Magazine article UNESCO Courier

South Africa: Beyond Exclusion

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

South Africa: Beyond Exclusion

Article excerpt

During the apartheid era, township schools were sites of violent political struggle. Today, they are all too often at the mercy of criminal activity. The answers lie with society as a whole, not just the school

Idealt drugs at school," "Pupil shot for cell phone," "Depression might have led to suicide of 11-year-old boy," "Students seek revenge for teacher killing." This is just a sampling of a few recent headlines in South African newspapers. Youth gangs are intruding into the schools of vulnerable communities, using them as markets for drugs, alcohol, weapons and young girls, who are being abducted and raped.

No effective strategy for preventing violence in schools can be developed unless we understand the legacy of apartheid. Under this regime, young black high school children were the barometer of systematic marginalization and powerlessness.

The education system was designed as a means of colonial control, and deliberately aimed at preparing students to be no more than "hewers of wood and drawers of water" to service the affluent white-owned industry. The school was oppressive, but it also became a site of highly politicized struggle, a vehicle through which young black people could assert their stake and role in society. Many youths established an alternative subculture in which the rites of passage and means of acquiring status were often premised on proving themselves through direct involvement in violence. It was noble to be on the wrong side of illegitimate laws. Violence was socially approved in the name of liberation: the heroes of the day were young men who carried guns and fought.

Although many of these youngsters who had grown up on the streets returned to school during the transition to democracy, the snail's pace of transformation meant that little or nothing had actually changed in the classroom. The poor or non-existent facilities, the under-qualified teachers and the virtual failure of racial integration stood as powerful symbols of ongoing marginalization. So it is no surprise that violence continues. In lieu of the political resistance movement, marginalized, frustrated youth found an alternative place of belonging and social cohesion within criminal youth gangs. …

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