Education in the ‘new’ South Africa

We have decided to assist the 9 year old son (I will call him Bongi*) of our gardener with his education. He is currently in an overcrowded and poorly equipped school in a local township and, being extremely shy, it seems that he has become rather lost in ‘the crowd’. His parents had chosen this school as they hoped that he would become proficient in English. There has been no indication of this happening in 3 years.In the build-up to the first democratic election in South Africa in April 1994 the ANC publicity declared “Free houses, Free Education, Free Health Care and Jobs for All”. I believe that they made these bold statements, probably in good faith and, in the belief, that the country had plenty of resources making it very wealthy. Unfortunately this was not the case as Alistair Sparks wrote in his book, “Beyond the Miracle: Inside the New South Africa,” that there were less than three weeks’ worth of reserves left. No one has ever told the people about this lack of wealth to lift up the poorest of the poor. More than that, what has happened over the years is that, it seems as if, those in ‘high places’ have made themselves rich and the people have been forgotten.

During the 19th Century Christian Missionaries began to set up schools and a university, Fort Hare, in South Africa. These schools and the university gave quality education and many leaders  both in and beyond the borders of South Africa were educated in these institutions. The accomplishments of mission schools were both intentional and not. Their founders and faculties clearly parted ways with colonial leaders by believing in the educability of black Africans and their capacity to be saved through Christ.

Richard H. Elphick, a historian at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and the author of “The Equality of Believers,” wrote “Missionaries and other white Christians were alarmed by the idea that the equality of all people before God means they should be equal in public life. But the equality of believers is an idea they dropped into South Africa. And it was constantly reinforced in the (mission) schools. And that made it a dangerous idea.”

In the dozen years after winning a majority in South Africa’s 1948 elections, Afrikaner Nationalists exerted state control over mission schools, imposing apartheid’s segregation by racial category and tribal identity and pushing for education in African languages rather than in English. Fort Hare, over the protests of its students, was subsumed under the government policy of “Bantu Education.”  This form of education was intended to keep the educational level of Blacks to Standard 2 (now Grade 4). Interestingly, many are now calling for teaching in their Mother Tongue, at least in the early years.

As we all know, 22 years later there has been minimal improvement of the general  conditions and daily lives of the people. The saddest non-improvement from my perspective is the actual deterioration in education. Schools are actually being closed as they have less than the minimum number of students. Many of these smaller rural schools which, in general are the ones affected, were built by the local communities themselves out of desperation. Now they are being told that the children must attend schools up to 50kms away where there are no hostels and no transport is provided.

The lack of improvement in education  has really been brought home to me by our decision to assist Bongi to get into a better school. As he is extremely shy and small in stature we decided to have him educationally assessed. He is currently in Grade 3 and we wanted to know if, in changing schools, he would be able to cope in Grade 4 in a former “Model C’ or White school. We were shocked to learn that, although he is given good reports from the school, his reading level is less than Grade 1. He does have excellent visual memory and so is able to copy something with ease. Is this what he has been doing in class? The psychologist could not confirm.

We have been advised not to even consider changing schools next year but rather to get him speech therapy with a Zulu and English speaking speech therapist. Fortunately there is just such a wonderful woman a couple of kilometres from us. Hopefully this will help him to do better this year and also to bring him up to the required standard. In a similar case, the daughter of our church sectary had also been attending a formerly Black school and, on being transferred to a Model C School on his appointment as secretary, has required a couple of years of extra tuition to bring her up to the level of the other learners.

As the whole world probably knows by now, we are currently experiencing horrific protest action at most of the universities in South Africa calling for the Free Education promised in 1994. Sadly, they are destroying much university property and academic materials but they have had enough of promises and no action. There is speculation that not all the protestors are genuine students but, even if this is the case, the government is doing little or nothing to really address the volatile situation. The Minister of Education announced that universities could raise fees but not more than 8%. This is simply passing the responsibility on to the institutions themselves and so they will be considered the villains. No one from the Ministry has sat down with the students and really encouraged open discussion.

It is not the universities or the schools which should be required to meet the students’ demands to receive free education. It is the responsibility of the government to supply most of the financing of the institutions and the students. The universities’ responsibility is to supply quality education and research.  Since 1994 the school curricula and teaching practices have been changed a few times. First it was Outcomes-based Education (OBE) but, with insufficient funding, insufficiently trained teachers, the need for increased teacher workload and large classes this was a complete disaster. Since then a variety of teaching forms and strategies have been tried. Another introduction was the lowering of the marks and the number of subjects required to complete a grade. How would this inspire teachers or learners? How does it encourage all of them to give of their best?

To me, this democratic government for which so many of us fought for in many different ways, has really let the young people of this country down by denying them quality basic education thus preparing them for further study and the working world.

*Not his real name


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