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The Tragedy of Apartheid- Education in South Africa


In June 1976, an uprising began in Soweto, a township in South Africa, in response to the Apartheid government's introduction of the Bantu Education Act in 1953. Movements like the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and South African Students Organization (SASO) raised the political awareness of many students and many joined the anti-Apartheid sentiment. On June 16, 1976, between 3000 to 10,000 students were mobilized by the BCM and SASO to march peacefully to demonstrate against the government's directive. On their way to the Orlando Stadium, the students were met by teargas and live ammunition by heavily armed police, resulting in the death of hundreds of students, and turning the revolt into an uprising against the government which spread across the country.


To understand the background of these revolts, one needs to understand how truly repressive the Apartheid government's approach to education was. The Bantu Education Act of 1952 ensured that the Black community received an education that would limit their educational potential and remain in the working class. For one instance, school was compulsory for White students from age seven to sixteen, for Asians and Coloreds from age seven to fifteen, and for Blacks from age seven to thirteen. The less education students received, the fewer choices they had to get better jobs and access more education.


Funding was also evidently disproportionate under the Bantu Act, with separate Departments of Education being created by race, and Black schools received less money. This determined the amount and quality of learning materials, facilities and teachers, thus disproportionate funding created disproportionate learning environments. The average teacher pupil ratio in white schools was 1:18, in Asian and Colored schools 1:24 and 1:27 respectively, and in Black schools 1:39. Of the minimal teachers available in Black schools, only 15% had teaching certificates, compared to 96% in white schools. Under the Bantu Act, many schools associated with religion were also shut down as funding was withdrawn from them- this was particularly detrimental to the Black community, as church schools provided education to a large number of Black students.


With such a wide disparity at primary and secondary schooling levels, it is no surprise that very few Black students got to avail the opportunity of getting a higher education. Even for those who were able to make it, universities presented another level of marginalization in their acceptance- four Afrikaans speaking universities and one English speaking university admitted only Whites, and five others had restricted admission and segregated classrooms. No financial aid or loans were given for Black and Colored students to avail.


Even after the end of apartheid in 1994, things in the education sector have not made much progress in South Africa. While integration has occurred, school is compulsory for nine years for all races, and the Bantu Education Act has been abolished, a new de facto segregation has taken place in schools. Most Whites have moved to private schools, while township and rural schools remain primarily Black and Colored. While the government spends 20% of its budget on education and attempts to address inequalities by dividing schools into five strata according to income levels in a community (where lower income level areas receive higher funding per pupil), there still remains a disparity in the fee structure of different schools. These fees vary according to the qualities of schools, and are unaffordable by many Blacks- thus they are now left unofficially at the bottom.


The de facto segregation also has to do with socio-economic factors, which can be traced directly to apartheid policies. The apartheid's policy to keep Blacks and Colored at the lower end of the economic strata meant that after its end, they faced 90% unemployment rates, and earned just 20% of Whites. This meant that it was impossible for them to afford the higher fees of quality schools, which ended in further generations being deprived of good education. Due to their limitation to working class jobs, many Black communities cannot afford universities for younger generations, and there is still a lack of financial aid for these students.


Even two decades after the end of apartheid, massive disparities exist within South African education- out of 6476 high schools, only the top 200 high schools have students achieving distinctions, and of these 200, 185 are former White-only schools that charge significant fees. 57% of the students that go to these 200 schools are, unsurprisingly, White. The progress of South African can be divided into three phases- (1) the stagnating phase (1995-2003) where no progress was made in learning outcomes; (2) the improving phase (2003-2011) where learning outcomes improved relatively quickly; and (3) the stalling phase (2011-2016), where gains have flattened out. Between 2010 and 2017, an 8% decline occurred in per learner expenditure despite a 7.1% per year increase in expenditure on education- this primarily had to do with 80% of the expenditures being spent on teacher salaries, and the unprecedented increase in learners from the 13% increase in birth rates from 2003 to 2005.

South African schools face many issues, including a lack of teachers who have the content knowledge and pedagogical skills necessary to impart curriculum, low through-put rates to university, 78% of primary school children not learning to read in Grade 1-3 and 61% of primary school children not learning basic mathematics by Grade 5.

While many of these massive disparities can be traced to the Bantu Education Act and the general racially charged policies of the apartheid government, there is hope for change in the future and a move past the legacy of apartheid. According to the "Priorities for Education Reform in South Africa," a report presented to the Treasury's Economic Colloquium in 2019, the Department of Education should focus on reducing the per-learner education expenditure decline, prioritize on fixing the weak foundation of the education system by focusing on primary schooling till Grade 3, and impose a reading plan that would increase the level of reading for meaning in primary schools, provide a minimum box of educational resources to all classrooms from Grade 1-3, introduce technology in education, and eliminate extreme class sizes and inadequate physical infrastructures.



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Enjoyed this piece thoroughly, Emaan! It is very interesting to note that in most of the conflicts that we have discussed in class and even ones that we are witnessing in the world currently. There is a common pattern. Education is being used as a tool to subjugate entire populations. Be it the apartheid in South Africa or the Israel-Palestine conflict, the oppressor mainly targets the educational systems of these cities as even you mentioned that by attacking education, they ruin the chances of a population to mobilise upwards in society. In the case of South Africa, especially the segregation that you have described, it is important to note that how not only it promotes inequality in opportunity but als…

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Very true! It is sad to think how many times education has been weaponized to serve the purpose of those in power by keeping another community down. It highlights both the very integral role education plays for society, and why it should be considered a basic human right. Even in recent times, we have seen how Israeli and Russian forces have purposefully destroyed schools in Gaza and Ukraine as a method to disrupt their growth as a society.

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Such an interesting read! The detailed exploration of South Africa's educational history, particularly in the context of apartheid and its enduring impact, is both enlightening and disheartening. The proposed recommendations for education reform, as outlined in the "Priorities for Education Reform in South Africa," provide a hopeful path forward.The vivid account of the Soweto uprising and the subsequent discriminatory policies under the Bantu Education Act provides a stark backdrop to the persistent educational inequalities that exist even today. Prioritizing foundational education, implementing a comprehensive reading plan, incorporating technology, and addressing infrastructure deficiencies are vital steps toward breaking the cycle of educational inequality.

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Thank you! Yes agreed, there is much to be done to improve the South African education system. Interestingly, with 20% of the national budget, their problem is not underfunding like many places in the world, but faulty division of these funds. I think till the time they reach an equal footing on educational grounds, the state should focus much more heavily on educational institutions in black and working class majority areas.

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Your detailed exploration of the historical context and enduring consequences of the Bantu Education Act in South Africa provides a comprehensive understanding of the deep-seated educational disparities in the country. The post-apartheid challenges, such as de facto segregation, socio-economic factors, and the three distinct phases of progress, are thoroughly analyzed, shedding light on the complex landscape of South African education.

The inclusion of the "Priorities for Education Reform in South Africa" adds a forward-looking perspective, offering hope for change and a pathway to overcome the legacy of apartheid. Your meticulous research and thoughtful recommendations contribute significantly to the discourse on education reform in South Africa. How do you envision overcoming the persisting challenges and fostering a more equitable education system…

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Thank you for the response Aliya! I think the Priorities for Education Reform report establishes a lot of the base ideas that should be implemented in South Africa, but I also think a social move will have to be made where education of the working classes, particularly poor black students, should be prioritized not only by the state but also by the community. By fostering support systems that allow children to study and achieve academic excellence will eventually lead to a greater number of skilled labor entering the economic forum of South Africa. In addition to this, it may also be wise for the state to implement a certain level of diversity hiring, especially in larger national and international corporations,…

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You raise a number of incredible points. Your blog reminds me of the reading we did for class on teachers as memory makers where we talked about teacher testimonies as important pedagogical tools, essentially that they can influence or help through sharing their experiences to highlight issues. In class, we also discussed how in the context of South Africa, black teachers merely acted as puppet figures in education since the power was with the whites and the curriculum was decided by the whites. There was also a deliberate attempt to keep the blacks at the bottom of the social hierarchy and to not give them proper education or hold them back from education. I also read that the blacks wer…

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Very true! Power did become a tool of controlling education and making it less accessible. I am especially glad you brought up the role teachers play. During anti-apartheid movements, teachers both in secondary and higher level institutions were the first front of empowering black communities, and were involved with organizing protests and student organizations. Many also tragically gave their lives to the cause, highlighting the dedication of their fight and the absolutely essential role they played in bringing about social awareness in a generation of young people who then went on to fight for the end of the apartheid.

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25020004 Fatima Saeed
25020004 Fatima Saeed
2023年11月29日

This is an incredibly insightful piece on the history and ongoing challenges of education in South Africa. It's heartbreaking to see how the legacy of apartheid still affects educational opportunities and outcomes.

The lingering disparities in educational resources, teacher quality, and access to quality schools underscore the enduring nature of deep-seated inequalities, even after discriminatory policies have been abolished. However, the presence of concrete reform proposals and an emphasis on enhancing the early years of education offer a glimmer of hope for positive change. Hopefully, with sustained effort and commitment, South Africa can gradually overcome these educational barriers and provide equal opportunities for all its students.

I have written a blog on South African history, you can check it out:…

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Thank you for linking your article! It is truly harrowing what the effects of segregated education have been in colonized regions. However, I do think South Africa was able to heal some of the bonds and rips in its society through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was essentially a way for people to narrate the stories of crimes they had witnessed, been victims of, and even perpetrated. By putting all these stories out in the open in a state-mandated commission, the South African community was able to put to rest much of the blatant racism and discriminatory policies of the past. However, as seen through the education sector, there are many things that still linger on and disadvantage…

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