As South Africa and the world commemorate the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, Nelson Mandela University launched its year-long centenary programme with a colloquium, on July 19 2018, assessing the context and significance of his famous statement that “education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world”.
Given his love of education, there is no better way to start centenary celebrations than to reflect on what has been achieved and what is yet to be achieved in respect of the noble vision those who struggled for our freedom had for education in a democratic South Africa.
It is well known that education was used by the colonial and apartheid authorities to divide people and to attempt to ensure that the majority of the population would be permanently assigned a place of inferiority. The 1953 Bantu Education Act, one of the cornerstones of apartheid, took African education out of the hands of missionaries and placed it firmly under the control of a department of Bantu education, where schooling was premised on a racially discriminatory, inferior curriculum. This was most succinctly captured in Verwoerd’s infamous statement that Africans needed to be trained in accordance with their position in life — essentially as hewers of wood and drawers of water.
The manner in which education was used to entrench inequality and to oppress the masses was something that was recognised by those struggling for our liberation. A huge contribution to the fight against the colonial and apartheid education system was made by teacher organisations such as the Teachers’ League of South Africa and the Cape African Teachers’ Association from the early 1940s. Their activism and writings on education offer some of the most potent critiques of colonial and apartheid education.
In 1955, the drafters of the Freedom Charter issued the clarion call that “the doors of learning and culture shall be opened!” and that, inter alia, “the aim of education shall be to teach the youth to love their people and their culture, to honour human brotherhood, liberty and peace; education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children; higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit”.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, the rise of Black Consciousness began to focus attention on the soul-sapping, identity-destroying effects of Bantu education, which strove so hard to make black people believe they were inferior. In 1972, Onkgopotse Tiro (who was later murdered by the apartheid death squads with a parcel bomb on February 1 1974 in Botswana) delivered a stunning critique of Bantu education at his graduation ceremony at Turfloop University. In a statement that became known as the “Turfloop Testimony,” he stridently proclaimed: “In America there is nothing like Negro education, Red Indian education, and white American education. They have American education common to all Americans. But in South Africa, we have Bantu education, Indian education, coloured education and European education. We do not have a system of education common to all South Africans.”
Steve Biko also strongly drew attention to the evil effect of apartheid education. “The logic behind white domination is to prepare the black man for the subservient role in this country.” The effects of colonialism and apartheid in general, including Bantu education, on the minds and psyche of black South Africans is what Biko had in mind when he stated: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
Such were the pervasive negative implications of the education system forced on the majority of South Africans that it is therefore no accident that the 1976 Soweto uprising was sparked off by resistance to the apartheid regime’s attempts to impose Afrikaans as a language of instruction in schools to further entrench its power and oppress the masses through education.
Although the 1976 uprising, which gave renewed impetus to the liberation struggle, was brutally suppressed through the use of state violence, its flames were reignited in the 1980s with widespread school boycotts and the emergence of People’s Education. That in turn became a catalyst for much wider resistance and mobilisation, which ultimately led, in 1990, to the negotiations for a democratic dispensation.
Faced with the devastating effects of three centuries of colonialism and apartheid, the architects of our democracy saw education as one of the tools that would transform society, lift people out of poverty and create greater equality. The aspirations of the Freedom Charter found expression in our Constitution and in policy developed for a post-apartheid education system.
The Bill of Rights contained a set of fundamental principles on education, which included everyone has the right to a basic education, including adult basic education; and to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures must make progressively available and accessible.
The intended trajectory of future education policy in 1994 was reflected in the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which stated, inter alia, “education must be directed to the full development of the individual and community, and to strengthening respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It must promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all South Africans and must advance the principles contained in the Bill of Rights.”
The RDP went on to propose specific interventions for early childhood educare, adult basic education, special education, compulsory school education, further education and training, and higher education.
This brief overview of the salient features of the evolution of our education system would be incomplete without mention of the 2015 #RhodesMustFall and the #FeesMustFall movements. In a very real sense they focused renewed attention on the incomplete transformation of South African society. What initially started as a protest about a statue of an arch-imperialist soon grew into calls for a broader examination of some of the fundamental assumptions and concepts underpinning our knowledge systems and curricula. That is why we need to take the decolonisation and Africanisation discussion seriously and respond appropriately.
In essence, it represents the next phase in the evolution of our democracy and it picks up on and extends the ideas expressed by thinkers and activists from the Freedom Charter to Tiro, Biko and the drafters of the RDP.
Similarly, the #FeesMustFall movement refocused attention on the plight of students from working class and poor backgrounds. It was a timely prompt to government of some of its own positions on higher education. For example, the National Planning Commission had articulated in 2012 that “universities are key to developing a nation”, and set out three main functions in society, including “it can strengthen equity, social justice and democracy. In today’s knowledge society, higher education is increasingly important for opening up people’s opportunities.”
Significantly #FeesMustFall also reminded us all of the commitment contained in the Freedom Charter and in our Constitution that the government should take reasonable measures to make further education progressively available.
The phased implementation of free higher education is most welcome. Although there are still challenges that must be resolved, we need to see access to improved access to higher education in the context of fulfilment of a commitment made as far back as 1955 and which was referred to in our Constitution.
Notwithstanding these strides, all is clearly not well with our education system. There are many areas that require special interventions to truly achieve the vision for education envisaged by generations of activists. It is imperative in the centenary year of the birth of Mandela and Albertina Sisulu, and almost a quarter of a century into our democracy, that we collectively pause and take stock of whether we have all lived up to these promises.
That we as a country might not have yet achieved the dream Mandela had in 1994 for education does not negate the value of the concept of education as a weapon for changing the world.
Indeed, the challenges of education in the 21st century should inspire us to redouble our efforts to achieve a more just society in South Africa where the challenges of poverty, inequality, unemployment, limited access to resources and massive social injustice are buried once and for all.
Dr Geraldine J Fraser-Moleketi is the chancellor of Nelson Mandela University. This is an extract from the keynote address, “Understanding the Context of ‘Education is the Most Powerful Weapon We Can Use to Change the World’ ”, delivered by her at a colloquium held on July 19 to launch the university’s year-long Nelson Mandela centenary programme