Notes on the Crisis in Education in South Africa: A Report from the Field


From: golden3000997
Date: Sun Feb 29, 2004 9:54 am
Subject: Notes on the Crisis in Education in South Africa: A Report from the Field

From the article below: "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."

End of editorializing by Christine

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 Database


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 well.

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. ELAINE (1987)

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 (1989)

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 eyes.

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 weekends.

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 work.

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.


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 profession.

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 try.


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 far.

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 coloreds.

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 cultural foundation.

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 rich land.

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 education

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, Inc.


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