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Why Bantu Education was like "A Man in Jackboots Walking All Over the Garden"

Updated on December 10, 2017

What was Bantu Education?

"The Bantu must guided to serve his own community in all respects. There is no place for him in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. Within his own community, however, all doors are open ... Until now he has been subjected to a school system which drew him away from his own community and mislead him by showing him the green pastures of European society in which he was not allowed to graze." Thus in the Senate of the South African Houses of Parliament did Dr H.F Verwoerd justify, on 7 June 1954, the introduction of the system of Bantu Education, a system designed, explicitly and without reservation, to keep Blacks in South Africa subservient to whites, and to provide them with a vastly inferior education.

This policy still haunts South Africa today, 23 years after the end of apartheid, in spite of the brave call of the Freedom Charter in 1955 that "the doors of learning and of culture shall be opened." Bantu Education was thrust on the people of South Africa by the arrogance of the Afrikaner Nationalist establishment in the midst of increasing resistance to apartheid and all its ramifications.

It was a particularly pernicious system with far-reaching and long-lasting political, social, economic and psychological impact on South Africans of all races.

The Freedom Charter was a declaration issued by the Congress of the People at Kliptown, Johannesburg, on 26 June 1955. The Congress was a gathering of some 3000 delegates from all over South Africa called by the Congress Alliance. The Alliance was a grouping of a number of anti-apartheid organisations in South Africa. Its membership came from the African National Congress (ANC), then South African Indian Congress (SAIC), the South African Coloured People's Organisation (SACPO), and the Congress of Democrats (the white element of the Congress Movement), the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and the South African Peace Council.

The Freedom Charter went on to state:

"The aim of education shall be to teach the youth to love their people and their culture, to honour human brotherhood, liberty and peace; Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children; Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit."

That apartheid education was far from such ideals is clear. Even whites got an education that was not designed to encourage them to"honour human brotherhood, liberty and peace."

Indeed white education was conducted on the lines of "Christian National Education", which as many commentators have noted, was neither Christian nor National and could scarcely be called "education."

What Bantu Education meant to those who had devoted their lives to the education of Blacks in South Africa was a devastating destruction of their dreams and their perceived vocations. Many simply left in disgust.

Famed South African liberal Dr Edgar Brookes was principal of Adams College near Durban, in the kwaZulu-Natal province. He left this post at the end of 1945 and recounts how his successor, G.C. Grant, had to cope with the stupidities with which the advent of Bantu Education was accompanied: "The Bantu Education Act was passed in 1953 and shortly afterwards a commission of enquiry descended on Adams. The intelligence with which it approached the question may be illustrated by one of the questions put: ‘I see in this brochure that you claim that Adams gives a liberal education. Does this mean an education based on the principles of the Liberal Party?'"

As Brooks further described the take-over of Black schools from the missionaries who had run them: "The process was like a man in jackboots walking all over the garden into which you have put all your love and trampling down your best flowers."

As devastating as Bantu Education was on the mainly white missionaries who had devoted their lives to the education of young Black people, the effects on the young Black people were of course infinitely worse.

That this could not be otherwise is indicated by the following extract from the manifesto of the Institute for Christian National Education published (in Afrikaans) in 1948: "Native education should be based on the principles of trusteeship, non-equality and segregation; its aim should be to inculcate the white man's view of life, especially that of the Boer nation, which is the senior trustee...

"Owing to the cultural infancy of the native, the state, in co-operation with the protestant churches should at present provide Native education. But the native should be fitted to undertake his own education as soon as possible, under control and guidance from the state."

The government put this idea into practice by hugely differential spending on education during the apartheid years. In 1972 it was calculated by Frieda Troup (Forbidden Pastures - Education under apartheid, London: International Defence and Aid Fund, 1976) that expenditure on education for the 1969-1970 financial year broke down as R272,70 for every white child in school against R8,62 for every Black child in school: "That is to say that for every R1 the government spent on the education of each African child between the age of 5 and 19, it spent R31,60 for each White child in the same age group."

The long-term results of this skewed view and application of education came out in the 1996 Census figures (the first true census of all people in South Africa): one in five South African adults had received no formal education at all and only 6% had achieved tertiary level. For 25% of the population, at that time about 40.5 million, the highest level of education achieved was "some" primary school.

At the time of the Census fully one third of the population was unemployed, more than 25% earned less than R500 per month. In most economic reviews of South Africa the skills shortage is listed as a major factor inhibiting growth.

Writer Mark Mathabane's sister Miriam, in the preface to his book Miriam's Song (New York, Simon & Schuster: 2000) wrote: "By the time I entered Sub-Standard A (now called Grade 1), in January 1975, it was common for already overworked teachers in the lower primary classes to teach two session of over one hundred pupils each. It was estimated that half of black children between the ages of six and nineteen were not in school, that only one in fifty teachers had a university education, and that only one in nine teachers had completed matric (high school)."

Frightening as these figures are, they actually don't begin to tell the human story, the psychological effects of such an evil system as Bantu Education. South Africa in the second half of the first decade of the third millennium is facing social problems of unprecedented proportions. These include massive crime rates, drug abuse, family violence and violence generally. The integration of schools and other educational institutions is facing great difficulties and the learners themselves are caught up in uncertainty and disaffection.

As Miriam Mathabane asks, if Verwoerd had not taken over black education as he did, "if black children had had the same educational opportunities as white children, would there be less crime, fewer murderers, carjackers and rapists in the New South Africa, and more teachers, lawyers, writers and nurses?"

Of course, these questions cannot be answered, but my belief is that, yes, the social ills that wrack our society might well have been more tractable, and the whites who complain so bitterly about crime and their fears might have had more understanding of their black fellow-citizens, as of course blacks might have had more understanding of their white fellow-citizens.

In the end, the damage done by Bantu Education is incalculable, but its effects are still very tangible in the daily lives of millions of South Africans who have been blighted by this dreadful crime perpetrated against them.

My father Murray McGregor teaching a High School class at Blythswood Institution before the advent of Bantu Education. Image from fund-raising pamphlet published in 1948
My father Murray McGregor teaching a High School class at Blythswood Institution before the advent of Bantu Education. Image from fund-raising pamphlet published in 1948

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2009

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      Mpumi Bikitsha 

      3 years ago

      Tony I was in one of those rondavel classrooms in 1963-65. Our Maths teacher was a certain Mr Groenewald who could hardly put one sentence in English correctly. The principals for High school and Training college were Mr Steyn and Engelbrecht, a well orchestrated plan indeed. How can we deal with this impotent rage? How can we undo those knots by the intelligent Verwoerds and Eiselens, social anthropologists of the time?

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