Education in the South African Context: A Multicultural Society and its Challenges – The Middle Years

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Part 1 of this discourse on education in the South African context laid the foundation by noting that teaching in the late 1800s primarily emphasised the education of white children with the notable exceptions made by missionary organisations to provide quality education for all children irrespective of race.

SAHistory.org once again provides us with enough insight into political turmoil in the 19th and how it affected the education of all of the children in South Africa. In a nutshell, the 19th century was an “era of revolutionary change in South Africa”.

Gold and Diamonds were discovered which triggered both the Gold Rush as well as the Diamond Rush. Furthermore, wars such as the Frontier Wars, and finally the South African War between the British and the Afrikaners shook up the fundamentals of the country and culminated in the different parts of South Africa being incorporated into one republic and ruled by one government.

The aim of the Frontier Wars was to subjugate the African tribes as well their local way of life. It is interesting to note that, at this point, very little attention was paid to the education of the local people. The consequent education that did take place was designed was based on the industrialisation and the cultural conquest of the local people.

Apartheid and the Education System

The National Party won the White election in 1948, and soon afterwards began the process of formally installing the principles of Apartheid on the South African people. In a nutshell, Apartheid is a “former policy of segregation and political and economic discrimination against non-European groups in the Republic of South Africa.” In essence, all aspects of South African life, including the social, political, and economic life, were organised along solid racial lines. As part of the segregation of South African society, the Bantu Education Act was signed into law in 1953.

On a personal note, I don’t believe that anyone will ever really understand the horrors of Apartheid. We talk about it, we pretend we understand it; however, unless you were on the wrong side of the Apartheid fence, I don’t believe anyone will ever understand how it impacted, and continues to impact the average South African citizen. Yes, Apartheid was abolished in 1997 when the first democratic government was elected to be led by Nelson Mandela.

The Bantu Education Act

The following quote by Baard and Schreiner explains how repulsive the Bantu Education Act was:

In 1953, the government passed the Bantu Education Act, which the people didn’t want. We didn’t want this bad education for our children. This Bantu Education Act was to make sure that our children only learnt things that would make them good for what the government wanted: to work in the factories and so on; they must not learn properly at school like the white children. Our children were to go to school only three hours a day, two shifts of children every day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, so that more children could get a little bit of learning without government having to spend more money. Hawu! It was a terrible thing that act.” 

In essence, It is described as one of “Apartheid’s most racially offensive laws.” Before Apartheid and the Bantu Education Act, most African schools were run by missionaries. Many of the original political activists such as Nelson Mandela were educated in these mission schools. Once the Bantu Education Act was signed into law, most of the African mission schools closed because the Missionaries refused to promote Apartheid in education. Furthermore, the Apartheid government made it clear that the purpose of the Bantu Education Curriculum was designed to teach African scholars to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water for a white-run economy and society, regardless of an individual’s abilities and aspirations.”

Final words

I believe that the institution of Apartheid did not bode well for all of South Africa’s citizens. Yes, the White people were the advantaged in the fact that they were considered first-class citizens, and they were afforded opportunities that none of the other races living in the country were provided. However, Apartheid could only ever be a short- to a medium-term system of government. Sooner or later it had to fall, and when it did, the post-Apartheid government would be left with innumerable challenges that would take years if not generations to overcome.

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