Teaching Profession Opinion

Racial Equity in Education: Reflections on South Africa

By Noah Zeichner — December 13, 2018 7 min read
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Editor’s Note: Racial equity has been at the center of many discussions in this country recently, especially when it comes to education. It also continues to be a critical conversation in South Africa, which Noah Zeichner, a national board-certified social studies and Spanish teacher in Seattle, visited earlier this year as part of the NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellowship. As part of the fellowship, Noah contributed to a recently published book,”Twelve Lessons to Open Classrooms and Minds to the World.”

Last summer, I traveled to South Africa as part of the NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellowship along with 45 other teachers from around the United States. We spent seven days in Cape Town and Johannesburg, visiting schools and learning about the complex history and current state of South Africa. It was a short trip, but we packed a lot in. A few months later, I am still reflecting on my experience.

History of South African Education

The South African education system has never fully recovered from the damage done by apartheid, which lasted from 1948 into the early 1990s. The apartheid regime passed the Bantu Education Act in 1953, which created separate and unequal schools for each of South Africa’s racially classified groups. (The Population Registration Act of 1950 had divided South Africans into four racial groups: white, black, coloured (mixed race), and Indian.)

The Bantu education system served the interests of the white-supremacist apartheid government and denied nonwhite South Africans an opportunity to obtain a quality education. In 1975-76, the government spent 644 South African Rand annually on each white student, R189 per Indian student, R139 on each coloured student, and R42 on each black student. Today, although apartheid is more than 20 years in the past, resources are still unequal across South Africa.

A majority of children in South Africa today live in poverty. And public schools in South Africa are not necessarily free of charge. “No-fee schools” were introduced in 2007, and current law requires that there be no fees in the poorest 60 percent of schools. Most of the roughly 26,000 schools in South Africa are public schools. There are, however, a rising number of low-fee independent schools that are enrolling low-income students. And according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2018 Education at a Glance report, 16 percent of children ages 5-14 are not enrolled in school at all.

The 2015 Trends in International Mathematical and Science Study (TIMSS) placed South Africa in the five lowest-performing countries in the world for math and science. When looking at just no-fee public schools, only 25 percent scored above the minimum level of competency in math. After high school, only 6 percent of young adults attain postsecondary degrees, which is the lowest rate among all countries in the OECD report. The challenges faced by students and teachers in South Africa are devastating. The people I met in our two school visits are working tirelessly to overcome the many obstacles that students and teachers face every day.

Visiting Schools

On our first full day in Cape Town, we visited South Peninsula High School (SPHS). SPHS opened in 1950 and serves mostly coloured students. When the school’s neighborhood was reclassified as a white area by the apartheid government, teachers fought to keep the school open. While there were no direct violent confrontations with police at the school during apartheid, SPHS was very involved in the resistance movement. Mr. Zeid Baker, the principal, and two of the teacher leaders we met graduated from SPHS and today are deeply invested in the school community.

Most of the 1,500 students at SPHS are bused in from several townships that surround Cape Town. SPHS is considered a “low-fee” public school. Tuition is about 8,500 Rand, or just over $600 per year. SAILI, a nonprofit organization, runs a merit-based scholarship program at SPHS that makes it possible for nearly 150 of the South Peninsula’s students to attend the school. We heard from a panel of SAILI scholarship recipients. They talked about their aspirations for the future but also about the impact of violence in their lives. At one point, they were asked how many have witnessed gun violence in recent weeks or months. Every single child raised a hand. My immediate reaction to this was that if this is a high-performing low-fee school, then the level of poverty and the concentration of violence-induced trauma at no-fee government schools must be overwhelming.

A few days later, in Johannesburg, we visited the United Church School (UCS), a low-fee independent school that serves a mostly black student body. Of the 600 students, 480 are considered underprivileged. The tuition at UCS is R8000 ($600), similar to South Peninsula High School. This is much less expensive than many private schools, some of which charge more than $15,000 a year. It was clear that UCS embraces the diversity of its students. All 11 official languages of South Africa are spoken by USC students. And we met kids from Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Cameroon, DR Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Angola, Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, and Botswana.

Community Connections

I left the two school visits with many more questions than answers. One question I had was: Where do students who don’t have the resources to attend university go after high school? Only 18 percent of high school graduates attend university, and between 50 percent and 60 percent of those students drop out of college during their first year. And the youth unemployment rate in South Africa is staggering. According to the Economist’s Pocket World in Figures, the unemployment rate among 15-to-24-year-olds was 57.4 percent in 2017, the highest of all countries in the report. The overall unemployment rate in South Africa hovers around 27 percent. Fortunately, some youths are able to connect with community organizations that provide training and mentoring.

We visited two nonprofit organizations doing impressive work with youths: the Rainbow Academy in Cape Town and the Imbali Visual Literacy Project in Johannesburg. The Rainbow Academy is a performing arts vocational program for youths ages 17-25 who have finished high school. Imbali is a three-year training program for youths that is housed in a renovated bus factory. It was founded 30 years ago by a group of women to train teachers in nonwhite schools to incorporate art using cheap and easily available materials (only white children received arts education under apartheid). These two organizations are part of a web of community efforts to help young people beat the odds.

Reflections for the U.S.

I only had a tiny glimpse into the South African education system, but it was enough to cause me to reflect on schools back home. In both the United States under Jim Crow and in South Africa under apartheid, students of color were forced to attend separate and inferior schools. The apartheid government went even further, requiring people to carry pass cards (identification), creating a separate low-level curriculum for nonwhite students and forcing all students to learn in the Afrikaans language.

Civil rights movements in both countries fought back to defeat both Jim Crow and apartheid after many decades of struggle. The new South African democracy is just 24 years old. The United States, on the other hand, has had more time to improve educational opportunities for students of color. Sadly, though, more than 60 years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, we still have a long way to go. Several recent studies show that many school districts across the United States have resegregated since 1970. The UCLA Civil Rights Project warns us in a 2016 report that many U.S. schools today face “double segregation,” with students increasingly isolated by both race and poverty in their schools. And like South Africa, high-poverty schools tend to have fewer resources, higher proportions of underqualified teachers, and an increased narrowing of the curriculum.

The lack of racial equity and the opportunity gaps that still exist in both the United States and South African education systems today are disheartening. But like most teachers around the world, I continue to show up to my classroom every day to make a positive contribution to our public schools. When I think about my time in South Africa last summer, I am reminded that I am part of a global struggle to ensure that all students have access to a quality education. Will we ever get there? As the late Nelson Mandela, who would have been celebrating his 100th birthday this year, said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Connect with Noah, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Image of South Peninsula High School students taken by and used with permission of the author.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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