Bantu Education cannot continue to haunt us

This month, 60 years ago, the 1953 Bantu Education Act was promulgated. Before then, all children in South Africa, of all races, were taught the same curriculum. The Verwoerdian approach held that by producing "Bantu pupils" trained according to a European model, the vain hope was created "among Natives" that they could occupy posts within the "European" community. What was required, instead, was a curriculum that catered to the posts required for the serving of the "Bantu community".

The national government took control of all provincial education departments. Independent mission schools (where 90% of black pupils were accommodated) were forced to implement the new curriculum and policies of the Bantu Education Department – or close down. 

Open universities were closed to black people, and were replaced by tribal (or "bush") universities and ethnic training colleges. Primary schools stopped teaching black children in English. They were taught in their mother tongue, putting them at an enormous disadvantage at a later stage when they had to learn in English. 

Black pupils were only allowed to start school at the age of seven; white children started two years earlier. Gardening was part of the Bantu Education curriculum. White children were exposed to art and science.

The curricula for individual subjects were very different. History and geography provided Bantu Education pupils with localised knowledge, whereas a world view was cultivated in other pupils. Yet, at the close of their school careers, pupils of the Bantu Education system were forced to write exactly the same examinations as their counterparts in other schools.

The products of Bantu Education, if they were able to cope with the challenges, were two years older than their counterparts when they matriculated, had had little exposure to English and had been exposed to a very limited knowledge of the world. Their opportunities were severely limited.

It is this outcome that we cannot allow to haunt us. We cannot allow the opportunities available to our nation's young people to be limited by the quality of the education they receive. And particularly, we cannot allow the quality of the education they receive to be determined by the circumstances of their birth.

There is no denying great strides have been made in our education system. There is one curriculum for all children. At least 98% of our children are in school between the ages of sven and 15. But the achievements of learners are still strongly (and sadly) linked to the circumstances of their birth. Every assessment of learner outcomes carried out over the past decade has shown this to be the case.

Children born to parents who are able to afford the fees for well-resourced schools are likely to do far better than children born into poverty. Children born in rural areas are likely to be taught by ill-qualified teachers and to attend ill-resourced schools. Their academic outcomes are likely to reflect their learning environment. Children born in provinces with dysfunctional governments, such as Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, are far less likely to succeed than those born and schooled in provinces such as the Western Cape and Gauteng.

Every child deserves to attend a school that provides committed and capable teachers as role models, that instils a robust work ethic, a need for curiosity, strong values and self-esteem, in addition to providing an education of such academic rigour that that child is ready to become a globally competitive young citizen. 

But this is not the case. By far the majority of our learners are in no-fee, highly unionised and under-resourced school environments.

Bantu Education was meant to teach black learners how to be servants and manual labourers. The argument that the system was better than the system we have now is nonsensical. There was little or no potential for excellence within Bantu Education. There is potential for excellence now.

We owe it to our rainbow children to allow them to achieve the excellence to which they are entitled. We need, amongst so many possible steps, to, at the very least:

  • Benchmark our curriculum to achieve excellence;
  • Ensure effective leadership and management of schools;
  • Attract and keep quality, committed teachers;
  • Hold principals and teachers accountable for any failure to teach or to set a good example for their learners;
  • Establish an education culture of respect and discipline; and
  • Provide every possible resource to equip our children to become globally competitive.

Our children must be taught that hard work and perseverance opens up doors. Our education system must teach our children that having goals and achieving them presents untold rewards. Our learners deserve the best – and it starts with quality education. 

Annette Lovemore, MP, is the DA's spokesperson on basic education

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