Equity & Diversity

Forging Its Own Path

December 04, 2002 4 min read

South Africa’s education leaders knew exactly what they didn’t want: mandatory busing and magnet schools.

After dismissing America’s most familiar strategies to desegregate its schools, South Africa is forging much of its own path. And, more importantly, teaching children the “new” South Africa’s values.

Diversity and multiculturalism were not the central priorities of post-apartheid South Africa. Instead, the nation stressed all-encompassing values—equity, redress, and social justice.

In South Africa, after all, the “minority” population has always been in the majority numerically: Roughly 90 percent of the people are nonwhite—blacks, Indians, and those of mixed races who are known as “colored.” Compare that with the United States, where blacks, Hispanics, and Asians make up 30 percent of the population. Most children here will attend school without ever seeing a white child.

“How do you ensure that learners understand multiculturalism and diversity in an environment without learners of other races in your school?” asks Albert Chanee, a senior manager for the provincial Gauteng Department of Education.

South Africa’s apartheid policies oppressed the vast majority of its citizens based on their race, and those beliefs didn’t disappear when the new black-led government took over in 1994.

Equally destructive, South Africans say, was the atmosphere of discrimination encouraged by apartheid against women, the poor, and people with disabilities.

Now, poverty is the overarching concern, argues Nazir Carrim, a senior lecturer in education at the University of Witwatersrand. Still, prejudice remains linked to poverty, Carrim says, and that’s a problem schools can’t solve alone: “Kids go home to parents who are racist, and they bring those attitudes back to school.”

Nevertheless, the battle to transform South Africa’s values and eradicate racism is being waged at schools nationwide.

Sporadic but high-profile racial conflicts—violent protests by white parents against the enrollment of black children, along with incidents in which black and white students were stabbed—tarnished the process of desegregation early on. While observers say such incidents are on the wane today, not much else has changed. Language differences and costly school fees exclude black students from some schools.

South Africa has more pressing concerns in education than racial integration, says John Kane-Berman, the chief executive of the South African Institute of Race Relations, a research group here. For example, a 1998 survey by the Medical Research Council of South Africa found that 33 percent of the female respondents who said they were raped before the age of 15 identified the perpetrators as teachers.

“Of the major problems confronting the education system,” Kane-Berman argues, “I do not think race is even 10th on that list.”

Most South Africans disagree, however.

The national Education Department made anti-racism efforts and promotion of positive values priorities by establishing the Race and Values in Education Office this year. Its goals include celebrating diversity, forming a national network to support and monitor human-rights and anti-racism education, and infusing the curriculum with the nation’s new values.

Brenda Leibowitz, the director of the office, says values must guide the education system and not be considered an add-on subject. The new, mandatory national curriculum was rewritten to include an emphasis on human rights across disciplines.

“If the values of the constitution, such as respect and equity, had long been universally embraced, then we wouldn’t have to mount” the office, Leibowitz says.

But with scant government programs, nonprofit organizations are relied on to offer a variety of diversity programs. The pool of private money, however, is stretched to meet other high-priority social services—AIDS, poverty, and unemployment.

Some South Africans, such as Jonathan Jansen, the dean of the University of Pretoria’s faculty of education, believe that most all-white schools from the apartheid era have done little else but open their doors to students of other races. The schools are “desegregated,” he says, but they’re not “integrated,” and they fail to embrace students’ differing cultures. Those former white schools are teaching the traditional cultures and historical narrative of white people, Jansen says. “That’s where we see the damage being done.”

Post-apartheid South Africa initially saw “white flight” to private schools, but that trend has largely dissipated, says Jane Hofmeyr, the executive director of the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa. Today, she says, more poor and middle-class black families are seeking a private school education for their children.

Because integration is numerically impossible to achieve, the Gauteng education department’s Chanee says, the emphasis must be on diversifying and training the nation’s corps of teachers, many of whom have been educated to protect the values of the “old"South African society—right or wrong.

While Chanee’s department is trying to offer the needed training, he stresses that “tolerance can’t be forced.”

The South African government is relying too heavily on its citizens’ goodwill to carry out the spirit of the nation’s constitution, laws, and policies, contends Samiera Zafar, a policy analyst for the Center for Education Policy Development, Evaluation, and Management. She says the policies contain all the “right words” to improve education, but the nation has failed to put those words into practice.

“As long as we don’t take our resources and allocate them strategically, we will never deracialize the system,” she asserts. “We will never have equity.”

—Karla Scoon Reid

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 2002 edition of Education Week as Forging Its Own Path

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