Global Perspectives on Human Language:
The South African Context

      A Brief History of Educational Inequality from Apartheid to the Present  

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Maria Lizet Ocampo
Updated 9-19-2004

"Challenging the past and moving beyond the legacy of apartheid" is how the South African Department of Education plans to work towards social justice and equity with the introduction of the new curriculum titled "Curriculum 2005" (Asmal).   Eliminating the overt racism in educational policies is the first step in challenging the past, but other factors of social inequalities need to be addressed to minimize the racial inequalities in education for the future.

The Apartheid system created educational inequalities through overt racist policies (see timeline).   The Bantu Education Act of 1952 ensured that Blacks receive an education that would limit educational potential and remain in the working class (UCT).   This policy directly affected the content of learning to further racial inequalities by preventing access to further education.   In addition to content, apartheid legislation affected the educational potential of students.   School was compulsory for Whites from age seven to sixteen, for Asians and Coloureds from seven to fifteen, and for Blacks from age seven to thirteen (US Library of Congress).   Clearly, the less education students received, the fewer choices they had in the working world and in accessing more education.   Since these policies ensured that the content and amount of education perpetuated social inequalities, changing these policies in a post-apartheid era was the logical step towards social equality.

Educational inequality was also evident in funding.   The Bantu Education Act created separate Departments of Education by race, and it gave less money to Black schools while giving most to Whites (UCT).   Since funding determines the amount and quality of learning materials, facilities, and teachers, disproportionate funding clearly created disparities in learning environments.   For instance, Apartheid funding resulted in an average teacher pupil ratio of 1:18 in white schools, 1:24 in Asian schools, 1:27 in Coloured schools, and 1:39 in Black schools (US Library of Congress).   Furthermore, the apartheid system also affected the quality of teachers. White schools had 96% of teachers with teaching certificates, while only 15% of teachers in Black schools were certified (Garson).   In addition to affecting the quality of education, the Bantu Education Act also resulted in the closure of many learning institutions since it withdrew funding from schools affiliated with religion. Since many church schools provided education for a large number of Blacks, the Black students were the ones most profoundly impacted by the withdrawal of these funds (US Library of Congress).   Although the government explained its actions under the premise of separation of church and state, eliminating schools that serve Blacks is an ultimate form of educational injustice.

The policies and funding disparities in schools ensured contrasting access to higher education.   Four Afrikaans speaking universities and one English speaking university admitted only Whites, while the other five had restricted admission and segregated classrooms (US Library of Congress).   Additionally, there was no financial aid, and banks did not give out loans to Blacks or Coloureds (Knipe-Solomon).   This means that even if students could break through working class instruction with under-qualified teachers in overcrowded classrooms, they still faced financial barriers to achieving their academic goals.

Post-Apartheid Educational Inequalities

Since the apartheid era, many policy changes have occurred within education to try to address educational inequalities.   Integration has occurred in the school system, and school is compulsory for nine years for all races (Garson).   Although Bantu education ideology has been officially left behind, schools are still under de facto segregation.   Whites have moved to private schools, and suburban schools have a majority of Coloured students, while township schools are overwhelmingly Black, and rural schools tend to have Black and Coloured students (Knipe-Solomon). The Global Perspectives on Human Language: the South African Context seminar witnessed this when visiting schools.   Chris Hani Independent School is a township school that operates in tin shacks with at least forty students per shack.   They have volunteer teachers and limited resources.   All students are Black.   Elizabethfontein School is a rural school with students who travel so far to attend school that they must stay in the school hostels during the week.   The students are Coloured.   Although diversity exists in the Cape Town area schools, the student populations of individual sites remains largely homogeneous based on race, and the quality of schools follows this division.

Despite policy efforts to equalize education among races, there still exist many seemingly racially neutral policies to funding that may disproportionately and negatively affect Blacks and Coloureds.   The government spends 20% of its budget on education. Administrative responsibility rests with the nine provinces along with elected school governance bodies to decide how to spend their education budgets (Garson). The government attempts to address inequalities through a funding plan that divides schools into five strata according to income levels in the community where the lower income level receives the higher funding per pupil (Pearce).   This funding system is definitely a large step towards improving historical disadvantages, but these funds are not enough to operate schools.   Schools receive a minimum amount from the government, and parents are required to pay a fee to the school; fees vary considerably depending on factors such as class size, facilities, and the quality of teaching offered (Garson).   For example, former white schools in suburbs charge R10,000 ($1,500), and other schools charge R150 (about $25) a year (Pearce).   These differences in fees result in disparities between the qualities of schools.   Private schools have one teacher for every fifteen students, while schools with extra fees have a maximum of thirty students per class, and poorer schools have as many as forty to fifty per teacher (Garson).   While acknowledging that more students have been introduced to the education system since Apartheid ended, these ratios are still more widespread than those during apartheid.   The difference now is that Bantu Education is gone, and blacks are unofficially at the bottom.

This de facto segregation in schools is due to the cross between race and socio-economic status.   When apartheid ended in 1994, Africans earned an average of just 20% of Whites (O'Gorman).   Blacks obviously will have less economic means to pay for a higher quality of education.   Some schools have parents with 90% unemployment (Pearce).   In this case, schools must charge smaller fees in communities that need the most resources to provide a higher quality of education.   Furthermore, "While 65% of whites over 20 years old and 40% of Indians have high school or higher qualification, this figure is only 14% among Blacks and 17% among the Coloured population" (Pearce).   Because apartheid education aimed at keeping blacks and Coloured at the lower end of the socio-economic system, they will have less means to pay the high fees for the good quality schools.  

Disparities in access, funding, and quality of education are not limited to primary and secondary schools.   Inequalities also exist in the higher education system.   There is no financial aid to go to college (Knipe-Solomon).   Since Blacks and Coloureds historically have been limited to working class jobs, the ability to fund an education for younger generations is a challenge many families cannot overcome.   Furthermore, overseas scholarships ended after apartheid ended (Knipe-Solomon).   Here again, racial inequalities are perpetuated through lack of access to higher education.

It is impossible to address the inequalities in education without taking into account the economic disparities resulting from apartheid education.   Contrasting tiers of the work force linger in the wake of apartheid's separatist presence; a large population of working class blacks stands out against the elite professional force comprised mainly of whites.   This signifies that the education system needs to rely less on individual contributions from parents for compulsory education as well as higher education in order to be able to further aim at "moving past the legacy of apartheid."   This ideal reform into free public education for all and financial aid for higher education requires money.   Since 20% of funds already go to education, it is crucial that the Department of Education explore creative reforms to reallocate funds or find resources through other avenues, e.g. tourism in townships.   These efforts will further achieve the goal of moving beyond the past and work towards a future of social justice.


Asmal, Kader.   "South African Curriculum: The Twenty First Century," Report of the Review Committee on Curriculum 2005. Presented to the Minister of Education.

Garson, Philippa.   "Education in South Africa." Accessed on 16 September 2004.>.

Knipe-Solomon, Colleen.   Interview.   16 September 2004.   Interview conducted by Lizet Ocampo.

O'Gorman, Melanie.   "Education Disparity and Racial Earnings Inequality: Insights from South Africa and the US."   10 June, 2004. .   Accessed on 16 September 2004.

Pearce, Justin.   "SA Poor's Education Struggle," BBC News.   Accessed on 16 September 2004. .

University of Cape Town Conference Talk with Members of the Writing Department, Mellon Fellow Program administrators and professors.   Seminar Lecture. 8 September, 2004.

US Library of Congress.   Accessed on 16 September 2004.