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Thirty years after democracy, nothing has changed in SA’s rainbow nation education system


Prof Michael le Cordeur is Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education at the University of Stellenbosch. He is deputy chair of the Stigting vir die bemagtiging deur Afrikaans.

Does every South African child have access to basic education, as the Constitution promises? How conducive and safe is the school environment for effective education? Do all children in the country have access to mother-tongue tuition?

During a radio news programme, Suzanne Paxton asked me: “How far have we come with democracy in the South African education system?” That is a difficult question, I answered, but perhaps a recent incident indicates where we currently are.

Three-year-old Unecebo Mboteni died when he fell into a pit toilet in Mdantsane in East London. It was a senseless loss of a valuable life. In reaction to a parliamentary question, Fundile Gade, the Eastern Cape MEC for education, admitted that 113,000 learners at 427 schools in the province had to use pit toilets in 2023. This was despite the many calls from myself and others that this evil must be eradicated. Promises by the government have come to nought. The incident once again emphasises that South Africa has the most unequal education system in the world.

To return to the question: How far have we come in democratising our education? I can hardly answer the question within the frame of one article. Thus, I shall investigate some critical points à la Aristotle and Plato with counter-questions:

What do our schools look like or, in other words: to what extent did Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s rainbow nation take shape in our schools? Does every South African child have access to basic education as the Constitution promises? How conducive and safe is the school environment for effective education? Do all children in the country have access to mother-tongue tuition?

Rainbow nation

When Tutu shared his vision of a South African rainbow nation with the world, he certainly did not have just 80 minutes on a rugby field in mind. Would it then be too much to ask that our learner population and our educator corps reflect that diversity? Some schools do indeed have a diverse learner population, but this pertains only to former Model C and private schools.

In other words, parents who can afford it, send their children to top schools where they have the best resources, teachers and sports facilities. Mostly, it is those learners who find their way to the Craven Week and eventually the Springboks. Kurt-Lee Arendse is one of the exceptions. Hats off to him. 

For by far the majority of schools in South Africa, nothing has changed since the advent of democracy. I often hear my students say that the first time that they interacted with classmates and educators from different backgrounds was when they stepped onto campus. How do we expect young people to become a united nation or at least a nation in the making if they still grow up separated from one another after 30 years of democracy?

At a recent brainstorming session of senior leaders at the Stellenbosch University campus, I made the following statement: “It is very difficult for adults to get along with one another if they never played together as children.”

Mother-tongue instruction

Research has proven that mother-tongue instruction offers a child the best opportunity to excel. The truth is that fewer than 15% of South African children are taught in their mother tongue. Only English-speaking children (about 10% of the school-going population) and speakers of Standard Afrikaans (about 5%) have access to true mother-tongue instruction.

Although nearly 9% of South Africans indicate that their home language is Afrikaans, about 4% of them speak Cape Afrikaans (Kaaps) and other varieties of Afrikaans. Many South Africans see it as one language, but Kaaps is a different language with its own literature, idiomatic vocabulary and grammatical foundation. This explains why Cape Afrikaans speakers do poorly in Standard Afrikaans at school. As far back as 2000, parents started objecting because children could not understand their prescribed books.

Learners with one of the black indigenous languages as their home language only receive mother-tongue instruction until Grade 3. Thereafter, they must switch to English without having mastered the language.

The accompanying poor performance in literacy and numeracy is not what one would expect of a democratic education system. The poor performance in literacy is often the subject of sharp criticism, while it is in fact neither the fault of the learner nor the teacher.

Safe environment

Every parent dreams that their children will attend a school that is a safe haven and provides effective education. After three decades of democracy this is, however, still an unattained dream. Children are often assaulted on the way to and from school, girls are raped and kidnapped, learners are stabbed, teachers are shot and kids die in the crossfire of gangs. I recently experienced this myself.

During the taxi strike last winter, I visited two schools to assess pupils during their teaching practice. When the bell rang at School A, some learners grabbed their backpacks and hauled out knives.

When I questioned this, I was informed that they did so to “protect themselves” from those who wanted to hurt them because they dared to attend school during the strike. For one girl, going home was terrifying: she had to walk 10km to the township because there were no taxis. Anything could have happened to her…

At School B, it was business as usual. The school programme continued normally. Learners were carefree, enjoying the break, talking, laughing and eating their sandwiches.

Democracy has brought a pleasant school experience for some — but the dream still eludes most children.

Overcrowded schools

Every decade, a million new learners come to our schools. At 1,000 learners per school, this means 1,000 new schools. This has not happened over the past 30 years — and I doubt it will happen in the foreseeable future. Thanks to poor financial management by the government, South Africa is basically bankrupt. We carry a huge debt burden and we can’t even afford the interest. According to the latest figures, we are heading for a recession. There is no money for new schools.

According to article 29(1)(a) of the Constitution, every child has the right to education. Unfortunately, and counter to the struggle of the young people of 1976 (of which I was part), many children in South Africa still do not have access to schools. I have seen classes where more than 120 learners were jammed together.  

How do you effectively teach children to read in classes of more than 60 learners? How do you maintain discipline if there are more than 2,000 learners on the school grounds? When I was in Grade 6, I had to attend school in a temporary classroom in the scorching heat of Wellington. I prayed that a democratic order would put an end to it. But to no avail. After 30 years of democracy, temporary classrooms at many schools are proof of a government that has neglected its constitutional duties.

So, what now?

Your vote is important

It is easier to move a cemetery than to change an education system, former US president Woodrow Wilson famously said. In a modern society, ordinary citizens concerned about education basically have only one mechanism to change the situation.

If you are still wondering whether you should vote, Plato’s words hopefully bring perspective: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Peter Utting says:

    The 1998 White Paper on Education stated that: ‘Education is about Learning and Teaching.’ Unfortunately, this has been hijacked by Teachers for their own self-interest, who want to control Education – to be about ‘Teaching and Learning!’

    When are we going to get the vision of the White Paper?

  • Steuart Pennington says:

    I found this article a poor description of the challenges facing our education system. I work in 16 under-resourced schools in the Midlands of Natal, 6 secondary and 10 primary. Only one is overcrowded, Bruntville Primary in Mooi River, 4 have less that 100 kids, 5 have pit toilets, the department of Public Works has done little to maintain and repair 50-year-old infrastructure, toilets don’t work, kitchens are unhygienic, sporting facilities non-existent, there is no infrastructural dignity. Nevertheless the great majority of teachers are committed and conscientious, but the DoE’s policy of the teacher student ratio of 1:32 often results in multi-grading and curriculum requirements being inadequately met. Curriculum training and pedagogic skills training is misdirected. Incompetent teachers are protected by SADTU. Circuit managers more concerned with DoE policy interruptions that school functionality. What improvements take place are mostly initiated by NGOs. While our matric results are above 80% the dropout rate remains at 50%. le Cordeur’s stereotyping of the challenges don’t reflect the reality of much that is at the heart of a failing system. If there are as many as 10 million leaners at our 30 000 schools, that’s 333 per school. For me the key challenges are 1) the quality of the principal 2) the ongoing development of teachers 3) the measurement of learning outcomes 4) the dignity of the infrastructure and 5) ECD. Fix those, and the rest will be taken care of.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

    But as the early election results seem to prove, the sheep still vote for the abattoir managers.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    “Thirty years after democracy, nothing has changed in SA’s rainbow nation education system.” What a headline – couldn’t get past it. Anyone who believes our education system has not changed in 30 years is delusional. It has changed – only for the worse, not better.

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