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Reflections on ‘Free Education’ from Sao Paulo to Cape Town – Part Two

Brian Kamanzi is a Cape Town-based writer and electrical engineering Masters student at the University of Cape Town. He describes himself as committed to the social upliftment of his fellow people. He is a budding Pan-Africanist eager to make contributions to the movement and form cross-cultural connections with others in the struggle. Follow his writing online at

Education and the acts of teaching and learning are as old as the emergence of consciousness and by consequence the history of education in what is now called South Africa, in particular, is perhaps as old as we are as a species. In attempting to provide comment and contribution to the debates on decolonisation this essay will explore the trajectory of ‘schooling’, post-European invasion, in Cape Town and Sao Paulo in the context of the broader society.

South Africa, as a territory, having witnessed several waves of European colonialism from different nations, has had and continues to have different models and systems of education in active operation. In 1658, six years after the arrival of settlers as part of a Dutch East India Company trade mission, the first Western school was established for children who had been enslaved and captured off a Portuguese slave trader and brought to South Africa on a ship called the Amersfoort. This school, co-founded by Jan van Riebeeck, was said to provide an oppressive environment that played a significant role in imposing identities onto the children presumably to teach content fit to enable them to work in the labour market of the burgeoning Cape Colony.

Later, as a by-product of settler expansion, the need for the European diaspora to expand public schooling for their families increased and in 1791 the Dutch commissioner-general, Jacob Abraham Uitenhage de Mist, facilitated the development of the idea of a “South African College” (later South African College of Schools). As the British colonial forces took over the Cape Colony the development of the school had reached its final stages and it had opened for classes by 1829.

The system conceptualised by the Dutch diaspora had strong relationships with the Dutch Reformed Church which also played key roles in the development of the school. In 1948 the Nationalist Party came into power, later going on to establish the apartheid (separate development) set of policies. Crucial to their ideological project was the implementation of the Bantu Education Act in 1953, which provided education that prepared masses of natives and racialised peoples from elsewhere into the labour market as factory workers, low level managers, servants and so on.

In recalling part 1 of these reflections we note the development of the elite campus the University of Cape Town from the South African College of Schools through the financing and encouragement of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes.

Brazil, which experienced European invasion in 1500, saw its first elementary Western schools established in 1549 by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in Salvador, which was the primary port for the transatlantic slave trade. The school’s ideological function, among many, served to convert the indigenous population while engaging on trade, architecture, science, literature, languages, arts, music and religious debate offering classes for men, thus also contributing to engendering the native and enslaved population. Until the mid-1700s the Jesuits were responsible for almost the entire public education system; however this eventually came into conflict with the economic interests King José I’s regime in Portugal which felt that the education system ought to be subordinated to the state and not the church.

In the period of 1822-1824 during Brazil’s initial transition to independence from Portugal, the significant changes to the education system included the declaration of free elementary school education for all citizens. This injunction also brought state policies that prevented black students from attending the same schools purportedly for, among other things, fear of transmitting diseases. It is worthwhile here to remember that slavery was formally abolished only in 1888. In interesting ways this provides us with historical tools to question and interrogate the changing nature of who constitutes the “public” and the notion of who really comprises the “universal” and of course who is implicitly or explicitly excluded as a result.

From here is was not long before the first major university, University of São Paulo, was established in 1934 as elites within the former colony began to expand their institutional capacity. This led to the professionalisation of the high school system.

During the dictatorship, accords signed by the Ministry of Education and Culture-USAID, a joint programme of reform, shifted the state’s focus from public schools to private education and signalled the introduction of English education at an elementary level. These changes were subjected to massive student protests and remain an important bit of context in light of the contemporary Brazilian free public higher education system which severely biases students with private schooling.

During the early years of the military dictatorship, liberal theology proponent and education scholar Paulo Freire had been sentenced to 70 days in prison after having worked on experimental literacy programmes, purportedly managing to facilitate over 300 sugar cane workers learning to read and write in 45 days. Freire, as but one example of the many working in this field, went on to write a crucially important text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, after working in Chile and Bolivia after his release. This text, among many others, has gone on to inspire popular education programmes in radical organisations all over the world including the Black Consciousness Movement and Non-European Unity Movement during the anti-apartheid struggle of South Africa.

Alongside Freire’s contributions sit the works of Augusto Boal whose method of Theatre of the Oppressed has been used all over the world from Palestine to the United States for liberatory education and theatre, community organising, healing from trauma, community-based analysis and so on, building on the ideas of education to use theatre as a tool for social and political change.

In Brazil in the epoch post-military dictatorship, 1980s onwards, the left coalition government has made several major reforms including improvements in access, adult literacy programmes, feeding schemes for schools, target social grant schemes such as Bolsa Familia and free public tertiary education. Brazil went on to experience an increase in school enrolment for children age 7–14, from 80.9% in 1980 to 96.4% in the year 2000. In the 15-17 age demographic, over the same period, this rate rose from 49.7% to 83%, literacy rates also rose from 75% to 90.0%.

In the case of South Africa the post-1994 constitutional democracy, as a result of the separate development policies of the apartheid regime, the incoming government initially inherited a system with 19 different departments of education with their own staggered levels of quality, values and assumptions. Poor infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, malnourishment and low levels of access to institutions were massive stumbling blocks for the new government. This to a certain extent was softened by social grant schemes, dramatic increases in financial spending on education and governance overhauls of the national system. Access to primary and secondary schooling improved significantly, with near universal enrolment in primary schooling. The starting grade enrolment reached near universal enrolment and more than 90% of learners aged between 7 and 15 are enrolled in school. Gross secondary enrolment improved from 51% percent in 1994 to 89% in 2012. Between 2002 and 2014 there has been an increase in the percentage of 15 to 24-year-old youth who have completed Grade 9 and above from 63.4% in 2002 to 78% in 2014 which demonstrates the considerable improvements in access to date.

As part of a conditional social grand scheme named Bolsa familia, the Zero Hunger Project, of the Brazilian Inacio da Silva Lula government prioritised the issue of food security in its social policy. This state project highlighted the need for food sovereignty and called for the bolstering of local agriculture and an emphasis on “food culture”.

By 2007 the project had extended its operations across the vast majority of public schools as well as schools in the reserves of indigenous peoples and quilombos, villages built by Afro-descendent Brazilians post-enslavement. The buying scheme of the project was also built to support local food chains.

By 2004 the state of São Paulo had a population of one million and the feeding scheme serviced over 160,000 students across 518 public crèches, preschools and primary schools and was considered to be one of the most successful models in Brazil.

By 2006 the national scheme provided BRL 1.5-billion (about $797-million). The financial resources are used at a municipal level to ensure that over 37-million students (out of a total population of approx 200-million) in the country’s public schools have access to feeding programmes. The scheme has since suffered from waves of corruption which have resulted in a number of protests and school occupations across Brazil. As recently as May 2016 demonstrations across São Paulo aired this issue.

In post-apartheid South Africa national nutrition schemes such as the National School Nutrition Programme provided a framework for providing healthy and nutritious meals options for “poorer” schools and mandated the offices to encourage the development of food gardens and so on in schools.

In their 2013/14 annual report the basic education minister cited the recipients at 9,131,836 learners, out of a total population in excess of 50-million, across 19,383 schools nationally. This number includes learners from low-income households, primary and secondary as well as special schools for students with disability. The total budget for the scheme extended to R6.006 billion in the coming 2016/17 period ( This programme has also been marred by corruption scandals and has been cited as having had many key challenges in basic service delivery and lack of the necessary infrastructure in schools such as refrigerators.

In 2013 massive national strikes, particularly intense in major cities, sparked by hikes in transport fares and the corruption scandals surrounding the Fifa World Cup led calls for demands to improve services and access in healthcare and education. These massive strikes which had high levels of student participation later culminated in new and bolstered social movements that have led to schools occupations resisting school closures among other things.

In mid-2016 the finalisation of a drawn-out constitutional coup d’etat of the labour government which ushered in the Temer regime. Mass protests counter protests and demostrations followed after what was consider a right wing take over including resistance to the new governments’ threats from the government to impose austerity measures and repeal progressive gains on social welfare policies. In a recent wave of schools protests a 16-year-old student, Ana Júlia, went viral for sharing her thoughts on the occupations that have gripped both public high schools and university campuses across the country, sharing that “one week of occupations has brought us much more knowledge about politics and citizenship than in many years of study in the classroom”.

Graffiti on a wall in Ilha do Bororé. It reads, ‘70% of you people killed [by police] are Black’. Picture by Brian Kamanzi

Schools protests in post-apartheid South Africa have not by any means been unfamiliar as low teacher wages, poor infrastructure and lack of government support has seen the flames of a widespread education crisis weighing heavily on a system that looks set to buckle under the weight of post-liberation expectations.

Organisations and movements such as Equal Education have come primarily to challenge the schooling infrastructure crisis and lack of service delivery. There have also been protests against racist codes of conduct, institutional culture and patriarchal governance structure that discriminate against and victimise women and nonbinary people.

School without party’ vs STEM focus in South Africa.

In the Brazilian case, this year’s demonstrations extended to over 1,200 schools and, as explained in Fernando Pureza’s article “Brazil’s Student Upsurge”, broadly pivoted on demands rejecting the proposed freezing of government spending – issued by Temer – along with demands for school reforms and resistance to the implementation of a right-wing education policy, “School without party”.

School without party” is essentially a policy that calls for the contextual, intentionally political and social dimensions of the curriculum to be removed from the public system. The dual attack of “School without party” as ideology and the economic control of austerity are blatant attacks on progressive education programmes some of which continue to battle through Freirian methodologies.

During a visit to a public school in the far south of São Paulo, organised by the Goethe-Institut in the city, a delegation I was part of consisting of primarily academics and artists engaged with community activists, school students and teachers at Escola Estadual Professor Adrião Bernardes in Ilha do Bororé, I saw the different groups working hard to make do with what they had collaborating on vegetable gardens, creative murals at the school and so on. The school itself, while visibly under-resourced, was designed with security bars around and embedded in a community on the periphery of the city embattled with racialised police brutality and difficult social conditions. The very notion of context-denied public education curricula in environments facing severe social difficulties is, I think, deeply disturbing.

Outside the Escola Estadual Professor Adrião Bernardes in Ilha do Bororé. Photo: Brian Kamanzi

Inside the Escola Estadual Professor Adrião Bernardes in Ilha do Bororé. Photo: Brian Kamanzi

In South Africa, I recall my own journey in the shell of a former Model C school (British system) – Umtata High School, abandoned by its former white constituents in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. It was during my journey through the school and its feeder that we saw the once English/Afrikaans-only school slowly transition into English/Afrikaans/Xhosa. We also, as the first group of students nationwide, participated in the Outcomes Based Education curriculum reform which had aspirations to student-guided learning, contextual engagement among other things but was later scrapped for a number of reasons, not the least of which included poor, uneven infrastructure and a lack of support and coherence from above.

Through this process we also witnessed the rolling out of programmes privileging and promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and business education at the visible expense of the social sciences. By the time I matriculated in 2008 my school no longer offered history as a subject up to matric level. The little history I had done began with Jan van Riebeeck and Vasco da Gama and ended with Mandela, saying little to nothing about the world in which we found ourselves on a daily basis.

Since arriving to Cape Town in 2009 and working with schools across Khayelitsha, Mfuleni and Samora Machel I have noted much worse conditions alongside the shelving and continuous undermining of the role of the social sciences.

Speaking briefly to the broader notions of education I think it is important to expand our understanding of where education takes place and who can (and does) produce knowledge. Powerful examples of precisely this lie in old, powerful community organisations such as the Samba schools in Brazil which provide space to engage on African diasporic history, contemporary social-political challenges in communities and spiritual engagement of various kinds.

Dance and theatre, for example, may have connotations of decadence and elite extracurriculars in European societies and yet in the examples of the Samba school this is decidedly not the case. Carnivals and the processes that go into organising them from year to year provide spaces for intergenerational dialogue and epistemic dissent in the face of a society that commodifies their culture and negate its validity.

In Cape Town the tweedenuwejaar carnival, continuing from the 17th century, as initially practised by the enslaved peoples of the Cape as a day of celebration and coded mocking of the slave masters, we see the legacy of history that is absent from many of the most accessible historical narratives about what happened in what is known as South Africa.

In looking at these examples and in the spirit of decolonisation perhaps it is for us to begin to see, support and elevate education as practice but also in forms that may not be immediately recognisable to western sensibilities of formality but carry meaning and practical importance that has survived and adapted itself for centuries.

The reflections from the South African and Brazilian examples offer us many potential sites of inquiry and opportunities for collaboration in the free decolonised education movement, I think. The lessons from the indigenous resistance movements, be it for education or land, for example, are often painted as local, particular and never international and yet those same struggles exist in places thousands of kilometres away. What can be learnt about creating spaces for indigenous medical systems and knowledges into formerly colonial social-infrastructure such as universities across contexts? Are we providing space and resources for these conversations to happen?

Beyond this, as the term “decolonisation” begins to become popular nationwide will we be able to balance the need for extensive, complex systems providing services to large numbers of people (such as literacy campaigns, food schemes and so on) all the while attempting to balance the need for local context and urgencies? More explicitly, we need to unpack what some of the productive tensions between statist responses to “decolonisation” to those that are more anarchic, local and decentralised.

If there is one thing I’m sure about it’s the necessity for transnational efforts, particularly those outside of the colonial alignment of our past – beyond the Anglophone world, in making serious long-lasting gains in a world that has become so large and yet so small that governments can pretend as though reforms like “Free Education” have never existed in the world and are utopian. In a world with the global right wing on the march, imagination and creativity remain our most reliable weapons against oppression. As the timeless Frelimo slogan demanded of us all, A luta continua. DM


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