Erasing History: Eight Years after Apartheid, School Segregation Persists and History Is out of Style. (South Africa in Focus)

By Polakow-Suransky, Sasha | Colorlines Magazine, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Erasing History: Eight Years after Apartheid, School Segregation Persists and History Is out of Style. (South Africa in Focus)


Polakow-Suransky, Sasha, Colorlines Magazine


On January 29, 1995, the Washington Post devoted its front page to the newly integrated South African schools. Comparing this event to desegregation in the U.S. South in the 1960s, the Post wrote with admiration, "Not a politician has stood in the schoolhouse door. Not a national guardsman has been summoned. Barely a ripple of white flight has materialized. January is back-to-school month in South Africa...and the quiet has been thundering." But that silence would soon be broken.

Although schools are now nominally open to all, many whites and wealthy blacks are fleeing to private "independent" institutions and wealthier public ones. And while the apartheid legacy of racially segregated and stratified education has now given way to the new ideal of equal educational opportunity for all, most high school students--whose earliest memories include Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990--know virtually nothing about their country's troubled past. The government is finally beginning to address this rampant historical ignorance after years of looking the other way. But early predictions of success for their idealistic program, like the Post's declaration of educational harmony, may be premature.

White Flight

The quiet country town of Porgietersrus became ground zero in the battle for desegregation in South Africa when Alson Matukane, a black official from the provincial government, attempted to enroll his children in the all-white Potgietersrus Primary School on January 11, 1996. Matukane and other black families were turned away by angry Afrikaner parents who argued that integration threatened to undermine the school's rich Afrikaner cultural tradition and linguistic autonomy. The case was left to the courts, and on February 22, 16 black students were escorted into Potgierersrus Primary under the protection of a Supreme Court order and a phalanx of policemen.

However, only 20 of the school's 700 white pupils chose to join them. And the Afrikaner parents protesting outside began to plan a private school for their children.

While integration of public schools has progressed at a steady pace since 1994, many white parents, like those in Potgietersrus, have removed their children and sent them to private "independent" schools. Old-fashioned racists see themselves as "protecting Afrikaner culture." The more liberal justify their decisions based on what they see as "rapidly dropping educational standards," often a euphemism for "black."

Either way the result is clear. According to the Department of Education, in 1997 only one percent of public schools remained all-white. However, that same year 68 percent were all-black, and only 28 percent of schools could be described as "integrated."

While black access to formerly white schools is ensured by law, white flight from those schools has become an equally prominent feature of the South African educational landscape. According to an Education Foundation report, the enrollment of black students in public schools increased dramatically, from approximately 8 million in 1991 to over 10 million in 1997. But this 24 percent increase was mirrored by a 21 percent decrease in white enrollment.

The transition from the apartheid-era Bantu education ideology, explicitly designed by H.F. Verwoerd to keep blacks from ever glimpsing the "greener pastures" of white South Africa, to an equal access system has been fraught with complications. The influx of an undereducated population into schools that were designed to exclude them has not gone smoothly. Illiteracy rates are high and education levels often do not correlate with age when privileged white children and poorly educated blacks are thrown into the same classroom.

And then there is the issue of curriculum. In a country where schools were for so long designed to enforce and perpetuate the status quo, revising the curriculum to reflect a democratic multicultural ethic has been no easy task.

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