A Decade after South Africa's First Democratic Election: Prospects for Indigent African Learners in Durban

By Singh, Anand | Childhood Education, August 15, 2005 | Go to article overview
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A Decade after South Africa's First Democratic Election: Prospects for Indigent African Learners in Durban


Singh, Anand, Childhood Education


In the cosmopolitan city of Durban, situated on the east coast of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, the population of more than three million is made up of people from various points of origin in the world. The province of KwaZulu-Natal, once a renowned colony of the British Empire, has been home for centuries to South Africa's biggest ethnic group, the Zulus.

In the 18th century, the British found the warm temperate climate of the coastal region suitable for the cultivation of sugar cane and other tropical fruits and vegetables. Several attempts to woo the Zulus into sugar cane cultivation and the wider colonial economy failed, forcing the British to seek indentured labor from India. Between 1860 and 1914, when Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi returned to India after a 21-year stay in South Africa, more than 100,000 Indians were brought to the Natal colony to work as indentured laborers. The Zulus were content with their non-monetary political-economy structures and oral traditions that were used to transmit knowledge from one generation to another.

As the expanding economy of Natal required more labor, the colonial authorities imposed upon the Zulu population, through taxation and reduced access to land, and restricted them to mainly "unskilled" work. This inevitably drew the Zulus into new forms of economic exchanges and networks, but without the privileges of equal integration--forbidding them access to higher levels of economic and political positions. The colonial economy created a hierarchy that was race-based, with the whites at the top, Indians second, "coloreds" (people of mixed descent) third, and Africans fourth. The latter three groups were severely restricted to their own designated areas. Until the 1990s, state subsidies for social service delivery and access to economic and political opportunities were based on this hierarchy. Education, too, was subsidized on this hierarchical structure, constraining Africans from participating on equal terms with the other, more privileged, segments of the population. Renegotiated socio-political structures restricted the Zulus, who represent more than 70 percent of the population, to only 13 percent of the land. As a result of minimized contact with other racial groups and progressive forms of education, the Zulus retained their language (i.e., isiZulu) as their lingua franca.

Based on ethnographic research conducted in five schools in Durban, this article addresses three issues that are widely perceived as major problems in the transformation of education in post-apartheid South Africa: 1) the rapid and unplanned integration of state-funded schools that has led to overcrowding of classrooms, 2) the class and domestic backgrounds of the indigent isiZulu-speaking African learners who dominated the schools in the areas of study, and 3) the second-language proficiency of their English-speaking teachers of Indian origin.

Educational Scenario in Post-apartheid South Africa

The primary schools in the five suburbs researched were designated for Indian occupation only during apartheid under the notorious Group Areas Act of 1950; schools that were built within these precincts were for Indian enrollment only. After South Africa had its first democratic general election on April 27, 1994, what was once Indian-dominated classrooms became increasingly African occupied. Disparities in language, class, and culture led to the move of Indian children to the previously white-dominated schools in neighboring suburbs.

Since 1994, cultural diversity and multilingualism replaced apartheid's pillars of racial and cultural exclusivity and the two-language policy of English and Afrikaans. The new "language in education policy" promotes multilingualism, in that it:

* Recognizes cultural diversity as a national asset and seeks to promote multilingualism and develop the country's 11 official languages

* Endorses an additive approach to bilingualism

* Gives individuals (in practice, parents and guardians) the right of choice with regard to the language of learning and teaching.

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