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Apartheid and multicultural education

23 December 2013

One of the characteristics of the apartheid ideology was that it was strongly, if somewhat selectively, opposed to multicultural education. This should not be surprising, since one of its fundamental premisses was that people of different cultures and ethnicities should not mix.

So, for example, apartheid educationists (or pedagogicians, as they liked to call themselves) said things like this:

… pedagogically it is the greatest conceivable injustice to a child if he is not educated completely within his own culture. A situation cannot be allowed to arise which causes conflict between the culture taught at home and that taught at school. As a result, children from minority groups often find themselves in an agonizing and bewildering dilemma accompanied by an identity crisis (Griessel et al. 1991:16).

or this, from the same source:

…it is irresponsible and unpedagogic to allow a teacher to ‘educate’ children from a different ethnic or cultural group than his own, because he cannot educate them according to the values and norms upheld in their own cultural communities.

If such an unpedagogic practice is followed the child is deprived of the opportunity to identify only with adults from his group. The child’s sense of identity is actually impaired and a feeling of inferiority arises when his teacher’s race, culture and mother tongue differ from his own. Without an identity, which can only be acquired by means of education in a particular culture, man cannot live a meaningful life (Griessel et al. 1991:172).[1]

These quotations are from a textbook on “Fundamental Pedagogics“, a pseudo-scientific ideology that was used to prop up the “Christian National Education” system put in place by the apartheid government, and taught to most teachers in the country.[2]

I was therefore a bit concerned when someone recently posted the following online:

Children will be confused as long as they live in multiple cultures incoherent internally and disharmonious in such proximity with each other. Study after study says that the kind of diversity so many people believe strengthens group and makes them more tolerant has the opposite effect. More than that it dangerously undermines our sense of self.

It looked to me very much like the kind of thing that was often said to justify apartheid education. When I pointed this out to the author, however, he took offence, and no useful discussion followed, perhaps because it was posted on Google+, which I find a poor medium for discussion. Nevertheless the question will not go away.

Apartheid education was based on the theory of “ownaffairs”, and nationalism was defined as “love of one’s own”.

B.J. Vorster, who later became prime minister of South Africa, equated Christian Nationalism with National Socialism and Fascism, and Christian National Education was developed to inculcate the principles of Christian Nationalism, though many Christian educationists who did not subscribe to the apartheid ideology described it as “neither Christian, nor national, nor education”.

The National Party government, after it came to power in 1948, acted swiftly to establish Christian National Education and apartheid in education.

One obstacle to this was that the then province of Natal was not controlled by the National Party, and education was, in terms of the 1910 constitution of South Africa, a provincial responsibility. The Bantu Education Act made “Bantu Education” separate from “Education”, and was controlled by a new department of “Bantu Education”, which effectively took away control of education of education of black children from the provinces, and it became, along with its parent body, the Department of Bantu Administration and Development, a kind of state within a state.

The Department of Bantu Administration also effectively nationalised church schools for black children throughout South Africa. The government did not want to allow any schools that would teach anything other than the official ideology.

There was a lot of doublethink in this. Education was declared to be a racial “ownaffair”, but was controlled by the (white) National Party central government. The “Bantu” were to be encouraged to develop along their “own lines”, and those lines were laid down by the (white) central government.  As Dr Verwoerd said when introducing the Bantu Education Bill in parliament:

There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour … What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live (see here, where there are more quotes on apartheid and education).

The provinces still retained control of education of white children, however, at least until 1983, when provinces were abolished and education became an “ownaffair” for whites, Asians and coloureds as well.

ApartheidPosterIn the National Party-controlled provinces in the 1950s, Transvaal, Cape Province and Orange Gree State, there was a move away from parallel-medium and dual-medium schools, in which English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking white children were taught in the same schools. In 1976, however, Soweto school children revolted against an attempt to impose dual-medium (Afrikaans and English) education in black schools.

One area in which no multicultural education was allowed was religious education, in which the syllabus prescribed Calvinist Protestantism. This was no “ownaffair”. There was to be no diversity. In Asian “ownaffairs” schools Hindu and Muslim children learned side-by-side, but for their teachers, courses in Calvinist “Biblical Instruction” were compulsory, and they were taught that the law required them to teach that in their schools.

In white schools, even English-speaking ones, the same applied. One of our children, when in Grade 7 at Rietondale Primary School, objected to the superficial treatment of the split between Eastern and Western Christianity in their history textbook. She phoned our parish priest, who was a lecturer in church history at the University of South Africa, to ask if he would be willing to speak at the school about it. He was willing, but the school authorities were not. He was Orthodox, and that was definitely far too multicultural to fit into the Christian National Education pattern.

Even 20 years after the end of apartheid, the question of multicultural education continues to be a vexed one, and it is something I think we need to be discussing.

Notes and references

[1] Griessel, G.A.J, Louw, G.J.J. & Swart, C.A. 1991. Principles of educative teaching. Pretoria: Acacia. ISBN: 0-86817-012-7.

[2] The University of South Africa, which was the biggest distance-education university in the southern hemisphere, had about 30000 students in the Education Faculty in any given year in the 1990s. Most of these were teachers seeking to improve their qualifications inorder to get promotion. The Education Faculty was notorious for being wedded to Fundamenal Pedagogics.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 December 2013 9:04 am

    This is interesting. I have passing familiarity with opposite issues in the United States, where a standard curriculum sometimes makes learning more difficult for minority children- precisely because either their educators are unfamiliar with their culture or language, or the curriculum itself assumes they have cultural or linguistic knowledge that they have not yet been taught.

    There are also pedagogical arguments in East Africa that it would be better for children to be taught in their native language, by instructors with whom they share language and culture, than to be taught in a foreign medium- usually English, sometimes Swahili- by instructors who may be ignorant of students’ language and culture. The argument is that this creates a very high bar over which students must pass before they can *begin* to learn. But they haven’t yet been taught they knowledge they need to pass this introductory bar.

    It’s sensible to me that a middle way is to have multicultural and multilingual education in a multicultural and multilingual society. Complete separation is far too extreme, and when accompanied by disparity in the quality or level of education, it becomes evil. But I was surprised by the degree to which I found myself nodding my head in agreement with some of these statements by apartheid educationists.

    • 23 December 2013 9:21 am

      One possible solution is to have mother-tongue instruction for at least the first four years of schooling in parallel-medium schools, with the children learning one or two other languages during that time, including a future language of instruction if it differed from the mother tongue.

      One of the problems in our mission congregation is that we have services in English and North Sotho, and the young people prefer English, while the old people prefer North Sotho, but the young people are failing to learn their own language properly. I like to think that a spin-off of their reading Psalms in services is that they become more fluent in reading, both in North Sotho and English.

  2. 23 December 2013 11:51 am

    I suspect that the tricky thing is distinguishing the real issues and the ways those issues are (mis)used to maintain privilege and for ideological reasons. I have been wary about the arguments promoting mother tongue education because it is too-often (in the case of Afrikaans) used by those who are trying to maintain white privilege – witness some of the reaction to Jonathan Jansen’s plea for the use of English a couple of months ago. But having become a little involved with groups working with children’s literacy, I’ve realised that mother-tongue education is important, at least in the early years. I’ve heard horror stories of children not being able to read in their own languages.


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