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Emerging Voices – Lingering Legacy of a tragic past

History has handed rural South Africans a raw deal – and the advent of democracy has not done much to change the situation.

Land Acts in 1913 and 1936 and the Bantustan system confined rural blacks to 14% of the land, mostly under communal systems of tenure.

‘While denied rights in ‘white’ South Africa”, Emerging Voices notes: ‘African people were to be re-tribalised and concentrated in homelands established on an ethnic basis [and] run by chiefs authorised by the apartheid state.”

The Bantu Education Act removed most African schools to the homelands, where ‘educational development in many cases depended on the status and interests of chiefs in the area”, says the report. In the Transkei in the 1970s and early 1980s, for example, more schools were built in the president’s home areas than any other part of the homeland.

While the state was building primary schools in urban areas in the Bantustans, it was left to rural communities to build their own, and to lure teachers there. But teachers preferred to live and work in townships and towns where they would qualify for housing subsidies, rather than in rural areas where land was under the control of a chief. The lack of teachers and resources narrowed the range of subjects in rural schools – and trapped poorly educated learners in rural areas without the skills to improve their lives or communities.

The legacy of a tragic past still lingers. ‘The destruction of peasant economies, the ensuing labour migration and the emphasis on traditionalism have given these areas their distinctive characters,” says the report. ‘Women head the large majority of these households. Child malnutrition and food insecurity plague families … Inequalities in the provision of education and training between urban and rural areas are acute … ”

Emerging Voices is very clear on this point: ‘These areas are not traditional havens cut off from a South Africa that forged ahead without and in ignorance of them, but rather their very traditionalism has been created by a South African society and economy that needed the labour that could be extracted from what misleadingly appeared to be timeless rural enclaves.”

And now, ‘having been bled of labour for decades … the ex-homelands are crammed with people, most of whom are surplus to the requirements of the labour market”.

Rural education has not been a priority of a post-apartheid government, notes the report, because urban constituencies are better organised and more vocal; policy documents are ‘insufficiently sensitive to the needs of the rural poor”; and poverty and inequality ‘need to be addressed before rural education will change”.

In a list of reasons why it is important to argue for rural education, the authors of the report note that democracy requires development, and development requires democracy – and both require education.

The report stresses that education must be at the heart of any poverty-reduction programme in rural areas. And it carries a strong reminder: the South African Constitution guarantees the right to education.

Yet ‘our study has shown that children do not have their constitutional right to education realised, and their rights within education or through education are also limited” – by the opportunity costs to rural families who need the labour of their children, by the costs of fees and uniforms, by the shortage of well-trained teachers, poor social relationships between community and classroom and a lack of educational opportunities for out-of-school youth or adults.

A prerequisite for turning this around is ‘the democratic participation of the communities involved”. And that would require structures for participation to revitalise community development. ‘An education for rural development is one that actively harnesses these energies.”

Certainly the will is evident in the rural areas. ‘The research findings of this study show the importance of education to rural people,” says the report. ‘South Africans living in rural areas believe in education, want more of it and want its quality to be as good as possible.”

Popular demand is one of the eight reasons the authors offer when arguing for rural education; another is the constitutional requirement for it, and a third is the interdependence of democracy and development. A fourth motive is to strengthen foundations in the rural areas to build robust political participation. The other four reasons are:

  • Many South Africans still live in rural areas and a large number of the poorest live in former homelands, ‘which are struggling to emerge from a history of marginalisation and social and political oppression”.
  • Levels of literacy, health and general well-being are at their worst in the rural areas.
  • There is a need to encourage a joy of learning and individual well-being.
  • Social justice requires that people be enabled to deal with the injustices of inequality and poverty, visited on the vast majority of rural South Africans.
  • What can be done to fix rural education?

    First, poverty must be addressed. ‘Education can and must offer hope and possibility,” notes the report, ‘but it can only do so when the conditions of poverty are addressed alongside those of education.”

    Then, the report calls for a broad educational approach to serve the needs of diverse groups of people, rather than a ‘domesticating agricultural education”, and for an integrated approach to the issue. It would include:

  • Integrated development strategies that address families’ food insecurity and health.
  • Access to ‘good quality, equitable, well-managed and democratically organised education for all”, including early childhood education.
  • The development of informal education opportunities for adults and out-of-school youth, with special attention to women and girls.
  • Rural development policies that prioritise basic education and ‘strategies that recognise the special needs” of the rural areas.
  • An approach involving ‘the democratic mobilisation of communities to assess and act upon their needs”.
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    Barbara Ludman
    Guest Author

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