Global Perspectives on Human Language:
The South African Context


Overcoming Apartheid Policies Yesterday and Today: An Interview with a Former Bantu Education Student and Present-Day Activist


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Chloe Melissa Rothstein

Updated 9-19-2004

(Above) Modise Phekonyane shares his experiences
as a political prisoner with visitors to Robben Island.

Bantu Education was the system of education that the South African apartheid government implemented as part of its general policy of separation and stratification of the races. It has had detrimental effects on two generations of South Africans, who still comprise South African society today. Commentators have noted not only that   "no other social institution reflected the government's racial philosophy of apartheid more clearly than the education system," but also that the "backlog of deficiencies in the school system [will] challenge future governments for decades, or perhaps generations." #1

I spoke with a South African, Modise Phekonyane, who, while being educated under the Bantu system in the region of Free State, participated in a youth movement to destroy the oppressive system as a fifteen and sixteen year old.   At the age of seventeen Mr. Phekonyane was sent as a political prisoner to Robben Island, the infamous prison where Nelson Mandela was also held.  

                        Defining Bantu Education

The word "Bantu" refers to over four hundred ethnic groups in Africa, from countries ranging from Cameroon to South Africa.   They form a common language family, called the Bantu language.   However, the word "Bantu" was used in the term Bantu education as part of a general trend during apartheid to employ "Bantu" in a derogatory manner towards Black South Africans. #2

Bantu education officially began with the 1953 "Bantu Education Act," five years after the National Party introduced apartheid policies in South Africa. Its two key engineers were Dr. W. M. Eiselen and Dr. Hendrik F. Verwoerd, who studied in Germany.   Eiselen and Verwoerd designed the system to separate all races, creating an educational hierarchy with whites at the top, followed by "Malay" or Asian peoples, "coloreds," and blacks, in descending order.   Dr. Hendrik F. Verwoerd illustrates the mentality behind this racial categorization; he stated that blacks "should be educated for their opportunities in life." #3 

Modise Phekonyane and I discussed how the two founders drew these theories of racial stratification primarily from their studies under the National Socialist (Nazi) party in Germany.   The connection between Bantu education and Nazi ideology is well supported.   Specifically, in 1957 Nelson Mandela wrote a detailed article in "Liberation: A Journal of Democratic Discussion" in which he stated: the "Nationalist government has frequently denied that it is a fascist government inspired by the theories of the Nationalist Socialist [Nazi] party of Hitlerite Germany.   Yet . . . the laws it passes, and the entire policy it pursues clearly confirm this point." #4   Racial classification under the Bantu system extend to its curricula, with each ethnicity's curricula designed differently in order to prepare the "more inferior" races, such as blacks and "coloreds", for menial jobs. #5

            Bantu Education: One Student's Experience

At the beginning of our interview I asked Modise what had been the most detestable and oppressive aspects of the Bantu Education system for him personally. Modise found it crucial to explain to me it is impossible to "view Bantu education in isolation from the total ideology of apartheid. It was meant to dehumanize black people [and] to create a race that is obedient to the oppressors."

Modise also explained that he found most oppressive element of Bantu Education to be "the language."   Mr. Phekonyane's first language was Tswana (also known as Setswana).   Under Bantu education, he was forced to take 68% of his coursework in Afrikaans.   At the beginning of his adolescence he began to realize that "Afrikaans was undermining every other language."   Modise spoke adamantly on this point: "all mankind should be equal, as should their languages.   They should be free to take a course in their mother tongue."   For Mr. Phekonyane, the linguistic constraints of Bantu education had been quite traumatic because he feels that attending school in a foreign language forced him "to denounce himself and his identity."   To illustrate this key language-identity bond he asked me,   "how can a child know who he is if he is not allowed to use his own language, whether it be Xhosa, Zulu or Tswana?"

                        "Freedom First, Education Later:" the Fight Begins

In the 1970s and 1980s a youth struggle against Bantu Education began to blaze.    Students, including Modise, felt that the only way to destroy Bantu education was "to create a system of ungovernability, to target every building and institution built by the Afrikaaner [oppressor]."   Thousands of students from Modise's town, Bloemfontein, joined students from cities all over South Africa to rebel.   Modise even remembers how when one day a seven-year-old child met "an oppressor" in the street the child shouted the popular slogan "Freedom First, Education Later."   By the mid-eighties much of the country, black and white among them, began to call the youth movement and its participants the "Lost Generation" because so many students had abandoned school to yell "Freedom First, Education Later."

Mr. Phekonyane was fifteen years old when he first began to yell in the name of freedom.   His involvement was spurred by a knife attack on his brother, when Modise began to think more deeply about the inner workings of his community.   He read every text he could get his hands on and debated the questions: "why don't we have adequate schools, why are the dilapidated houses in our communities?"   By age sixteen, Modise was heavily entrenched in the fight by youth against Bantu education.   He explained to me, "Everything that was a symbol of oppression we had to target, every building, every institution."  

After only two years in the struggle, in 1978, Modise was taken to Robben Island as a political prisoner.   Even today, having been released from prison and having seen the end of the apartheid regime, Modise Phekonyane is working to bring awareness about Bantu Education and its devastating effects on generations of the South Africans.   When I asked Modise his opinion about the best way to remedy the extreme inequality left by Bantu education today he responded, "It's just that what we are facing today is based on something that has been going on for so long."

The Quarry: a photo of the site where Robben Island prisoners, including Modise Phekonyane, toiled to collect the limestone building material for their own cells.

              Combatting Present-Day Remnants of Bantu Education

Today, Mr. Phekonyane does not seem to have great hope for working within the educational system.   However, he has involved himself in projects to (1) foster new leaders and to (2) make today's youth aware of both this history and the work that still rests on their shoulders.

Mr. Phekonyane approaches his efforts to create new leaders with the utmost positivity: "here on Robben Island we watch the waves come up to our shores.   But, we paddle the waves backward.   We make the negatives work for us, not against us.   We are all leaders in our right."   Modise worries about the current generation because "they don't know who they are politically; they were born free.   They know who Nelson Mandela is, but they do not know the degree of suffering that their parents experienced."   Mr. Phekonyane believes that by using narratives, community projects can spur energy among their youth to continue to work against the glaring remnants of the Bantu education system.

With a formal end to the Bantu system, the doors to equality now stand open.   But are these open doors enough?   How can a group break the molds into which it has been poured for generations?   A black, "colored," or Malay child can now enter the doors of a formerly all-white school.   But, his parents, having been educated by the Bantu system for more menial jobs, will in all likelihood not be able to afford the significantly higher fees these schools demand.   While visiting Cape Town public schools over the last two weeks, besides the extreme lack of funding, the most striking aspect we saw was the continued racial segregation.   It is currently insufficient to simply let the doors of opportunity creak open.  

In order to offer true access, it is necessary to create a system in which the fees from parents, who pay for more expensive public schools in South Africa, contribute to the educational funds for children whose parents who cannot pay these costs.   (Please see Maria Lizet Ocampo's summary of the current funding system.)   Community projects, like those in which Modise is involved, are also necessary.   By being made aware of the recent history of apartheid, children will better understand their responsibility to continue the struggle against the lucid remnants of Bantu education in South African society.



#2. Phekonyane, Modise. Personal Interview. September 17, 2004




#6. Mandela, Nelson. "Bantu Education Goes to University" Liberation:
A Journal of Democratic Discussion. June 1957.


#8. Abrams. Personal Interview. September 15, 2004.