The Return of Bantu Education?

By Gavin Davis

All of us have been shaken by the 24 schools that were burned to the ground in Vuwani, Limpopo, in the last week.

Whichever way you look at it, these acts of vandalism have set us back in our task of redressing the legacy of unequal education in our country.

In 1953, Hendrik Verwoerd introduced the reprehensible policy of Bantu Education. This policy limited the educational opportunities of black South Africans to ensure a steady supply of unskilled and semi-skilled labour.

Thirteen years later, in the Chamber of the National Assembly, Verwoerd was stabbed to death by one of the parliamentary service officers. The only thing tragic about that day was that Verwoerd’s policies didn’t die with him.

Indeed, Verwoerd’s ghost continues to haunt us.

Because, if you are a poor, black child, your chances of getting a decent education in a democratic South Africa are still very remote. And the uncomfortable truth, is that the gap in our education system is getting wider.

Just look at the facts.

In schools in the most affluent areas (‘quintile 5’ schools), the matric pass rate has remained steady at above 90% over the past three years.

But in schools in the poorest areas, (‘quintile one’ schools), the matric pass rate has dropped from 70.3% to 61.6% in the last three years.

In these schools, the physical science pass rate has dropped from 60.5% to 49.9%. The mathematics pass rate has dropped from 48.6% to 36.9%.

What is going wrong?

It is not a question of funding. The Basic Education Budget stands at R219 billion – almost one-fifth of the total national budget.

And, quite correctly, the state spends six times more on learners in poor areas than learners in more affluent areas.

So how is that, two decades into our democracy, poor black children are falling behind?

The answer lies in the quantity and quality of teaching.

The truth is that, for every excellent and dedicated teacher in a disadvantaged school, there are many more who can’t teach and many more who won’t teach.

And this problem will not go away until we break the SADTU protection racket that shields under-performing teachers from accountability.

In this regard, Minister Motshekga’s plan to licence and professionalise teaching is a step in the right direction.

SADTU will no doubt try and block this proposal. We hope that Minister Motshekga finds the courage that has so far eluded her when it comes to releasing the ‘Jobs for Cash’ report.

If it ever sees the light of day, the ‘Jobs for Cash’ report will show that SADTU has captured six out of nine provincial education departments. We trust that Minister Motshekga’s failure to release the report does not mean that she has been captured by SADTU as well.

Minister Motshekga has made much of her Department’s proposal for a ‘three-tier’ system made up of an academic stream, a technical stream and an occupational stream.

In principle, the introduction of technical and occupational streams for learners who do not have the aptitude for the traditional academic stream is to be welcomed.

We must be wary, however, of the target to offer 60% of all learners occupational subjects like hairdressing, beauty care, nail technology, upholstery and bricklaying by 2030.

We must be cautious because weak schools will be under pressure to push failing learners into the occupational stream – even if these learners could have coped in an academic stream had they received better schooling.

Take Kwabhamu Junior Secondary in Zululand, for example, one of the twenty-two schools that obtained a zero percent pass rate in the matric exams last year. The thirty-seven matric learners at this school didn’t fail because they were in the wrong stream. They failed because the school system failed them.

The policy of Bantu Education was reprehensible because it limited the educational opportunities of poor, black learners. We must make sure that the ‘three-stream’ approach does not do the same.

On that note, there is another potentially retrograde step in the offing. And that is the dilution of School Governing Body powers as contemplated in the Draft Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill.

School Governing Bodies give communities a voice in how schools are run. They are the difference between a public school system in a democracy, and a state school system in an authoritarian regime such as Apartheid.

We cannot redress the legacy of the past by mimicking the past. We must guard against the return of Bantu Education. And we must never go back to the state school system of the Apartheid era.

The only way to exorcise Verwoerd’s ghost is by improving the quality and quantity of teaching in disadvantaged schools. This means breaking SADTU’s stranglehold on our public education system, so that every child is given a chance to succeed.

Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Basic Education. This is an edited version of a speech delivered in the debate on the budget of the Basic Education Department. It appeared in the Daily Maverick on 10 May 2016.

Silent majority: A crisis is brewing in basic education

By Gavin Davis

In the background of the student protests stand the silent majority – young, mainly black, South Africans deprived of a decent basic education in a democratic South Africa. Many don’t finish school, let alone university. If the student movement is a fuse, this silent majority may well be the powder keg.

Many people warned the government about an impending student fees crisis, including a ministerial committee chaired by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Yet the government was caught flatfooted by the conflagration that engulfed universities, Parliament and the very seat of its power at the Union Buildings over the last fortnight.

The government’s knowledge of the coming crisis, and lack of will to do anything about it, tells us a great deal about the state of our democracy. It shows what happens when a governing party is unresponsive to the needs of its citizens, secure in the belief that it will be returned to power no matter how badly it governs.

It is utterly confounding to see leaders of the student protest movement draped in African National Congress colours as they march on the party’s headquarters at Luthuli House. They seem oblivious to the idea that blind electoral loyalty to the governing party, regardless of its performance in government, is the very reason it has failed them.

If people want a responsive government, they need to use the power of their vote to put it under pressure. Otherwise, the only way to get the government to act will be through riots, shutdowns and protest. This is not what the struggle for democracy was about.

In a functioning democracy, it is incumbent on the government to gauge and process all pressing societal demands, not just the demands of those who shout loudest. Few interest groups are as organised and as vocal as the students have been. As a result, it can take years for some crises to manifest themselves as conspicuously as the university-funding crisis has in the last few weeks. By then, it is often too late.

Indeed, as unfashionable as it may sound, there is a crisis brewing that is far graver than affordable university fees. And that is the failure of our school system to give every child access to a quality basic education.

Far from engaging in mass protest, South Africa has been lulled into a sense of complacency when it comes to the quality of schooling. Every year, the Matric pass rate is celebrated and easy victories are claimed. Statistics indicating near-universal access to basic education are held up as proof of a good story to tell. The comparatively well-run Department of Basic Education and level-headedness of Minister Angie Motshekga go some way towards reassuring the nation that everything is on track.

But we know, deep down, that something is very, very wrong with our school system.

Those who finish school with marks good enough to get into university can count themselves among the fortunate few. Of the total number of pupils who entered Grade 1 in 2003, only 36% passed the National Senior Certificate in 2014, and just 14% qualified for admission to a university degree.

Meanwhile, the 86% who didn’t make it to university are struggling to find work. According to the latest South Africa Survey, the unemployment rate among those whose highest level of education is Matric stands at 33.2%. By contrast, the unemployment rate for those with a degree is much less at 7.6%.

On top of this, despite a steady increase of black students into universities over the last two decades, deep racial inequalities persist. Only 12% of black South Africans and 14.3% of coloureds enter higher education, compared to 58.5% of whites and 51% of Indians. Education analyst Nic Spaull notes that less than 1 in 200 black children who enter Grade 1 go on to pass Matric with marks high enough to study mathematics or science at university.

The uncomfortable reality is that, if you are a black child born into a poor household, the odds of getting into university and building a rewarding career are stacked very firmly against you. The Statistics South Africa report on youth unemployment released last year found that, in comparison to other races, the proportion of black youth in skilled employment actually regressed between 1994 and 2014. Launching the report, the statistician-general said black youths between the ages of 25 and 34 “lost out in acquiring skills through the 20-year period and that is the crux of the issue of youth unemployment”.

If the student movement is a fuse, the powder keg may well be the silent majority of young, black South Africans who leave school with little prospects of finding a decent job. The question is how long it will take for the simmering discontent to explode and, when it does, whether it will lead to a peaceful, democratic alternation of power or not.

A responsive government in a functioning democracy would act to defuse the crisis in basic education, before it is too late. Nobody should tolerate an education system that hands down the inequities of apartheid from one generation to the next. Our government does so at its peril.

Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Basic Education. This article was first published in The Daily Maverick on 27 October 2015.

Khayelitsha: an unfolding scholastic success story

By Gavin Davis

In the early 1950s, South Africa’s minister of native affairs, Hendrik Verwoerd, said: “What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?”

This deep-seated prejudice drove the apartheid policy that denied black children the same standard of education as white pupils. Today the legacy of Bantu education continues to haunt policymakers tasked with providing a decent education to children whose parents were denied it in the past.

Despite spending a fifth of its national budget on education (and disproportionately more on “previously-disadvantaged” schools), the hard reality is that South Africa is not producing enough matriculants who can read, write and calculate at the levels required to compete in the global economy. This is clear from South Africa’s underperformance in international benchmark tests such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.

High rates of teacher and pupil absenteeism, strike action, administrative bungling, unqualified teachers, crumbling infrastructure and a shortage of textbooks are often cited to paint a picture of an education system in irreversible decline. But beyond the doom and gloom, there are places where a different story is emerging.

Khayelitsha, on the outskirts of Cape Town, is one of the largest and fastest-growing townships in South Africa. Established in the early 1980s, it is now home to around half a million people. Many migrated here from other provinces in search of jobs and a better life. Despite free basic services such as water, electricity and sanitation, unemployment, poverty, overcrowding and violent crime persist.

When it comes to education, however, the narrative is slowly changing. The Centre for Science and Technology (COSAT)—a specialist maths and science secondary school in Khayelitsha—became the first township school to be placed in the top ten schools in the Western Cape for the National Senior Certificate (NSC) examinations in 2011.

A rigorous selection process based on each child’s potential to do well in maths, science and information technology is partly responsible for COSAT’s success. Money plays a role too. Though parents pay a small fee, the state and, crucially, private sector donors pay most of the additional funding which ensures that the school has up-to-date equipment, learning materials and—most importantly—qualified teachers who care deeply about helping children to succeed.


The COSAT story has been well documented in South Africa and abroad. What far fewer people have noticed is the steady but undeniable improvement in the other 20 (non-specialist) secondary schools in Khayelitsha over the last few years.

In 2009 the average pass rate for the NSC examinations in Khayelitsha schools was 53.6%. By 2012 it had risen to 70.2%, not far off the national pass rate of 73.9%. Even more encouraging is the concomitant decline in the number of “underperforming” (an NSC pass rate of 60% or less) Khayelitsha schools from 15 in 2009 to just four in 2012.

Behind these numbers are individual schools that have shown phenomenal improvement in a very short time. Take Matthew Goniwe Memorial High School, for example. In 2009 this school was struggling with a matric pass rate of just 45.5%. Last year, 84.2% of the pupils who wrote the NSC passed—a full ten percentage points above the national pass rate. Iqhayiya Secondary and Chris Hani Secondary showed similar improvements. Iqhayiya’s pass rate was 75.6% last year, up from 34.6% in 2009. Chris Hani went from 44.2% in 2009 to 83.3% in 2012.

Some education experts argue that the pass rate is a crude measure of school performance, that it is open to manipulation by schools that hold back weaker pupils from writing the NSC examinations. For this reason, other performance measures need to be taken into account, such as the total number of students who wrote and passed the NSC examinations, and how many did well enough to gain admission to university.

In 2012, 54 fewer Khayelitsha pupils wrote the NSC examinations than in 2009. But over the same period, 500 more Khayelitsha pupils passed the NSC examinations: 2,038 in 2012 compared with 1,538 in 2009. Of those who passed, 584 qualified for university entrance, compared with just 305 in 2009.

What is behind the improvement in Khayelitsha schooling in the last three years? “It’s nothing sexy or dramatic,” says Clive Roos, special adviser to the Western Cape’s education minister. “The department simply got its house in order.”

According to Roos, in 2009 the incoming minister inherited an “ad hoc amalgam of peculiar things”. “The mere fact of having a plan changed everything completely,” he says.

One of the first components of the new plan was a focus on appointing good principals in underperforming schools because, as Roos puts it, “If the principal is not right, the chances of turning a school around are significantly reduced.” So, for the first time, the Western Cape Education Department began exercising its prerogative to improve the choices of school governing bodies, with roughly a quarter of principal appointments queried on the basis of competence in the first year.

Another early intervention was setting a pass rate target for each school and publicising it. “Three years ago, when the minister visited a school, the principal often didn’t know their own school’s pass rate. Now it is the first thing that gets discussed,” says Roos. Once the target is set, each principal is expected to draw up a tailored School Improvement Plan or SIP with the school governing body. The SIP is the department’s online management tool that monitors key performance indicators such as: the number of students on the nutrition and transport programmes; the average number of absent days per pupil and teacher; and the number of meetings held with parents to discuss their child’s academic performance.

Khayelitsha has also benefited from a strategy launched in 2010 to provide extra support to every underperforming school in the province, according to Bronagh Casey, spokesperson in the Western Cape’s education ministry. The plan includes providing textbooks to all grade 12 students in their six core subjects, extra tutoring over weekends and school holidays and broadcasting extra lessons to schools via satellite.

There is no question that Bantu education’s legacy will continue to be felt in South Africa for the foreseeable future. What the Khayelitsha story shows is that a well thought out plan that emphasises accountability, departmental support and appointing the right people can improve school performance in a short space of time.

Gavin Davis is Communications Director at the Democratic Alliance. This article was first published in the September 2013 issue of Africa in Fact, the journal of Good Governance Africa and republished in City Press, 25 August 2013.