Education in South Africa: Challenging “Gutter Education”

By William Bigelow

During the Soweto Uprising of 1976 hundreds of school children were killed by the South African police. Since that time, no struggle in South Africa has taken on greater prominence than the movement to transform apartheid education — what young people in the townships call “gutter education.”

Ten years later as a reporter friend and I drove through the black township of Soweto, I wondered whether there was, in fact, any education occurring in South Africa. Every high school was occupied by South African army troops. At a girls’ school, heavily armed soldiers stood in classroom doorways. Later, on learning that I was a teacher, a taxi driver told me excitedly, “Soldiers came right into my child’s school, right into the classroom — with their guns. How can you teach in this situation?” A mother related, “Soldiers even escort children to the toilet — yes — with guns — It is like a prison.”

Meadowlands was the only black high school where we found no troops. We also found not students, only a gaggle of administrators huddled in the school office. 

They fearfully declined to speak with us. Earlier in the week, according to news reports, a teacher at Meadowlands bad been shot in the leg by South African soldiers when they fired on a group of students refusing to go to class.

In other regions of the country, repression takes a less militarized form. At Indian schools in Durban, teachers are required to adhere to a rigid syllabus. Each day, lesson plans must be checked and approved by department heads. One teacher told me, “When the U.S. bombed Libya I wanted to discuss it with my students. But according to the rules I couldn’t. So I lied on my lessons and said I would teach about Charlemagne that day.”

In all schools, an end-of-the-year exam is the ultimate policing agent. Teachers who have not followed the state-mandated curriculum will see their students fail and be refused entry to the next grade. The exam rewards those who can parrot the prescribed texts. “You will succeed if you memorize the textbook,” one education activist claimed.

“Even if a comma is wrong, to succeed you must put the comma in wrong as well.”

No Real Learning

This is a system of education that does not educate. But real learning was never the object of black education. In a now famous — or infamous — speech, former Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd offered his thoughts on black education; “Natives will be taught from childhood to realize that equality with Europeans is not for them…The school must equip the Bantu child to meet the demands which economic life will impose on him…There is no place for him above the level of certain forms of labor.”

Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, must have anticipated that illiteracy would have political uses. Not only are people who cannot read or write less able to organize an opposition, but those in control can misrepresent this ignorance as stupidity. And, naturally, stupid people should not be given political or economic power. On my visit to Buffelsfontein gold mine, which employs more than 16,000 black workers, the white managers could scarcely contain their glee, “You see, most of our workers are illiterate. They don’t aspire to management. Repetitive work – that’s what they love.”

Despite repression in the schools and the inflexibility of the South African system of non-education, the beginnings of a democratic, nonracial education system are being tested in literacy workshops, trade union classes, and informal “awareness sessions” designed by students themselves. Because of the failure of public schooling, many of these are aimed at adults who dropped out with little to show for their efforts.

In recent years, a number of literacy projects have grown up in South Africa’s urban centers, some functioning as education arms of black trade unions. They share a commitment to learner participation and critical thinking. Their explicit challenge to apartheid also leads to a shared concern for security as protection against repression — which is why no program will be mentioned here by name.

Ann, a 31 year old literacy worker who leads a literacy group of unionized women in a large Johannesburg hotel, shared a story from her work:

I came in for class one day and one of the women had her head on the table. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Life in Soweto is just too hard,” she said. I don’t know what I should do.” “Pray.” another of the women told her. “Pray?” the first woman almost shouted. “Pray to who? Pray to P.W. Botha’s God? Do you know where he is? He’s having lunch at Sun City: one beer, one straight, and then golf. Have you seen how small a Bible is next to a Casspir (an armored troop carrier)?” Then / took it: “What do you think God can do? What do we have to do?” This led to a discussion of all the changes the workers themselves had made since the union formed: a new tiled floor in their changing room, broken windows fixed, and a new camaraderie and sense of power. So they decided to write a group story to share with other workers.

Struggle Over Ideas

Another teacher in Cape Town told me her program hoped to contribute to building a “culture of discussion. We want to get students talking to and asking questions of each other. Our struggle is largely over ideas. We need to get people imagining how society could be restructured. But we always come back to what we can do.”

This “culture of discussion” stands in sharp contrast to the stand-up-and-recite learning methods I saw in South African government schools. But teachers in the literacy programs did not see this teaching as simply a better pedagogical technique. Participatory teaching is training for a new society. As Ann remarked, “Democracy is a learned thing — particularly for people who are used to being controlled in every aspect of their lives.”

Anticipating a radically different society, this new education is a clear threat to the government. A literacy program in Johannesburg had all its financial records seized by security police in June. Many teachers have been harassed or detained and are being held without charge. A teacher I met in Port Elizabeth has become so fearful she keeps her teaching materials hidden in the foundation of her house. 

Not all alternative education in South Africa takes place in small learning circles. The South African Committee for Higher Education (SACHED) is a network of training programs, college extension courses, teachers resource centers, and publications.

SACHED’s popular Upbeat magazine is South Africa’s subversive answer to Senior Scholastic. A recent issue shows students how to look for bias in their country’s newspapers. Readers are asked to compare two papers’ treatment of the killings of a number of blacks in the Pretoria township of Mamelodi. The Cape Times headlined, “6 die as police fire on crowd;” The Citizen (Johannesburg) titled its less prominent story, “2 die in clashes at Mamelodi — police report” Students are urged to analyze what sources the papers used and what each headline implied about the cause of the violence.

John Samuel, SACHED director, unapologetically argues for partisan teaching; “Education is an enabling process. The critical thing in this country is to enable

people to be free of oppression.” And SACHED, like other alternative education groups, has paid for this activist stance. “We made the mistake of thinking that we were living in an open society,” Samuel said in an interview. “But it’s not. Here (in Johannesburg) we’ve been raided twice. Eight of our staff members have been detained, our Grahamstown branch is closed.”

A new organization of parents, students, and teachers. The National Education Crisis Committee (NECC), aims to carry the vision of education for democracy into the government’s own schools. Meeting in Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University in December 1985, delegates from 160 organizations vowed to build within the schools a “people’s education” that “eliminates capitalistic norms of competition, individualism and stunted intellectual development, and …encourages collective input and active participation by all.”

The Weekly Mail’s Sefako Nyaka wrote an article, “The Day I Returned to the Classroom with the Comrades,” recounting his experiences with people’s education in a Soweto school. There, classes were offered by teenage teachers posing questions about what people’s education should be. A 90-minute session Nyaka observed was an open forum for grievances about the current state of “gutter education” and an opportunity for the young teachers to describe education programs such as the African National Congress school in Tanzania.

Here, there were no right answers, and teachers openly admitted having no “blueprint” for educational change. Questions were of prime importance in the session: How can we turn education into a tool for liberation, rather than an instrument of domination; can the boycott be a useful tactic, or must we stay in school and challenge from within*?

Largest General Strike

This national experimentation with people’s education coincided with the most militant challenge to the entire apartheid system to date. May Day 1986 saw the largest general strike in South Africa’s history. Another had been called for June 16, the tenth anniversary of the Soweto student revolt Fearing for its privileged existence, the government struck back, announcing a nationwide state of emergency June 12. Thousands of apartheid foes were rounded up.

The Department of Education and Training, which oversees black education, slapped new restrictions on schools in an explicit attempt to halt the development of people’s education. Any teacher who deviated from the government-prescribed syllabus was threatened with firing. Community people – such as parents – were forbidden to enter school premises and principals were ordered to issue ID Cards to students to help the army and police more easily identify “trespassers.”

But, as so many South Africans told me, the genie is out of the bottle; students refuse to return to inferior schools charged with spitting out obedient workers. In township after township, black students staged bonfire burnings of their new ID and registration documents. By late August, it appeared the government was abandoning its ID scheme, although many schools, especially in the Eastern Cape, remained closed. By the time of my visit in July and August, the experiment in taking people’s education into the schools had been driven underground, but was still alive. There were press reports of roving bands of people’s education enthusiasts offering classes in a few schools in black townships — under the very noses of the South African army, 

In mid-August, I met with the Student Representative Council — a democratically, and illegally, elected student organization — at a school in a so-called colored township of Cape Town. Although there was a police and army presence at a number of schools in the community, students claimed that SRCs in most schools meet regularly, if clandestinely, often with the participation of teachers, to discuss anti government strategy and how to continue developing a new education. These 14- and 15-year-olds are quite aware that now they are playing in the big leagues. As one determine^ teenage girl told me, ’“its tough for us — such small people making such big decisions.”

Together, these home-grown experiences in new ways, of learning and teaching are beginning to nurture visions—of—a democratic and critical education in South Africa – and for their participants, an awareness of collective power is being discovered.

However, all the education activists I spoke with emphasized that the struggle to replace apartheid education is part of a larger struggle to replace apartheid itself. As — one literacy teacher recently wrote, “No matter how much we are liberated from ignorance, no matter how much we build democracy in education, we shall remain oppressed and exploited unless we can take political power.

William Bigelow teaches at Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon. Author of Strangers in Their Own Country: a Curriculum Guide on South Africa, he recently spent a month traveling, in South Africa.

A version of this article appeared in the February 1987 issue of Social Education. It is printed here with permission of the author.