Transforming Education in South Africa

by Noelle Files

In July I had the privilege of traveling to South Africa with 12 other Social Studies teachers from Onondaga County along with Le Moyne College Professor Baron Boyd. Our goal was to gain firsthand knowledge of South Africa’s post-Apartheid political, economic, and social conditions and to share this knowledge with students and colleagues. The trip was designed to expose us to a variety of people, places and conditions. Those of us who teach in middle and high schools were required to develop lesson plans incorporating what we learned on the trip.

We visited many schools, including a nursery school in a remote Zulu village, a girls’ school in Pietermaritzburg, the Bethuel Setai School in Bloemfontain, and two very different schools in Cape Town – Gardens Academy, grades 7-12, and the LEAP alternative high school. We all thoroughly enjoyed every school, and couldn’t help noticing that kids in schools are pretty much the same wherever you go.

Schools throughout South Africa face comparable obstacles to our own schools. In both there are glaring disparities between predominantly white schools, which had adequate resources and facilities, and black schools, which suffer from a lack of money, inadequate facilities, and a large number of unprepared, untrained teachers.

In contrast to the Pietermaritzburg Girls School and Gardens Academy in Cape Town, which are well staffed, have electricity, plumbing, and well stocked libraries and computer labs, the Bethuel Setai school, which serves poor black students, has no plumbing, no library or computer facilities, and struggles to hire teachers with degrees. While the staff at the Girls School served us a complete afternoon tea, at Bethuel Setai we took up a collection of 50 Rand each (less than $10), so that the administration could purchase two months’ worth of propane for student lunches — for many the only meal of the day.

Towards Educational Equality

Although the situation at Bethuel Setai was discouraging, there were still many positive aspects. The teachers are working hard to meet new curriculum standards (another similarity between our educational systems), which include home language instruction, rigorous math and science instruction for everyone, and life skills — featuring AIDS and civic education. The new curriculum is the direct result of post-Apartheid government policy in education. It has been created to bridge the gap left by the Apartheid government and its Bantu Education policies.

Under Bantu Education, people classified as black, coloured and Indian received inferior educations fitting them only for menial jobs. The result was that their schools did not teach more than basic reading, writing, or arithmetic, and no higher level math or science was taught. The long term impact of this policy is a lack of technological knowledge and skill which currently prevents many black and coloured adults from obtaining good paying jobs. Further, many teachers who are black or coloured still lack knowledge in these areas and therefore can’t adequately teach students today. It’s a downward spiral which will take years to sort out. This is why the Education Department put together the new curriculum for all schools, regardless of student population.

Another policy of the democratic, non-racial ANC (African National Congress) government intended to rectify the damage done by Bantu Education is the combining of universities into one system. Under the Apartheid government, segregation extended to tertiary education. While in Johannesburg, we visited Rand Afrikanse University and VISTA University. RAU is a predominantly white university, and as such has state of the art facilities, including a six-floor library and up-to-date computer and technology laboratories. In contrast, predominantly black VISTA has a much smaller library and far fewer resources to work with.

RAU administrators described for us the process of integrating the two systems; it is slow going but does have full government support and the promise of adequate funding. They are moving towards the goal of providing the best education for every student, regardless of color. One administrator told us, “The goal is for everyone to be able to go as far as they want in education.” Another part of this plan is establishing tutoring programs for students from local schools to bring their maths and science skills up to college level.

Adult education is also undergoing a radical transformation under the ANC government. ABETS (Adult Basic Education System) programs have been created and implemented to address educational deficiencies in the black and coloured communities that result from Bantu Education. For me, the most interesting aspects of this are the focus on civic and AIDS education. Many of the schools we visited hold night school classes in adult education. In them people can learn about their rights and how to be active participants in the new system.

Individuals Making a Difference

By far the most rewarding part of the trip was the fascinating, dedicated, motivated people we met who are working in small, individual ways to address the specific educational needs of black students. In Cape Town we visited the LEAP Academy which serves 84 black students who live in nearby Langa. The director of LEAP recognized that township kids lagged far behind white students in maths and science classes, and founded the school to provide intensive education for them in these subjects.

Students attend classes 8 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday. They are responsible for cleaning the school, maintaining the facilities and preparing lunch. They are also able to use the building on Saturdays for study and recreation. They use a nearby boys school (which is white and far better resourced) for science labs. This is evidence of new cooperation across “racial” groups – a direct result of the new government’s nonracial policies. LEAP also has a computer lab equipped with about 30 internet-enabled computers.

Everyone in our group got an individual tour from one of the students. Vinga, my tour guide, was incredibly proud of the school, his teachers and the program. He wishes to be either a pilot or an opera singer. I think that attending LEAP may give him the opportunity to make his dreams come true.

Everyone in our group came away feeling that alternative programs such as this are crucial in the struggle to decrease the gap between the education of black and white students not just in South Africa, but in the United States as well. Imagine what students in poor districts could do if they paired up with a wealthy, suburban school and were able to use their facilities. Another strong component of the program is giving back to the community. Because money and space are limited, the school can only take a small number of students. However, all students are strongly encouraged to take what they learn back to the township and tutor other students there. There are also opportunities for tutoring non-LEAP students on Saturdays.

In Cape Town we met local activist Craig Hepburn who has been working in Imizana Yethu township for many years. He is dedicated to improving the conditions of the township, fighting political corruption and improving education. He is currently working to build a soccer academy which will serve the local kids, and incorporate after-school tutoring. He talked to us about the poor condition of education in Imizana Yethu, the lack of appropriate facilities, unprepared teachers, and parents who aren’t able to help students at home. He is working to address this situation by establishing an exchange program, so that teachers from other countries can work for three to six months in the township with local students and teachers.

The people of South Africa face a very long, difficult task in reforming their educational system. The biggest hurdle is money. For change to come, facilities have to be modernized, well equipped and staffed with qualified teachers. I am hopeful this will happen as the South African government appears committed to redressing these inequities and we certainly met many talented individuals who are working on righting past wrongs. I wish I had similar confidence in my own government’s commitment to educational equity.

Noelle has taught Social Studies for seven years at Corcoran High School in Syracuse.