own institutions of higher learning, and based on this understanding, Britain's incoming governor--Sir George Grey--allocated small sums of money to help fund Afrikaner institutions. The government established Grey College--later the University of the Orange Free State--in Bloemfontein in 1855 and placed it under the supervision of the Dutch Reformed Church. The Grey Institute was established in Port Elizabeth in 1856; Graaff-Reinet College was founded in 1860. The Christian College was founded at Potchefstroom in 1869 and was later incorporated into the University of South Africa and renamed Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education.

Following the British victory in the South African War, the new representative of the Crown, Sir Alfred Milner, brought thousands of teachers from Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to instill the English language and British cultural values, especially in the two former Afrikaner republics. To counter the British influence, a group of Afrikaner churches proposed an education program, Christian National Education, to serve as the core of the school curriculum. The government initially refused to fund schools adopting this program, but Jan C. Smuts, the Transvaal leader who later became prime minister, was strongly committed to reconciliation between Afrikaners and English speakers, and he favored local control over many aspects of education. Provincial autonomy in education was strengthened in the early twentieth century, and all four provincial governments used government funds primarily to educate whites.

The National Party (NP) was able to capitalize on the fear of racial integration in the schools to build its support. The NP's narrow election victory in 1948 gave Afrikaans new standing in the schools, and after that, all high-school graduates were required to be proficient in both Afrikaans and English. The NP government also reintroduced Christian National Education as the guiding philosophy of education.

Education under Apartheid

The Bantu Education Act

The Bantu Education Act (No. 47) of 1953 widened the gaps in educational opportunities for different racial groups. Two of the architects of Bantu education, Dr. W.M. Eiselen and Dr. Hendrik F. Verwoerd, had studied in Germany and had adopted many elements of National Socialist (Nazi) philosophy. The concept of racial "purity," in particular, provided a rationalization for keeping black education inferior. Verwoerd, then minister of native affairs, said black Africans "should be educated for their opportunities in life," and that there was no place for them "above the level of certain forms of labour." The government also tightened its control over religious high schools by eliminating almost all financial aid, forcing many churches to sell their schools to the government or close them entirely.

Christian National Education supported the NP program of apartheid by calling on educators to reinforce cultural diversity and to rely on "mother-tongue" instruction in the first years of primary school. This philosophy also espoused the idea that a person's social responsibilities and political opportunities are defined, in large part, by that person's ethnic identity. The government also gave strong management control to the school boards, who were elected by the parents in each district.

Official attitudes toward African education were paternalistic, based on trusteeship and segregation. Black education was not supposed to drain government resources away from white education. The number of schools for blacks increased during the 1960s, but their curriculum was designed to prepare children for menial jobs. Per-capita government spending on black education slipped to one-tenth of spending on whites in the 1970s. Black schools had inferior facilities, teachers, and textbooks.

Soweto and Its Aftermath

Tensions over language in education erupted into violence on June 16, 1976, when students took to the streets in the Johannesburg township of Soweto. Their action was prompted by the decision of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of the Bantu education system, to enforce a regulation requiring that one-half of all high-school classes must be taught in Afrikaans. A harsh police response resulted in the deaths of several children, some as young as eight or nine years old. In the violence that followed, more than 575 people died, at least 134 of them under the age of eighteen.

Youthful ANC supporters abandoned school in droves; some vowed to "make South Africa ungovernable" to protest against apartheid education. Others left the country for military training camps run by the ANC or other liberation armies, mostly in Angola, Tanzania, or Eastern Europe. "Liberation before education" became their battle cry.

The schools suffered further damage as a result of the unrest of 1976. Vandals and arsonists damaged or destroyed many schools and school property. Students who tried to attend school and their teachers were sometimes attacked, and administrators found it increasingly difficult to maintain normal school activities. Some teachers and administrators joined in the protests.

The National Policy for General Affairs Act (No. 76) of 1984 provided some improvements in black education but maintained the overall separation called for by the Bantu education system. This act gave the minister of national education authority to determine general policy for syllabuses, examinations, and certification qualifications in all institutions of formal and informal education. But responsibility for implementing these policies was divided among numerous government departments and offices, resulting in a bewildering array of educational authorities: For example, the Department of Education and Training was responsible for black education outside the homelands. Each of the three houses of parliament--for whites, coloureds, and Indians--had an education department for one racial group, and each of the ten homelands had its own education department. In addition, several other government departments managed specific aspects of education.

Education was compulsory for all racial groups, but at different ages, and the law was enforced differently. Whites were required to attend school between the ages of seven and sixteen. Black children were required to attend school from age seven until the equivalent of seventh grade or the age of sixteen, but this law was enforced only weakly, and not at all in areas where schools were unavailable. For Asians and coloured children, education was compulsory between the ages of seven and fifteen.

The discrepancies in education among racial groups were glaring. Teacher: pupil ratios in primary schools averaged 1:18 in white schools, 1:24 in Asian schools, 1:27 in coloured schools, and 1:39 in black schools. Moreover, whereas 96 percent of all teachers in white schools had teaching certificates, only 15 percent of teachers in black schools were certified. Secondary-school pass rates for black pupils in the nationwide, standardized high-school graduation exams were less than one-half the pass rate for whites.

As the government implemented the 1984 legislation, new violence flared up in response to the limited constitutional reforms that continued to exclude blacks (see Constitutional Change, ch. 4). Finally, the government began to signal its awareness that apartheid could not endure. By 1986 President P.W. Botha (1984-89) had stated that the concept of apartheid was "outdated," and behind-the-scenes negotiations had begun between government officials and imprisoned ANC leader Nelson Mandela. The gap between government spending on education for different racial groups slowly began to narrow, and penalties for defying apartheid rules in education began to ease.

The School System in the 1990s

Reorganizing education was one of the most daunting tasks the government faced as apartheid laws were being lifted in the 1990s. President Frederik W. (F.W.) de Klerk, in a speech to Parliament in January 1993, stressed the need for a nonracial school system, with enough flexibility to allow communities to preserve their religious and cultural values and their home language. De Klerk established the Education Co-ordination Service to manage education during the political transition of the 1990s, and he charged it with eliminating the bureaucratic duplication that had resulted from apartheid education.

In August 1993, de Klerk gathered together leading experts on education in the National Education and Training Forum to formulate a policy framework for restructuring education. Anticipating rising education costs, the government earmarked 23.5 percent of the national budget in fiscal year (FY--see Glossary) 1993-94 for education. It established new education offices and gave them specific responsibilities within the reorganization plan. When the new school year began in January 1995, all government-run primary and secondary schools were officially integrated, and the first stage of the transformation in education had begun almost without violence.

The new policies were difficult to implement, however, and many policy details remained to be worked out. Education was compulsory for all children between age seven and age sixteen, for example, but there had not been enough time or resources to provide adequate schools and teachers for the entire school-age population. The schools received government assistance for teachers' salaries only; they had to charge fees for equipment and supplies, but pupils who could not pay school fees could not be expelled from school.

In 1995 South Africa had a total of 20,780 primary and secondary schools. Of these, 20,303 belonged to the government, and 477 were private. In addition, 226 specialized schools were in operation for gifted pupils or students with special needs (see table 3, Appendix). More than 11 million pupils were enrolled, about 6.95 million in primary school and 4.12 million in secondary schools. The number of teachers in the regular primary and secondary schools was 344,083, of whom 226,900 were black. Of the white teachers, more than 60 percent were Afrikaners. Men teachers were paid substantially more than women; women's salaries averaged 83 percent of men's salaries for the same job with equal qualifications.

Higher Education

University-level education suffered under apartheid. When the NP came to power in 1948, there were ten government-subsidized institutions of higher learning--four with classes taught in English; four with classes taught in Afrikaans; one bilingual correspondence university; and the South African Native College at Fort Hare, in which most classes were taught in English but other languages were permitted. The four Afrikaans universities and one of the English-language universities (Rhodes University) admitted white students only. Students of all races attended the University of Cape Town, the University of the Witwatersrand, and the University of Natal, although some classes at these universities were segregated.

The Extension of University Education Act (No. 45) of 1959 prohibited established universities from accepting black students, except with the special permission of a cabinet minister. The government opened several new universities and colleges for black, coloured, and Indian students, and these students were allowed to attend a "white" university only if their "own" institutions became too overcrowded. The University of the North, established in 1959, for example, admitted students of Tsonga, Sotho, Venda, or Tswana descent only.

The 1959 law also gave the central government control over the South African Native College at Fort Hare (later the University of Fort Hare), and the government instituted a new policy of admitting Xhosa students only to that school. Several technikons (advanced-level technical schools) gave preference to students of one ethnic group. Overall, however, the 1959 legislation reduced opportunities for university education for blacks, and by 1978 only 20 percent of all university students in South Africa were black. During the 1980s, several university administrations, anticipating the dismal impact of the long-term racial biases in education, began admitting students from all racial groups.

As of the mid-1990s South Africa has twenty-one major universities, which are government-financed and open to students of all races. In addition, secondary-school graduates can attend one of fifteen technikons , 128 technical colleges, and seventy teacher-training colleges (which do not require high-school certificates for admission), or another in a wide array of teacher training institutions (see table 4, Appendix). Students in universities and teacher-training colleges numbered 362,000 in 1994, and the institutions themselves had 14,460 academic staff members. At technical colleges and technikons , students numbered 191,087, and teaching staff numbered 5,532.

Each university administration is headed by a government-appointed chancellor, the institution's senior authority; a vice chancellor; and a university council. The chancellor is often a civic leader or political figure whose primary function is to represent the university to the community. The university council, comprising members of the university and the community, names the vice chancellor or rector, who controls the administration of the institution. The vice chancellor generally holds office until age sixty-five.

The university senate manages academic and faculty affairs, under the vice chancellor's authority. Each university sets its own tuition costs and receives government funding based on student:faculty ratios and tuition receipts. The university academic year lasts thirty-six weeks; school terms and vacation periods are set by the university council. The government establishes general degree requirements, but the individual university's council and administration set specific requirements for each campus.

A variety of adult education opportunities are available. These include classes in basic literacy, in technical and vocational subjects, and in sports and leisure activities. Two universities, those of Cape Town and Witwatersrand, offer classes for instructors in adult education, and Witwatersrand has a course leading to a diploma for adult educators. Some of these programs are being reoriented in the 1990s to emphasize literacy training for the more than 8 million adults who cannot read.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress