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Legacy of apartheid still haunts pupils fighting for a decent education in South Africa, 30 years later

Legacy of apartheid still haunts pupils fighting for a decent education in South Africa, 30 years later
Children in townships and rural areas struggle to access quality schools in affluent neighbourhoods because of gatekeeping policies, according to Yolisa Piliso, a junior attorney at the Equal Education Law Centre. (Photo: Equal Education)

The spatial divides created during apartheid continue to shape access to quality education in South Africa. Policies that allow or enforce feeder zones for schools often prevent underprivileged pupils from accessing better learning opportunities outside their communities.

American writer William Faulkner said that the past is never dead – it’s not even the past. That is certainly true of South Africa’s education system. The spatial divide created by the apartheid government still exists, even today. Social inequalities and where pupils attend school in the Western Cape are still linked to race and class. 

Amnesty International has reported that the “South African education system, characterised by crumbling infrastructure, overcrowded classrooms and relatively poor educational outcomes, is perpetuating inequality”. All of these challenges are mostly found in the rural and township areas where black and coloured people were forced to live under apartheid and where many still live today.

As a result, families living in underresourced areas seek quality education for their children in more affluent neighbourhoods, where former Model C schools are predominantly found. “Semi-private” and former Model C schools offered high-quality education under apartheid and were once reserved for white pupils. Nowadays, efforts by previously disadvantaged parents to enrol their children in these schools are often futile. Children in townships and rural areas are unable to access such schools because of gatekeeping policies, which continue to prioritise pupils who reside in the area in which the school is situated. 

It is not a coincidence that many previously disadvantaged pupils live far from former Model C schools. The apartheid legislation deliberately imposed the spatial segregation of people based on race, through legislative measures such as the Group Areas Act. These “pass laws” saw black and coloured people pushed out of the affluent areas and into areas such as Ndabeni, Langa, the Cape Flats and other townships. People living in these areas were also confined to schools in their neighbourhoods. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA schools still plagued by ‘historical infrastructure backlogs’, overcrowding – Equal Education report

While the pass laws may have been repealed, separation persists in the Western Cape due to rigid school admission policies, which are left to school governing bodies to determine. The reproduction of educational historic injustices is not unique to the Western Cape. In Gauteng, the provincial legislature has passed a provincial act introducing “feeder zones”. This means that schools within a specific geographical location or zone must accommodate pupils from within that same area. Thus, if you are from Tembisa or Alexandra, the statute requires that you be admitted to schools in those areas. This limits freedom of movement.

apartheid education

Yolisa Piliso, a junior attorney at the Equal Education Law Centre. (Photo: Supplied)

Now, more and more township areas are mushrooming, putting pressure on the already overcrowded and underresourced schools. Parents in Gauteng and the Western Cape come to the Equal Education Law Centre’s law clinic, seeking help to place their child in a decent school. Earlier this year, we received an enquiry from a parent in Gugulethu who applied for her child to attend a school in the suburban area of Rondebosch. Her application was unsuccessful due to the school’s oversubscription. The school became oversubscribed because it had first considered pupils who were residents of the area and, as a result, the pupil from Gugulethu was deprioritised and placed in a school in Gugulethu. 

Bearing in mind that the parent made no application at a school in Gugulethu, the Western Cape education department’s admission system nevertheless dictated that her child be placed there, since this is where she resides. Of course, one wishes for a South Africa where pupils can simply walk to a well-resourced, well-functioning school, rather than having to wake up at the crack of dawn and make the long trek via public transport to schools far from their homes. This, however, remains a distant dream due to persistent spatial inequalities.  

The pupil from Gugulethu is not an isolated case. We see pupils in the same position across provinces. Often, such cases are treated by provincial education departments as a “school of choice” issue. Provinces say their duty under section 3 (3) of the South African Schools Act is simply to ensure that each pupil has a place in a school, not necessarily a place at their school of choice. But this framing is deeply flawed and insulting to pupils and their parents. The “school of choice” argument is not sourced from the text of the legislation. Section 3 is about the duty of the government to admit pupils into schools, and does not contain any framework for excluding pupils from quality education based on location.

Even worse, previously disadvantaged groups live in townships not by choice but by historical design. The dilapidated infrastructure, overcrowded classrooms and poor learning outcomes at township schools can also be attributed to the legacy of the apartheid. In these circumstances, when parents apply for their child to attend a school in a more affluent area, they are not making a trivial choice. They are insisting on their child’s fundamental right to basic education of an adequate standard. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: The current schools’ admission policy is failing our children on yet another level

The “closer to home” admission approach is, at face value, praiseworthy and desirable. However, it ignores the disparities and the spatial divide in the education system, where your location coincides with the quality of education you receive. This approach has also been used as a licence to exclude pupils who live in townships. 

The duty to ensure enough school places for pupils must be interpreted in light of the South African historical context. The Schools Act was designed to redress the inequities of apartheid. In this case, redress is made subject to a person’s address. School admission policies that continue to mirror the pass laws are anathema to the purpose and the spirit of the legislation. The duty of redress is paramount for everyone in government. Education policies must allow people to break free of the apartheid legacy. DM

Yolisa Piliso is a junior attorney at the Equal Education Law Centre.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Simon Ahrens says:

    While I can’t argue with the case you make, surely changing the school admission rules only changes the outcome for different sets of parents ? Having benefitted from living in a “good feeder area” myself, I can understand the frustration but jeopardising those who are benefitting today doesn’t solve the problem. The solution here must be around the government investing in the education of all of South Africa’s kids, ensuring that regardless of where you live you can be assured of good standard of education with infrastructure to support this ? Unfortunately education has not always been the top priority and in part is the reason why as a country today to we are in the situation we are.

    • Nev Nev says:

      It’s a very glibbly constructed argument which ignores the elephant in the room, which is that not uch seems to have been done to improve the situation in these areas froma scholling point of view. The author, as is the norm during election years chooses to resurect the apartheid card in his one sided article instead of asking why this situation still remains after 30 years of ANC rule.

  • Garth Kruger says:

    So the school in Rondebosch should exclude a kid who lives there so a child from Gugulethu can be admitted? Yolisa, you need to swing by Brooklyn Primary in Pretoria at break time. And its an affluent area.

  • Nev Nev says:

    “Legacy of apartheid still haunts pupils fighting for a decent education in South Africa, 30 years later” – Can we really call this a legacy of apartheid after 30 years of democratic rule. Why is it that these areas you mention still have poor schools? How can it be that the ANC led government has not addressed this? Will be refering to the legacy of aparthied 100 years on, or by then will the blame be placed at the feet of those who are really to blame?

  • A Concerned Citizen says:

    There’s a lot of reference to the period up until 1994, but not very much on the 30 years since when no progress has been made to redress these stubborn vestiges of apartheid. Apartheid created the problems, yes, but there has been a significant window of opportunity to undo these issues and the current ANC government has failed dismally. It helps nothing to blame the status quo on apartheid – focus your ire on the incumbent government and encourage people to vote accordingly this year. This problem is now a joint ANC and apartheid legacy.

  • Geoff Krige says:

    I agree with Yolisa that it is not fair that children from some areas are disadvantaged because the schools in their areas are bad schools. But Yolisa does not propose any solution. It would also be unfair if parents living across the road from a good school have to send their child 25 kms to another school because the school across the road is oversubscribed by children from other areas. The only realistic way for oversubscribed schools to allocate places is based on the area. Yolisa fails to clearly state that it is the government’s responsibility to provide the child’s constitutional right to a good education. So this problem is further indication of the total failure of the ANC government to meet its constitutional mandate. It is not the fault of better schools that there are numerous very bad schools. It is the fault of the ANC government. It is not the fault of the better schools that they are unable to accommodate every child who seeks admission. It is the fault of the ANC government I know of several initiatives by better schools to assist poorer schools, but without support and competent leadership from government and the teacher unions there will always be bad schools around.

  • Annalene Sadie says:

    The problem is not the admission policies of former model C schools – it is that in 30 years time the present government has been unable or unwilling to upgrade the township schools to the same standard.

  • Robert Pegg says:

    As recent polls have shown, 60% of eligible voters don’t know they have a choice on who to vote for, so they will vote for the ANC. It suits the government to keep the population uneducated and dependent on state benefits. That way they know they will get the votes to keep them in power.
    When will black people stop blaming apartheid for all that’s wrong in South Africa ? Blame the government who has been in power for 30 years and not spent money on education. Instead they have enriched themselves and their comrades and couldn’t care less about upgrading education facilities.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    The problem is not the admission rules but the poor standard of school funded by government.

    Yes apartheid existed and yes it was disgraceful – and unbelievably stupid and short sighted – that quality education was not made available to all our citizens.

    But it is 30 years on.
    And the ANC government has had both the funds and the ability to provide schooling to all our children, in all areas of our country.

    Instead, they have lied. They have stolen. They have destroyed a strong economy.

    And in doing these things the ANC have stolen the hope of all South Africans.

    It is time for all South Africans to put blame where it is due.

    It is time for us to vote for change.

  • T'Plana Hath says:

    “The duty of redress is paramount for everyone in government.” Too true, but let’s take a moment to see who the government is – bloated fatcats just oozing swaggoo. Like a child that was left unattended in mom’s make-up and wardrobe, playing dress-up without having a clue. Bra inside out, lipstick smeared, but strutting and fretting nevertheless; what was briefly endearing and comical (but not really) has now given way to something far more grotesque and horrifying. And so I ask, at which point will your testicles descend and when will you call out the 𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘭, quintessential, and most devastating legacy of apartheid in the room right now – your ANC government? When will you acknowledge that it is your leaders who are now the 𝘥𝘦 𝘧𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘰 beneficiaries of apartheid? When you see them tonight at SONA ask yourself, how many teachers could that car have trained? How many school lunches could be bought for the price of that handbag? How many houses could have been built for people – waiting 30 years – with the money you spent on your third or fourth mansion? Your raiments are dripping blood.

  • dirkjbrink says:

    Brilliantly of the mark!
    What was your education like Yolisa? Seemingly privileged taken your qualification and why critic on history you dont know enough about? Why not tackling the governments criminals who stole so much that they shall never be able to fund your dream, create jobs , build your own house, build your own schools to be proud of as a community and to know that it was built with your own tax money and to maintain
    it and to plan for the number of children you want so you shall be able to pay for their education in a place of your choice. Get a grip man! You can not carry on with this apartheid blame game, rather start to do something positive in those communities or buy a house near a model C school!

  • Vincent Britz says:

    So 30 years of ANC rule and destruction of the whole country and the whites still get the blame??? Why the F didn’t the ANC government fix it if it’s so discriminated to the poor or middle class??? Why is all this BS coming out now only after the corrupt ANC government has destroyed every SOE & government department???

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    In the comments on this article there is a lot of criticism toward Yolisa, which is unfair in my view. He makes the point which no one can deny, namely that the apartheid way of spatial organisation still bogs people down. To be honest, it will still happen for another 50 years. He does not blame anyone, in fact he mentions some of the surpressive attitudes from the current governments that exacerbate the problem. What is true of course is that the ANC government has not done close to enough to change this. Especially the quality of education, and of its’ management, leaves much to be desired. And the 30% pass rate just makes everything far worse. So, ANC, this is on you. We are waiting for election day this year.

    • Ben Harper says:

      Hi headline is clear, he blames everything on something that ended more than 30 years ago and then goes on to use the stupid example of a parent complaining her kid, from Gugulethu could not get into a school in Rondebosch because it was already filled with kids from… you guessed it… Rondebosch.

      No the education crisis of today lies squarely at the feet of the incompetent, corrupt, inept anc, no one else, not apartheid, not Oom Jan – the anc and only the anc

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