06 APRIL 2016

Apartheid's Long Tail

Apartheid's Long Tail

Education has been the focus of much of the project of transformation in South Africa since the dismantling of apartheid. In the apartheid era, in addition to reinforcing race separatism, gender and racist stereotypes, education was designed to produce a relatively unskilled labour force for industrial centres. Even when, in the 1970s, colleges or universities were provided for these areas (for example, the University of Transkei, or the University of Bophuthatswana), the function of education was limited to providing sufficient numbers of teachers, workers and nurses for the schools and institutions located in Bantustans (or reserves). Lower State education spending on black people and a limited curriculum inevitably affected the quality of education.

The initial focus of reform was on structure and inclusion: the racial integration of schooling on the one hand and the development of one education system, with one national curriculum on the other. Since 1994, successes have included the expansion of participation in education and the integration of formerly racially divided departments of education. Primary education is universal, increased access to new schools has been achieved and universities have been rationalised and restructured.

But what has been the impact? Have the “born frees” in fact been born into massive mediocrity?

The expectation was that with large scale education reform and policy renewal there would be a causal improvement in quality of education. However, this hasn’t occurred and Balfour poses the question whether the “born frees” have in fact been born into a kind of bondage, a ‘massive mediocrity’, if freedom is considered as empowerment with the skills to survive, let alone to access a relevant, quality education. Although national certificate results seemed to improve, in international benchmarking reports such as PISA and TIMSS, South Africa ranks amongst the lowest five countries.  

The programme of reform also seems to have resulted in a number of unintended consequences:

1.     Insufficient school leavers with scores sufficient to enter key professions

Only 13.7% those who wrote the National Senior Certificate (NSC) in 2012 had Mathematics scores sufficient for scarce skills/professions (engineering, medicine and so on) and this position is unlikely to change for another 40 years without some ‘desperate measures’ being instituted. The 2012 DBE report on the NSC results stated that students ‘lack … linguistic skills required to express themselves in simple and proper paragraphs … across all subjects. Candidates displayed inadequacies regarding the skills of reading, comprehension, and analysing, evaluating and applying information to either make decisions or solve problems.’

2.     More funding has not necessarily resulted in better quality of education

Funding has been targeted at rural schools but has not necessarily resulted in a better quality of education. People have migrated between areas in cities and from rural to urban areas and as a result farm schools have closed and urban schools expanded. As people have become more economically mobile they have increasingly sought to send their children to better schools and been prepared to pay for their education. Schools in poorer areas despite the resources placed at their disposal and their low or no fees have struggled to improve. They have struggled to attract teachers and to retain them as the communities are challenging to live and stay in.

3.     Despite a focus on South Africa’s 11 languages, English has become the language of power and social mobility.

Language is an important part of peoples’ identities and cultural sensibilities. South Africa has eleven languages; a focus of key legislative documents was to ensure a multilingual and multicultural society and an entitlement to education in all these languages. Instead English has mushroomed and the general public has not been convinced that education in their languages is a good idea. Indeed school Governing Bodies and parents have contested government attempts to institute dual language learning in at least six seminal court cases. At the same time teachers are not always competent in teaching in English and while classrooms are multilingual, teachers are not trained in language teaching and are unable to make the bridge to English. Only two universities (out of 23) have assumed responsibility to provide higher education through an indigenous language, which helps to explain why so few schools in South Africa have formally supported education through the home language.

4.     While access to Higher Education has increased, success rates are low and drop-out rates high

After 1994, the Government put in measures to widen access to Higher Education such as the national financial assistance scheme and bursaries for new teachers. Its aspiration was to enable the country to become more globally competitive. However fractures appeared in the aspiration, between where the vision was pitched and what actually happened. Access was massified but the capacity of institutions to deal with increased numbers of students was not similarly expanded. The profile continues to be racially split in terms of participation and success and the system is very expensive as students take too long to complete degrees and many drop out.

5.     Technical and vocational education remain under developed

The TVET sector has suffered from a lack of capacity over the last 20 years. While the economy has grown, the skills-based education it needs has not kept pace. TVET is now the area of the South African education system most requiring government focus in order to improve prospects for employment and the economy. Governance and relevance through maintaining links with industry continue to be issues but the move to integrate Higher Education and TVET colleges which are administered through a single Ministry of Higher Education and Training, is positive.

6.     Major gap between equality and diversity policies and what happens at the classroom level

UNICEF noted in 2001 that 45% of girls were not enrolled in classes, and of those who were, nearly 40% would drop out before completing Grade 5. This is in part due to the cultural place men enjoy in the country and the impact of HIV & Aids with many families dependent on girls to keep the household running. Women are under-represented in leadership in HE sector though the majority of teachers in the schooling system are female.

So what is to be done?

Balfour points out that South Africa is still very much a post-apartheid state; in other words, it is still concerned in its politics and education practices with the consequences and legacies of apartheid systems and values (race separation, separate development, race supremacy, ethnocentricity, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia). The dismantling phase may be complete but there is still its legacy to overcome, requiring deep seated change to create a new type of society in which differences become a cause for celebration rather than the basis for exclusion in an environment of multilingual and multicultural diversity.

There is the need to move beyond policy celebration to more finely tuned assessment of the impact of reform. Suggestions include:

A more acute focus on teacher education in order to shift the performance of schools. One of the ironies of the reform programme is that despite a raft of initiatives in teacher education, South African schools continue to underperform. Children are being educated by teachers trained by apartheid-style institutions, using teacher education curricula shown to be of variable quality.

Teacher recruitment - Universities will need to nearly double graduating new teachers to meet a projected shortfall, calculated to be 8,148 by 2020.

Curriculum and widening access to supply economic skills needs - Those currently not working in South Africa (25%) are predominantly black, women, the young and the poorly educated. The highest rates of unemployment are in those areas with the most problematic education provision (such as KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape), or the most intensive economies (for example, Gauteng).

Focus on throughput in Higher and Further Education, supporting young people so that they exit successfully rather than dropping out.  Expanding the curriculum from three to four-year. Enhancing initiatives to stimulate research and make academic work more attractive to young graduates.

More programmes for unemployed youth, delivered by community colleges or TVET sector.

More initiatives around inclusion to protect and promote historically disadvantaged groups (women, black people, LGBTTIQ people, and so on) as part of being ‘South African’.


Robert Balfour’s book Education in a New South Africa: Crisis and Change sets out to answer 3 questions:

1.              What has the impact of change and transformation been on education in South Africa?

2.              Why does the crisis in education persist?

3.              What is the likely impact of crisis and change on South Africa’s further development?