Notes on the Crisis in
Education in South Africa: A Report from the Field
Contemporary Women's Issues
Database; 9/1/1992; Ndlovu, Lorraine|Upton, Elaine
Contemporary Women's Issues
Notes on the Crisis in
Education in South Africa: A Report from the Field
Radical Teacher, 09-01-1992
LORRAINE (1985) I was born,
raised, and educated in Soweto, South Africa. It was April of
1985 when I went to a high school in Soweto to begin my two weeks
as a student teacher. I remember being nervous as any new teacher
might be. To add to this nervousness, the regular classroom teacher
came with me on my very first day and sat in the room in order
to evaluate (or was it to criticize?) my teaching. She was to
write a "confidential" report to my college supervisor.
The report, according to the government-mandated system of teacher
training, was to contain an evaluation of my general behavior,
my use of language (English), and my ability to follow the mandated
lesson structure, which included an introduction of "direct
and indirect aims" of the lesson, a presentation of questions
and set answers for students, and a conclusion to the lesson,
all to be accomplished within a thirty-minute class period. If
I did not teach what was in the government syllabus, I could
be expelled from teaching and possibly be denied a diploma as
My lesson plan was to be written
in a journal that followed the same strict and limiting format.
Moreover, the regular class teacher was to evaluate my dress.
As a woman teacher, I was supposed to wear high heels, stockings,
and a skirt or dress. A man was to wear a tie. This dress code
still exists today.
I was teaching History to
a Standard 8 class (tenth grade), and my topic for the first
day was the origin of the Orange Free State. The Orange Free
State is one of South Africa's provinces founded and formed by
Afrikaners in the periods of colonization. Blacks have been driven
from this land, which has some of the richest soil in South Africa.
Certainly, then, I was nervous about how I would convey the "direct
and indirect aims" of such a lesson. I had not been taught
to ask what such a lesson had to do with the identity and dignity
of native African peoples. The "direct" aim which I
was to fulfill was "to let the students understand how the
Orange Free State came into existence." The "indirect"
aim was "to instill love and pride in the pupils that they
might respect their ancestors and their land." The college
history textbooks (designed by whites for their own purposes)
provided for such aims.
In retrospect, as I see myself
standing before a class of forty-nine Sowetan (black) high school
students will such "aims," I see the high school students,
the regular classroom teacher, and myself (as student teacher
and as college student) all as parts of a grotesque or absurd
play. We were being taught to glorify the history of our oppressors.
I was an African-American
visiting South Africa for the first time. It was the last days
of my visit, January days, the beginning of the school year in
South Africa, and this was the hottest time of the year. I attended
the opening assembly of an African farm school, one of the many
rural schools set up for the native children, whose parents work
on white-owned farms.
At the opening assembly, there
was a deep chorus of children's voices rising in a dark, narrow,
crowded room. The dark and the narrowness of the room formed
a cave-like atmosphere in contrast to the thick and broad summer
heat outside. The depth of the voices was, it seemed to me, a
mixture of resilience toward life and a tenacious melancholy
almost too deep for children. (But too deep by what standard?
Was I also remembering the countless times I had heard the majority
middle-class white American children's voices, voices encouraged
to be "sweet and light"?)
These South African children
sang songs such as "Thula, sizwe: uJehovah wakho uzokungobela"
(Calm down, nation; Jehovah will gain the victory for you) and
"Sweet Jesus, sweet Jesus, what a wonder you are."
In a rote staccato of phrases they recited "The Lord's Prayer,"
even as they would later greet me, a curious stranger, with their
faithfully memorized litany which began, "Good morning,
ma'am." But beyond the roteness of their recitation there
rose a thin, almost whimpering docility. And under the docility
a melancholy depth.
The darkness of the rooms
where they held assembly or classes was matched by the (at that
time) nearly ubiquitous black of the school uniforms they wore
or (later, after this particular school changed its dress policy)
the graying threadbare clothing that the children wore. Were
these, then, the colors and voices of self-conscious misery mixed
with childhood innocence, hope, and fidelity or obedience to
one's elders? And what was the nature of this Christianity practiced
in all the government schools where children sang hymns or even
gospels out of obedience to parents, African teachers, and the
white colonizers who had brought this Christianity to the teacher's
and parents' lives?
Why had these children come
to school, I wondered. What were they, after all, to learn there
in the dark crowded rooms where they would take up a few, often
battered, textbooks written by and also discarded by officials
of the white government who rule their lives?
I remember my first glimpses
of individual children. I could not read the stories in their
faces, but these faces, without exception, seemed to me beautiful
and miraculous. Miracles of life in spite of pervasive misery
and deprivation. I wondered at the sadness, the sometime blankness,
and the sometime smile on a particular face -- this along with
the body sores, the bruised, bare feet or torn shoes and often
threadbare clothing. It was not that these faces and bodies were
entirely strange to me. As an African-American I had lived amid
the poverty of some white and of far more blacks in the country
of my birth. Yet, I sensed that there were important differences
here in South Africa. ELAINE (1989)
I returned to South Africa
in July of 1988 to work for two schools, one of them the farm
school I had first visited in 1987. In 1989 I would meet Lorraine,
who would come to this school to teach after she had finished
both her student teaching and other teaching in a Soweto school.
She and I would later come to discuss this rigid and oppressive
education system to which most black students and teachers (on
farms and in the city townships) were subject in South Africa.
Early in 1989, I worked with
a teacher who was giving a science lesson to a Standard 5 (seventh
grade) class at the farm school. She taught the children to memorize
the names and a list of characteristics of three kinds of soil
-- loamy, rocky, and sandy. Again, as on my first visit to South
Africa, I saw the children engaged in rote memorization. All
this was done in English, because the teacher refused to teach
in Afrikaans, and lessons were not available in textbook form
in the children's own languages.
Although these children lived
on farms, near the soil, they had neither time nor health nor
peace enough to develop any understanding of soils. Their connection
to earth remained disrupted, distant, dormant. They were dispossessed
and their lives in the soil remained unfulfilled.
Many of them would never go
beyond this Standard 5 class, but would, instead, be forced to
leave school to begin full-time work. The farm schools in south
Africa are not allowed to have high school sections, and instruction
stops at either Standard 5 or Standard 7 (ninth grade). Few are
able to find a way to attend high schools in the black townships,
which are usually many kilometers away from their homes. Moreover,
the farm schools themselves exist at the discretion of the (white)
farmer who owns the land where the school is, and so the school
can be closed, or its capacities reduced, at any time. LORRAINE
It was July 1989 when I first
came to the farm school where Elaine already was working since
her return in 1988 to South Africa. I was now midwinter, the
time that school reopens after June holidays. There were several
new teachers besides me, and we were all standing by the doorway
of the assembly hall to watch over the children's entrance on
that first morning of the new term. The school had begun to share
this assembly hall, a larger space, with a nearby private school,
and now the children were entering for morning prayer.
I looked at the late ones
as they came running several minutes after the bell had rung.
The younger ones could hardly run because their bare feet were
too cold and their thin bodies were shivering. Water ran from
the noses of many. Many were probably hungry, having had no breakfast,
and they looked at us, the teachers, with sad, sometimes fearful
After our time of singing
and reciting "The Lord's Prayer," the new teachers
were introduced to the pupils and then we all went to our classes.
I was assigned to a Standard 5 (seventh grade) class. Because
this was our first class meeting, we introduced ourselves to
each other. After I told them about myself -- my coming from
Soweto, the urban township outside Johannesburg, they told me
about themselves. Some said they lived in the back yards outside
of white (usually Afrikaner) farmers' houses. Some lived in shacks
without windows, as part of their parents' pay was the "privilege"
of living on the farmers' grounds. Another condition for living
on the farmers' grounds was and is that the children must work
on the farms of in the masters' kitchens after school and on
The next year, in 1990, I
taught Sub A and Sub B classes (first and second grades combined),
and I thought that the childrens' stories would be different
in regard to their working conditions for the white farmer. However,
the stories of these younger children were just like those of
the slightly older children. Often children would tell me that
they had not slept, and they were clearly too tired for school
As time passed, I went to
visit the children's homes and I found their stories to be true.
Having grown up in Soweto, a place that is urban but nevertheless
also very poor, I was not really shocked by what I saw. Yet,
here on the farms, life for these African children and their
parents was, in some ways, still worse than in Soweto, where
conditions were already bad to horrible. These farm children
had less opportunity than we in Soweto to speak their mother
tongues and to develop their own cultural and communal lives,
because they were constantly under the eye of the white farmers,
who virtually owned then, denied them their culture, and abused
them in many ways.
THE CRISIS WE SEE
Although there is a news today
of efforts of the white government and black political organizations,
so far mainly the ANC, to negotiate a democratic government for
all races, the dimensions of the school crisis for black children
in sought Africa continue to be overwhelming. It would take at
least a book to outline that crisis. Here are only a few of the
aspects of that crisis a we have observed and felt it.
For both farm and city black,
or native South African children, regular school attendance is
a daily challenge. For blacks, school is not compulsory, and
the frequent post-1976 uprisings and "stayaways" (Boycotts)
make school attendance troubled and sporadic. Some of the black
political organizations have recruited young people who have
been willing to, or felt forced to, fight in the liberations
struggle, and many of these young people seldom or never attend
school, even after Nelson Mandela's and others' calls for young
people to return to school. The conditions of dire poverty keep
many others away from school.
For those youth who do attend
school, regularly or sporadically, conditions are often appalling.
In many classrooms there is one textbook per five pupils. These
textbooks are designed and written by white South Africans about
white South African and European history, culture, and ideas.
So far, the South African government spends five times as much
on the education of every white child as on that of every black
child. Many township schools have forty to sixty students in
one small classroom with one teacher.
The black schools are often
in dire need of enlivenment and repair. A most frequent sight
is a combination of dirty walls, broken windows, some classrooms
without doors, broken furniture, old chalkboards, and broken
toilet facilities. Many schools are bare outside the buildings,
with no trees or flowers in an otherwise warm and fertile environment.
Conditions for teachers of
these black children are no better than for the children. Not
only is the teacher training authoritarian, repressive, and based
on white social and political ideologies, but also, once a teacher
has begun to work as a regular government employee, he or she
must wait months before receiving the first salary check. Because
of student violence, poor facilities, and frequent disruptions
of school, few young people and motivated to enter the teaching
Few mathematics teachers are
to be found in the black South African schools. In the black
teacher training colleges there is no major in physical education
or in the arts, and so there are no teachers specializing in
these areas. What children are left with is an irrelevant and
weakened liberal arts education designed by white educators to
perpetuate the apartheid system and to keep blacks inferior.
The failure rate for those
students who do manage to stay in school long enough to take
the high school exit, or matriculation, examination has increased
rather than decreased since the 1976 uprisings. The 1990 matriculation
results for black students showed that 67 percent failed. Of
those who passed, very few qualified for university entrance.
Few obtain degrees in the sciences and other areas vital to blacks'
being able to run their own country.
According to a report by Peter
Tygeson, 26 blacks graduated from university with engineering
degrees and 26 with computer science specialities in 1985 (Africa
Report, p. 16). Although we have encountered a number of black
students who show interest in business (several in a private
school where Elaine worked threatened to leave the school if
business and economics courses were not offered), Tygeson reports
that only 7.4 percent of the nation's accountants were black
in 1985 (Africa Report. p. 16).
Since the 1976 uprisings,
in which many children and teenagers were killed when protesting
the requirement that instruction be in Afrikaans, most township
teachers have refused to teach in Afrikaans. However, the standardized
examinations are still given in either Afrikaans or English.
Although most students do not seem to resent learning English,
neither English nor Afrikaans is the mother tongue of the black
South Africans, and learning is often all the more difficult
in a second or third or even fourth language, as English sometimes
turns out to be.
Both of us have seen students
whose individual lives and paths of education, or mis-education,
make up the map of an apartheid society. Take, for example, Sibusiso
(we have changed his name). Since he was a small child he entreated
his father to buy him toy airplanes. As Sibusiso grew older,
he began to make his own toy airplanes. He spent hours daydreaming
and later findings books and information about airplanes and
pilots. Sibusiso wanted to be a pilot when he grew up. But before
Sibusiso was to decide which six subjects he would write for
his matriculation examination, he discovered that black men (much
less black women) were not allowed to fly commercial planes in
South Africa. His reaction was anger, frustration, and grief
from a large sense of loss. It was difficult for him to study,
and he failed all six of his matriculation subjects on the fist
For the past few years, South
African blacks have been in a virtual civil war. Yet, there is
talk of reform by the white government and talk of progress in
the dismantling of the apartheid system. In fact, little, if
anything, has changed for most black people living in the townships
and farm areas of South Africa. The crisis we have noted in education
is far from being adequately addressed or relieved -- tragically
The grim and often nearly
hopeless picture we have briefly sketched here is not, however,
the final picture. There are in South Africa, or in Azania, as
some of the native people prefer, possibilities, not only for
reforms such as the DeKlerk or other white government might proposes;
there are also possibilities and opportunities for radical, vital,
healthy change. We believe that black people in South Africa,
or Azania, must not wait for the white government to lift a helping
hand, but rather must take their own lives and education into
their own hands through creative and non-violent action.
African teachers will need
to find ways to retrain themselves. They will need to expand
their science education, business education, as well as to define
an education that encourages student and teacher alike to think
and to question, rather than merely to memorize so-called facts.
African teachers must find ways to revive their own languages
and to employ these in the education process. African cultural
knowledge and practice must be revived so that school becomes
relevant to children and young people who otherwise lack incentive
to overcome poverty, fear, and the pressures of civil war in
order to attend school.
We note that some effort are
being made by various groups to improve education for lack children
and youth in South Africa. The National Education Coordinating
Committee, working with the South African Council of Churches,
the Pan Africanist Congress, the African National Congress, and
other community groups, such as those working in the Funda Center
for Arts in Soweto, are working to encourage children any young
people to return to school. Many are also working to improve
training in mathematics and other subjects that historically
have been neglected or have proven to be problematic for the
children. These groups, as well as the present white government
(if only in name), recognize the need to abolish the separate
("apartheid") education departments that discriminate
against black and, to a lesser degree, against Indians and so-called
The work that we along with
our school founders and coworkers came to do as teachers in South
Africa was and in today most promising, and we see this work
in expanded form as one model for humanizing South African educational
practices. In the farm school where we worked and in the adjacent
private multiracial school we sought a wholistic education derived
from principles set forth by the Austrian philosopher, Rudolf
Steiner. The challenge, as we have come to see it through our
experience, is to engage in practices that merge the best of
European wholistic thinking (such as Steiner's) with the vital
forces of African and specifically South African cultures. European
cultural and intellectual habits, no matter how well-intended,
must not be simply imposed onto Africa. Thus, we advocate an
international awareness supported by a specifically South African
In this wholistic approach
to education that we advocate and have begun to practice, teachers
ask what we feel is an urgent question for educators everywhere
and particularly for those in South Africa: what is it to be
human, to be a whole human being? How can schools address the
question of what it is to be human? Because education for blacks
in South Africa has been education for apartheid (education to
render blacks inferior and thus incapable of creative social,
political, economic, artistic, and spiritual action), we believe
that schools must be about the business of restoring dignity,
creativity, and a sense of responsibility to African adults and
to their children. Therefore, children must re-enter the education
process from which they have been alienated, and all of their
needs as human beings must be attended to. Rote memorization
must be replaced by a critical thinking that participates in
living (spiritual) processes. Students must not, for example,
merely memorize designations for different kinds of soil; they
must be allowed to actively encounter the soil in gardening,
building, and landscaping. The classroom must expand beyond the
four walls of a room into the warmth (often heat) and drought
and torrential rains and all the natural processes to be known
in the beautiful, sometimes harsh, and as yet environmentally
In the wholistic education
that we advocate, the thinking and the feeling and the willing
capabilities of a human being must come into play. Education
must do more than address the thinking, or intellectual capacity.
Thus, the arts are not peripheral, but play a major role in the
curriculum. And here, the arts taught must not simply be European
art forms. African art forms must be revived and the African
ways of connecting art, science, religion, and healing must be
brought forth again. Domestic as well as traditionally academic
subjects must be emphasized in order to renew and re-create what
has become a disrupted African life.
Here we have indicated what
we trust are salient features of an African-oriented, wholistic
educational practice. It is beyond the scope of these notes to
give a full account, just as it is beyond our scope here to discuss
fully the varied progressive practices of the groups we have
mentioned earlier. Yet we have briefly noted these possibilities
for the future in South Africa in order to continue helping to
point the way in what could otherwise be an almost endlessly
tragic educational landscape. The tragedy we have indicated is
still, at the hour of this writing and probably for years to
come, a tragedy for all of South Africa, black and white, young
and old. And, insofar as all humankind derives from a condition
of mutual dependency, this tragedy affects all outside South
Africa, as well.
Coverage of South Africa in
U.S. newspapers open obscures the travesties of colonialism and
oppression that teachers, children, and young adults face on
a day to day basis in South Africa. Whatever political reform
or wars and revolutions take place in South Africa, no change
can be deep or lasting until education practices are radically
revised. We energetically applaud all efforts that are being
made in this process of radical revision, and we have observed
that those who work for change do so in spite of dangers to themselves,
with great generosity of spirit and with courage.
REFERENCES Steiner, Rudolf. The Essentials
of Education. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1926, 1982 reprint.
This is one of many books and sources on Steiner's approach to
Tygeson, Peter. "South Africa: The ABC;s
of Apartheid," Africa Report, Vol. 36, no. 3, May-June 1991.
Copyright 1992 Boston Women's Teachers' Group,