Black learners ‘will fail’

In an open letter to black Grade 12s, black consciousness group Blackwash explains why they are set up for failure.

8 December 2009


Look, there is a very big chance you will fail the 2009 Grade 12 examinations. Each year, thousands of black learners who write these exams do not make it and an even bigger number never even get to Grade 11 or 10. A large percentage of those who do pass, do not have good enough results to go to university or simply cannot afford the fees. So there is clearly a problem, yet each year prayer meetings are held and ‘good luck’ messages are sent in the hope that all matric students will pass, but none of these confront the simple reality that black learners in this country are likely to fail. This is a hard truth we can no longer ignore, in the same way that we cannot ignore the fact that the majority of white learners are guaranteed to pass.

But why is this the case? Why is it that white learners can be sure of passing Grade 12 while most blacks who are in township schools are more likely to fail? Is it because white learners are naturally smarter and harder working than black learners? Are the blacks in Model C schools perhaps cleverer than blacks in township schools since they also pass well and have better chances of going to university to further their studies. Or maybe this has nothing to do with individual blacks and individual whites at all, but with how the South African system favours whites to blacks in all situations. But what exactly do we mean by this?

We all know that during apartheid blacks had to study under Bantu Education which was an inferior form of education compared to what whites got. Black people were oppressed in all forms of life and Bantu Education was just one of the many ways of ensuring that they would remain oppressed and work for whites. Under apartheid, black schools had bad text books or none at all, no stationary or libraries. The schools were also overcrowded because the white government simply refused to build more schools for blacks while white classes were small enough for each learner to get the necessary attention they needed. Black schools also didn’t have enough sports facilities or extra mural activities while white schools provided activities such as chess, music lessons, swimming, debating, drama, art classes etc etc. All of these things cost money to provide and the white government put more money into white schools than into black schools as a way of oppressing blacks. And this money they used to build better schools in white areas was mostly from gold, diamond and platinum mines which black people worked on while earning peanuts. In other words, black people worked as slaves on farms and mines so that white kids could get a good education. And the white government was right to look after white learners because it was in power at the time; in fact it would have been foolish not to do so. We must ask ourselves though why these conditions persist even after a black government has been put in power.

In the last fifteen years of democracy, nothing much has changed. Township schools are still getting a type of Bantu Education that results in very low pass rates amongst black learners. (Even if this education is given all sorts of names like OBE, it remains Bantu Education for blacks). Most of the teachers in township schools were also educated under apartheid and do not have the necessary skills that white teachers have. And so the reality is that even though we now live at a time when blacks and whites are supposed to get equal opportunities, blacks who are in township schools have little opportunities or skills. For example, a Grade 7 learner in a white school is more likely to have better mathematics and literacy skills than a black learner in matric. So black learners fail Grade 12 because they have been systematically underprepared from Grade 1. Even those who manage to pass and go to university often fail their first year because they don’t have good reading and writing skills. This means that out of all the Grade 12 learners who wrote the 2009 exams, a very small number of black learners have a chance to get good jobs in three to four years time. Many of them will join the unemployed blacks who are trapped in townships and struggling to make ends meet.

But each year the Department of Education promises that things will get better and that they need more time. While young people wait for things to get better the country builds expensive stadiums that we don’t need and the children of our government ministers go to fancy schools where they are guaranteed to pass. In countries where the government is serious about making sure that blacks are not oppressed, education is always made a priority. In Haiti, for example, the pro-black government of President Aristide, reduced illiteracy levels by a large percentage in less than four years. In Burkina Faso too, Thomas Sankara was president for only four years before he was killed but he had managed to put in very good education programmes for the black poor and was very unpopular with the white world for doing this. Both of these countries are much smaller and poorer than South Africa but their leaders were revolutionaries who wanted to see the end of white power.

After this year’s results are announced many individual black learners in rural and township schools who did exceptionally well will be praised for their hard work and dedication. We will be told by the newspapers that all black learners in townships who work hard can also do well. But this is a lie. The majority of white learners pass well whether they work hard or not and black learners also fail either way. If you fail you may blame yourself, see it as a personal failure and be depressed as a result even though you have been set-up to fail by forces beyond your control. Some parents might also think they are personally responsible for their kids’ bad results even though the responsibility lies with our government which continues to make life a breeze for whites and a living hell for blacks.

As the revolutionary leader Che Guevara said, “An uneducated people is easy to deceive”. We must not allow ourselves to be deceived into believing that this is the best that we deserve and demand a better education. The youth who fought the Apartheid government in 1976 didn’t die for things to be like this. It’s time to take action. Vuka Darkie!

  • First published in City Press
  • Blackwash is a Black Consciousness youth social movement based in Soweto.
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