Education in the South African Context: A Multicultural Society and its Challenges – an Early History.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

 The South African education department is still struggling to shake off the legacy of Apartheid. Promises of equal education for all, irrespective of race, colour, or creed were made by the African National Congress as part of their Election Manifesto before the first democratic elections in 1994. Furthermore, while education for all is enshrined in the country’s constitution:

Regarding section 29 [of the constitution,] everyone has the right to a basic education, including adult basic education; [1]  and to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible.”

Furthermore, the constitution states that ‘these rights place a duty on the state to respect an individual’s right to education. It also imposes a positive obligation on the state to promote and provide education by putting in place and maintaining an education system that is responsive to the needs of the country.’

The question that begs is why is the South African education department still battling the practicalities of implementing the constitution? It must be said, that the country has come a long way since the dark days of Apartheid; however, there are still children living in the rural areas who do not have access to proper school facilities as well as expert teachers.

I believe that by looking at a concise history of education in South Africa, we will be able to find some clues as to why South African education practicalities are so convoluted and challenging to implement successfully.

Early history

The roots of the South African education system can be traced back to 1658. Six years after the Dutch East India Company established a colony at the Cape. This school was for the slave children who were captured from a Portuguese slaver and brought to the Cape by the Dutch. According to, the establishment of this school in South Africa’s history is hugely significant for two reasons:

  • It was thoroughly oppressive; a characteristic which was to become part and parcel of the South African education system. In a nutshell, the children were forced to take on new identities, the colonial authorities harshly treated them, and finally, they were provided with alcohol to keep them compliant.
  • In spite of the harsh treatment by the Dutch colonialists, the slaves and the local people began to organise themselves and taught themselves to read and write in groups, and they opened Madressahs or religious schools where they maintained their religion.

The British overtook the Dutch as the main colonisers at the Cape in 1785. They were responsible for establishing a proper education system as well as a well-organised attempt to anglicise the Cape colonies. Furthermore, this period ushers in significant social, economic, and political developments. The slave trade is abolished in Britain in 1807, and slavery is formally abolished in all colonies of the British empire, including the settlement at the Cape,  in 1833.

The British established the first education department in 1839 at the Cape; furthermore, an attempt at setting up an institutional structure in Natal (KwaZulu-Natal) was made in 1843, after the British annexed Natal as part of their colonisation efforts. These efforts only bore fruit in 1858. In the meantime, the education departments were set up in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal by 1863. The most important point to note from this period is that education was fully institutionalised and its aim was to develop a white identity.

Again, we draw from the resources made available to us via to note that “one might refer to this period as a period of state-building on the part of the white establishment.” For the most part, black and white children were not educated in the same classroom; however, there is evidence that some of the oldest schools in the country such as SACS (South African College School) did teach children of colour in the same classroom as the white children.

Final thoughts

Finally, it must also be noted that during this period, many missionary organisations took steps to provide quality education for both black and white children. However, these developments did not reduce the conflict between the missional communities and the school system of the day. In fact, it continued right up until just before the 1994 democratic elections.

In conclusion, I believe it is imperative for all of the role players in the South African education community to work together for the good of the young people who are trying to make a better life for themselves. If we do not take drastic measures to improve the lot of South Africa’s youth, we will end up sitting on a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. My personal opinion is that this bomb has already started to explode!

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