The enduring legacy of apartheid in education

There is now an established radical tradition in educational scholarship which accepts Richard Shaull's assertion: There is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women participate in the transformation of their world (Shaull in Freire's 1993 Pedagogy of the Oppressed). However, the promises of radical education in South Africa remain under threat. It could be argued that education policy after apartheid has not addressed the cultural and ideological impressions stamped on the minds of black (and white) South Africans by the Verwoedian curriculum of apartheid. Instead, the shift has been towards placing emphasis on accountability, efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

It is important to remind ourselves that the apartheid curriculum was used effectively as a tool not only to reproduce and promote the values, cultural norms, and beliefs of apartheid society but also as an instrument to maintain and legitimise unequal social, economic and political power relations. By controlling and maintaining dominant beliefs, values and oppressive practices, the curriculum shaped the mindset of the population to sustain the apartheid system. A point eloquently stated by Professor Malegapuru Makgoba (1997):

"…what is common between a judge, a doctor, a politician, a policeman, a priest, a journalist, or editor and the ordinary citizen is the type of education they received or the curriculum that provided the foundations of their education.”

Given this experience, any honest appraisal of the apartheid educational system should not only centre on the material and economic aspects of the system but should as a matter of priority address the social, cultural and spiritual devastation visited on the African community. Failure to do this will lead, and indeed has led, to advancement of technicist approaches or solutions to combat the legacy of apartheid colonialism. The focus on technical aspects often narrowed to issues of material provisions.

Put differently, African students are subjected to social, cultural and political alienation in South Africa's institutions of higher learning – this alienation cuts across the spectrum of white and black institutions. Alluding to this Mahmood Mamdani (1999) commented:

"Both the white and black institutions were products of apartheid, though in different ways. The difference was not only in the institutional culture, that the former enjoyed institutional autonomy and the latter were bureaucratically driven. The difference was also in their intellectual horizons. It was the white intelligentsia that took the lead in creating apartheid-enforced identities in the knowledge they produced. Believing that this was an act of intellectual creativity unrelated to the culture of privilege in which they were steeped, they ended defending an ingrained prejudice with a studied conviction. The irony is that the white intelligentsia came to be a greater, became a more willing, prisoner of apartheid thought than its black counterpart."

In approaching the matter of race in education in South Africa one must locate it within the context and logic of apartheid colonialism. People's responses to events and challenges of transformation are invariably mediated by the socialisation and indoctrination they have been subjected to through apartheid education.

The video clip showing four white male University of the Free State students urinating on food that black cleaners were told to eat speaks to the contempt with which certain sections of the white community still regard black people.

It is unfortunate that the killing of a black student by three black students did not receive equal coverage. Owing to our history, "racism by whites against black people prompts outrage, as it should, but not the killing of a black student by other black students."

In our reading of events, we should not confuse acts of criminality with racism. The killing of a white person by other whites would also not receive the same treatment as racial abuses. However, the fact that these events happen in the higher education environment speaks to the school and higher education to inculcate civil and moral decency. The racial attacks reflect badly on the sector representing the most privileged in our society. Most fundamentally it speaks to poverty of intellect. The crises in our universities are a consequence of the intellectual and moral crisis afflicting the sector.

It also reflects on the absence of leadership. Higher education is supposed to reflect the apex of thinking in our society. The higher education sector is expected to take a lead in the identification and resolution of our social and political problems. In this regard, it has been found to be woefully wanting.

Fourteen years into a political democracy South African higher has failed to fully grapple with the intellectual and practical realisation of the creation of a non-racial and non-sexist society. Transformation in the sector is largely driven by the political elite in government. The higher education sector has failed to lead in the struggle for economic, social and cultural liberation.

The failure of higher education leadership to speak in one voice on what transpired at the University of the Free State simply reflects the enduring legacy of apartheid and the loss of what one may call intellectual leadership expected from the sector.

Condemnation was received from every sector – from students, unions, political leaders, government, society, but very little from within higher education. If anything, within higher education, there is a refusal to deal with racism as well as a racial divide: part of this is because higher education was instrumental in perpetuating apartheid. We should remind ourselves that it was in this sector that apartheid masters sought theoretical and theological justification. The increase of black students in historically white universities notwithstanding, there is reason to believe that the sector still perpetuates racial inequalities.

The African contribution to knowledge production is miniscule. Figures from the Human Science Research Council indicate that despite constituting about 80% of the population, the contribution of Africans is a miserable 3.6% of all scientific publications. Whites dominate the entire knowledge generation landscape with 92.5 % while they constitute about 10% of the population. The situation is not any different in the economy.

There is a "thrust that places blacks in the pathetic position of beggars for participation in the white academic world" (Jansen 1991). And as I have indicated elsewhere, the whiteness of the social and cultural location, which may be alienating to black researchers, remains unproblematised.

Advocating for different approach, Jansen argued for a "dignified and incisive vocation for the black scholar, one which does not simply seek participation in an established structure, but seeks to redefine the racial terms and the territory on which research takes place". The point being made here is that the issue is not merely of participation but is epistemological in nature. In this set-up, an artificial distance is created between knowledge and experience. So far the whiteness of institutions and research practice have alienated black scholars and has as a result limited scholarship from advancing and incorporating multi-faceted dimensions. To do this, we will be advised to heed Jansen's advocacy for;

“Recognising that educational institutions are primarily vehicles for the production, dissemination and evaluation of knowledge, Africanisation and transformation should of necessity entail an interrogation of the curricula and language of instruction, its relevance and appropriateness in addressing itself to national objectives and societal demands. It is about the grounds for knowledge, about epistemology, and about objects of our intellectual inspiration.”

South African universities have not lived up to the promise of being sites of freedom. They have not embarked on the de-racialisation project where it matters most. Whites dominate the research process and this may itself be regarded as one of the objective mechanisms that sustain racial domination (Evans 1990).

Change has largely come at the behest of the government rather than from within, and government has had a very limited and narrow understanding of transformation. Up until now the so-called transformation of Higher Education has been viewed and implemented as a purely restructuring exercise devoid of a radical transformation agenda that would bring about fundamental change of the status quo.

The irony is that in recent years attempts by black intellectuals to organise themselves onto platforms for deracialisation have been scorned by their white counterparts. Whereas the concentration of contestation in the country was on matters political, other sites remained untouched by change. The struggle for intellectual independence remains. Until this struggle has its champions, our universities will continue to harbour racists and racist practices.

* Dr Sipho Seepe is president of the South African Institute of Race Relations and a leading socio-political commentator.


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