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Published in Print: March 16, 2005, as Learning From South Africa

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Learning From South Africa

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On the matter of racial equity in education, South Africa’s experience is instructive.

One way to gain insights into our own domestic social problems is to examine the experiences of other countries that have faced similar challenges in more extreme forms. On the matter of racial equity in education, South Africa’s experience is instructive.

The black-controlled government of Nelson Mandela that won South Africa’s first truly democratic election in 1994, thereby drawing the curtain on 56 years of apartheid, had a lot going for it. It was secure in its political authority, enjoyed huge good will around the world, and operated from the moral high ground of having replaced a regime that had created one of the most heinous and racially inequitable economic and social systems of the 20th century.

The new South African government crafted one of the most progressive constitutions of any nation, one that made the promotion of educational equity a major national priority and that elevated access to basic education to the status of a fundamental human right. Such priorities represent a refreshing change from the neo-liberal emphasis on efficiency that has dominated recent discourse on education reform both internationally and in the United States.

The new government moved quickly to “deracialize” the state education system. The 15 racially defined education departments of the apartheid era were consolidated into a single national department with operational control delegated to the nine new provinces, and racial considerations became illegal as a basis for any educational decisions, including which schools students could attend.

Teachers in the formerly black education departments, who had previously been paid a fraction of the salaries of white counterparts, were put on the same pay scale as white teachers with comparable educational credentials, and new national norms eliminated racial considerations from teacher-allocation formulas within provinces. By 2001, schools serving black learners enjoyed close to the same number of publicly funded teachers per learner as formerly white schools within each province.

The new leadership used block grants to redistribute financial resources from wealthy to poor provinces. As a result, South Africa was able to reduce the variation in public revenues per learner across the nine provinces by 40 percent between 1996 and 2001, and this convergence has continued. Inevitably, these changes required some painful adjustments in affluent provinces. Western Cape, for example, had to lay off more than 6,000 teachers and saw its ratio of learners to state-paid educators increase from 29-to-1 to 37-to-1 in primary schools and from 25-to-1 to 33-to-1 in secondary schools. An important contributing factor to this progress was the country’s new federal structure, which assigned revenue-raising authority and the setting of national norms for education and other social services to the national level.

Thus, the new government of South Africa showed the world that, when the political climate is right, race-based institutional structures can be eliminated, and significant progress can be made toward more equal funding and allocation of teachers and other educational resources across racial groups. But South Africa’s move to race-blind distribution of public resources could take the country only so far toward the goal of racial equity in education.


A conspicuous feature of South Africa’s initial efforts to promote such equity was that it was done without a significant influx of new public resources. Because the country was already spending 7 percent of its gross domestic product on education, a high proportion by international standards, the consensus among policymakers was that any additional revenues for education would have to come from economic growth.

Such growth, however, never materialized. Though South Africa had been careful not to take out loans that would let international organizations, notably the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, dictate domestic economic policies, the country was still subject to strong pressure from both domestic and international investors to balance its budget, reduce its deficit, and hold down inflation. Hence, in 1996, it opted for an austere macroeconomic policy that slowed the economy. The effect was essentially no real growth in public spending on education between 1997 and 2002.

The consequences of this lack of new investment in education were profound. Under apartheid, government policies had systematically deprived schools serving black students of resources of all kinds, from classrooms, to textbooks, to toilets. Hardest hit were two fundamental prerequisites for quality education: school facilities and qualified teachers. During the apartheid period, black students, particularly Africans, had been crowded into classrooms holding 50 or more students and had little access to school libraries or media centers. In addition, most of the teachers serving black students were poorly educated.

The South African experience teaches us that the struggle for educational equity requires much more than a committment to race-blind policies.

In 2000, recognizing the need to compensate for long-delayed investments in historically disadvantaged schools, and thereby provide some “redress” of past injustices, the South African government began requiring each province to distribute funding for nonpersonnel purposes according to a formula that favors schools serving impoverished communities. However, because the funds distributed in this progressive manner account for less than 10 percent of provincial education spending—and even less in some of the poorer provinces—the program to date has not had much effect.

Another obstacle to racial equity in the education system is school fees. Leaders of the new black-run government understood the need to preserve the quality of formerly all-white schools—all of which now serve the growing black middle class as well—and thereby keep the economically and politically powerful middle class in the state education system. A mass exodus to private schools, they feared, would lead to declining political support for the state education system and create a new form of educational “apartheid” based on socioeconomic class rather than race.

The result was a trade-off that allowed, indeed encouraged, local school governing boards to impose school fees at whatever level they deemed appropriate. In practice, schools serving low-income constituents impose only nominal fees and frequently have difficulty collecting even these. In contrast, schools serving privileged clienteles are able to raise large amounts of revenue through fees that allow them to supplement their allocations of state-paid teachers with additional staff positions.

The result is that huge disparities continue to persist in the total resources available to various schools in South Africa. It is not unusual for a school in an affluent community to have twice as many teachers as a poorer school down the road with the same number of learners. South African policymakers are currently revisiting the fee issue with the goal of addressing some of these inequities, though it is clear that any serious effort to do so will require a significant influx of new public funds.


Education policymakers in South Africa also understood the political power of school curricula. The apartheid regime had restricted black students to curricula that sharply limited their exposure to advanced math and science and that was delivered in an authoritarian manner intended to reinforce white hegemony. As a direct result, schools became an important battleground—physically as well as figuratively—in the struggle against apartheid.

Eager to signal that it was repudiating these values, the new government adopted an “outcomes based” curriculum that gave local teachers enormous discretion in determining what they would teach. Unfortunately, this approach was introduced too quickly, and designers seriously overestimated the capacity of poorly trained teachers in disadvantaged areas to master the new approach. Critics soon documented that it was doing more harm than good to the cause of learning in classrooms. To its credit, the Ministry of Education moved quickly to acknowledge its misstep and begin the process of modifying the new approach.

South Africa over the last decade deserves great praise for dismantling the avowedly racist structures of apartheid-era education and creating a race-blind state education system.

The new government was, of course, eager to show improvements in the achievement levels of black students. Unfortunately, the only testing instrument available was the matriculation exams that some, but by no means all, students take at the end of high school as a prerequisite to moving on to a university. The political message was not lost on secondary school principals, who made sure that the proportion of their students passing the exam increased even if the way to do so was to discourage marginal students from sitting for the exam. (If you thought schools in Houston had a monopoly on such tactics, think again.) In fact, despite highly acclaimed increases in the pass rates, the number of students passing the exam has remained constant during most of the post-apartheid period.

South Africa over the last decade deserves great praise for dismantling the avowedly racist structures of apartheid-era education and creating a race-blind state education system. At the same time, it has made little progress toward the broader goal of promoting equal educational opportunity for black learners who are not part of the growing black middle class.

Many factors account for this limited progress, including the lack of additional public funding for redress of structural inequities that linger from the apartheid era. Even had additional public funding been available, however, limitations in human capacity throughout the system—from officials in the national ministry to provincial education officials, to principals and teachers in the schools—would have made it difficult for the country to have brought about major improvements in educational outcomes for disadvantaged black learners within such a short period of time.

Thus, even with a remarkably high level of commitment, racial equity in education in South Africa is still an elusive goal. The South African experience teaches us that the struggle for educational equity requires much more than a commitment to race-blind policies. The historical legacy of past racial inequities means that providing equal educational opportunity to all students requires substantial investments over a long period of time.

Vol. 24, Issue 27, Pages 38,52

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