What was Bantu Education? – “A Man in Jackboots Walking All Over the Garden”

31 08 2008

“The Bantu must guided to serve his own community in all respects. There is no place for him in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. Within his own community, however, all doors are open … Until now he has been subjected to a school system which drew him away from his own community and mislead him by showing him the green pastures of European society in which he was not allowed to graze.” Thus in the Senate of the South African Houses of Parliament did Dr H.F Verwoerd justify, on 7 June 1954, the introduction of the system of Bantu Education, a system designed, explicitly and without reservation, to keep Blacks in South Africa subservient to whites, and to provide them with a vastly inferior education. This policy still haunts South Africa today, 14 years after the end of apartheid, in spite of the brave call of the Freedom Charter in 1955 that “the doors of learning and of culture shall be opened.”

Bantu Education was thrust on the people of South Africa by the arrogance of the Afrikaner Nationalist establishment in the midst of increasing resistance to apartheid and all its ramifications. It was a particularly pernicious system with far-reaching and long-lasting political, social, economic and psychological impact on South Africans of all races.

The Freedom Charter was a declaration issued by the Congress of the People at Kliptown, Johannesburg, on 26 June 1955. The Congress was a gathering of some 3000 delegates from all over South Africa called by the Congress Alliance. The Alliance was a grouping of a number of anti-apartheid organisations in South Africa. Its membership came from the African National Congress (ANC), then South African Indian Congress (SAIC), the South African Coloured People’s Organisation (SACPO), and the Congress of Democrats (the white element of the Congress Movement), the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and the South African Peace Council.

The Freedom Charter went on to state:

The aim of education shall be to teach the youth to love their people and their culture, to honour human brotherhood, liberty and peace;

Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children; Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit;

That apartheid education was far from such ideals is clear. Even whites got an education that was not designed to encourage them to “honour human brotherhood, liberty and peace.” Indeed white education was conducted on the lines of “Christian National Education”, which as many commentators have noted, was neither Christian nor National and could scarcely be called “education.”

What Bantu Education meant to those who had devoted their lives to the education of Blacks in South Africa was a devastating destruction of their dreams and their perceived vocations. Many simply left in disgust.

Famed South African liberal Dr Edgar Brookes was principal of Adams College near Durban, in the kwaZulu-Natal province. He left this post at the end of 1945 and recounts how his successor, G.C. Grant, had to cope with the stupidities with which the advent of Bantu Education was accompanied: “The Bantu Education Act was passed in 1953 and shortly afterwards a commission of enquiry descended on Adams. The intelligence with which it approached the question may be illustrated by one of the questions put: ‘I see in this brochure that you claim that Adams gives a liberal education. Does this mean an education based on the principles of the Liberal Party?'”

As Brooks further described the take-over of Black schools from the missionaries who had run them: “The process was like a man in jackboots walking all over the garden into which you have put all your love and trampling down your best flowers.”

As devastating as Bantu Education was on the mainly white missionaries who had devoted their lives to the education of young Black people, the effects on the young Black people were of course infinitely worse.

That this could not be otherwise is indicated by the following extract from the manifesto of the Institute for Christian National Education published (in Afrikaans) in 1948:

“Native education should be based on the principles of trusteeship, non-equality and segregation; its aim should be to inculcate the white man’s view of life, especially that of the Boer nation, which is the senior trustee…

“Owing to the cultural infancy of the native, the state, in co-operation with the protestant churches should at present provide Native education. But the native should be fitted to undertake his own education as soon as possible, under control and guidance from the state.”

The government put this idea into practice by a hugely differential spending on education during the apartheid years. In 1972 it was calculated by Frieda Troup (Forbidden Pastures – Education under apartheid, London: International Defence and Aid Fund, 1976) that expenditure on education for the 1969-1970 financial year broke down as R272,70 for every white child in school against R8,62 for every Black child in school: “That is to say that for every R1 the government spent on the education of each African child between the age of 5 and 19, it spent R31,60 for each White child in the same age group.”

The long-term results of this skewed view and application of education came out in the 1996 Census figures (the first true census of all people in South Africa): one in five South African adults had received no formal education at all and only 6% had achieved tertiary level. For 25% of the population, at that time about 40.5 million, the highest level of education achieved was “some” primary school. At the time of the Census fully one third of the population was unemployed, more than 25% earned less than R500 per month. In most economic reviews of South Africa the skills shortage is listed as a major factor inhibiting growth.

Cover of Miriam's Song

Cover of Miriam's Song

Writer Mark Mathabane’s sister Miriam, in the preface to his book Miriam’s Song (New York, Simon & Schuster: 2000) wrote: “By the time I entered Sub-Standard A (actually now called Grade 1), in January 1975, it was common for already overworked teachers in the lower primary classes to teach two session of over one hundred pupils each. It was estimated that half of black children between the ages of six and nineteen were not in school, that only one in fifty teachers had a university education, and that only one in nine teachers had completed matric (high school).”

Frightening as these figures are, they actually don’t begin to tell the human story, the psychological effects of such an evil system as Bantu Education.

South Africa in the second half of the first decade of the third millennium is facing social problems of unprecedented proportions. These include massive crime rates, drug abuse, family violence and violence generally. The integration of schools and other educational institutions is facing great difficulties and the learners themselves are caught up in uncertainty and disaffection.

As Miriam Mathabane asks, if Verwoerd had not taken over black education as he did, “if black children had had the same educational opportunities as white children, would there be less crime, fewer murderers, carjackers and rapists in the New South Africa, and more teachers, lawyers, writers and nurses?”

Of course, these questions cannot be answered, but my belief is that, yes, the social ills that wrack our society might well have been more tractable, and the whites who complain so bitterly about crime and their fears might have had more understanding of their black fellow-citizens, as of course blacks might have had more understanding of their white fellow-citizens.

In the end, the damage done by Bantu Education is incalculable, but its effects are very tangible in the daily lives of millions of South Africans who have been blighted by this dreadful crime perpetrated against them.

A Chapter of Changes: Chapter 23

29 08 2008

Dad’s memoirs suddenly look backwards: having arrived at 1963 we are taken back to 1952!


In this year my brother Chris went as a cadet to the SATS General Botha on which our father had been a cadet in 1924 and 1925. By now the old ship, the former HMS Thames, had been scuttled and the training ship was a “stone frigate” in Gordon’s Bay, a small bay off the larger False Bay, on the South Eastern side of the Cape Peninsular.

The rather fanciful depiction of the arrival of Van Riebeeck at the Cape in 1652, painted by Charles Bell in 1850. The original is housed in the South African Library.

The rather fanciful depiction of the arrival of Van Riebeeck at the Cape in 1652, painted by Charles Bell in 1850. The original is housed in the South African Library.

The year 1952 holds two memories for me: firstly it was the year of the 300th anniversary of the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck at the Cape in April 1652, where he was to set up a small outpost to provide provisions and fresh water for the ships of the Dutch East India Company on their way to and from India and the Far East.

Maurice Boucher, former professor of history at the University of South Africa, wrote of the arrival of the Europenas at the Cape, with considerable understatement, I think: “The arrival of Europeans on what was to be a permanent basis had a profound effect upon indigenous social structures, the political and economic development of the region and upon group relations in an increasingly complex racial situation.” (from An Illustrated History of South Africa, edited by Trewhella Cameron and SB Spies, Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 1986)

The Cadets of the General Botha were going to sail a replica of Van Riebeeck’s ship, the Drommedaris,  into Table Bay and I was desperate to see the festivities that were planned. I was bitterly disappointed when my parents could not afford to let me go to Cape Town to see what was happening.

The house at Dennegeur. The house was designed by by Aunt Lucy's husband Alex Kirstein and built of local stone by Italian prisoners of war during World War II

The house at Dennegeur. The house was designed by my Aunt Lucy's husband Alex Kirstein and built of local stone by Italian prisoners of war during World War II.

The second was that because they were going overseas I had to go to stay with my Aunt Lucy and her family on their farm Dennegeur in the then Western Transvaal (now part of the North West Province) near the town of Klerksdorp. This meant that I had to continue my schooling at the local farm school near Dennegeur and that was a huge shock to me as the school was very different from what I had been used to under the Cape Department of Education.

Buck on Dennegeur

Buck on Dennegeur

I spent six months at Dennegeur and loved a lot of the farm life. There were buck on the farm, lots of birds and other small animals. One of the things that I remember the most was the plaintive call of the crowned plovers which abounded on the farm. It was a sound that came to represent my loneliness for me and still when I hear it it brings back those feelings of being alone and missing my parents so much.

How I got to the farm I don’t recall except that it must have been by car. My mother drove mostly as Dad did not like driving. I guess the trip took two days and we would have stopped over in Bloemfontein and stayed at the old Polly’s Hotel.

Chris came to join me at Dennegeur at the end of the academic year of the General Botha and after a few days together we caught a train to Cape Town where we would meet our parents on their return from the UK.

Things I remember about this train trip is that it was the first time I realised that Chris smoked and secondly that Chris made me wash my face just before we arrived in Cape Town and that I just wiped the obvious parts around my eyes, nose and mouth and the rest of my face and neck was black with coal dust. I also remember seeing for the first time close up the points of the star of Cape Town Castle, and being very impressed with that. The train line still runs very close to them.

We stayed with Queenie and Cherrie over Christmas and then took the long drive home to Blythswood. I don’t remember whether or not Chris came back with us, but I rather think not. He still had another year to do at the General Botha and would most likely have stayed on in Cape Town so as to get back to the ship in time for the start of the next year of his two years there.


For me this year was important as it was my first year at Stellenbosch University where I had enrolled in the forestry course. I found university quite wonderful and I had a ball there, so much so that I did not make it academically. By the end of the year I was in any case disenchanted with the idea of becoming a forrester and so changed course to do a BA in 1964.

I got home to Buntingville in late November 1963 and I well remember my mother coming into my bedroom early one morning and telling me that the US president, John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated the day before. I was shattered as I had thought that JFK was a wonderful person who was going to lead the world to peace. My opinion of JFK has fluctuated over the years but my initial enthusiasm for him is being somewhat vindicated by a book that I have recently come across. It is written by a writer I have long admired, ever since discovering his great book Resistance and Contemplation (Delta, 1972) in about 1980, James W. Douglass. This book, published in 2008, is called JFK and the Unspeakable (Orbis, 2008). It is an amazing book about Kennedy’s “turn toward peace, and the price this exacted.” But that is the subject for another article.

For me Kennedy’s murder was a tragic event and I was very upset by it. I think that the memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis of the year before, when I had been in the Naval Gymnasium at Saldanha Bay, was still very close and clear to me and I remember how intensely I had felt the threat of nuclear war at the time. So the assassination seemed to me to heighten the sense of peril facing the world at the time.

Comments on Chapter 21: some chronological issues

12 08 2008

Some of the chronology in this chapter is a bit mixed up. I did go to school in Bloemfontein because of my asthma but that was in 1959 already, when I was in Standard 9 (Grade 11). So when my father was demoted so summarily I was already at school in Bloemfontein.

The routine was that I went to school by train at the beginning of each term. I caught the train in Queenstown. It usually left around five in the afternoon and arrived in Bloemfontein in the early hours of the following morning.

This was a journey which I usually enjoyed very much as my mother would give me a packet of ‘goodies’ to take with me and also dinner and breakfast meal tickets and a bedding ticket so I was pretty independent and felt quite ‘grown up’ about it all.

I left Blythswood in January 1960 fully expecting to return there at the Easter break, only to get the news toward the end of that term that my parents would be moving to Buntingville, a place I had not until then heard of. I found it all rather unsettling, to say the least and I got on the train in Bloemfontein at the end of term feeling rather insecure. After all, Blythswood had been my home for all of my conscious life really. And now I was not to see it again, certainly not to live there.

The train journey back to Queenstown was pretty much the reverse of the trip up to Bloemfontein – the train left in the late afternoon and got to Queenstown in the early morning. This time though the journey had a bit of an edge to it which I had not before experienced.

This time, instead of my parents collecting me from Queenstown I was to catch the “railway bus” to Mthatha (Umtata). I had often seen these great big reddish busses but never before that I can recall had I actually been a passenger on one. And certainly I had never before had to organize myself onto such a bus on my own.

The trip was something of an experience for me as the bus typically drove through the deep rural areas and passengers got on and off with all manner of gear – chickens, bicycles, huge trunks.

Then we came to a part where it was raining pretty hard and eventually got to a bridge that was submerged and so the bus just had to wait for the waters to subside, which took a few hours. I had my not very good camera with me and took several photos of all of this.

The bus waiting for the water to subside

The bus waiting for the water to subside

My arrival in Mthatha was much later than expected and I finally got to our new home exhausted and strange. I can’t remember too much of the arrival, except that I know I felt very strange after the experience of the bus journey and then getting to an unknown place.

At the end of 1960 I wrote Matric but did not do as well as might have been hoped – I guess the disruption of my previously very settled life had something to do with that. I know that my parents were struggling with their new circumstances as well as the political tensions that were roiling around that part of the then Transkei at the time, which my father doesn’t mention.

In June of that year about 30 people had been shot and killed at Nqusa’s Hill in Pondoland. These men had been attending a peaceful, though technically illegal meeting on the hill, a meeting that had been going on for some time. According to eyewitnesses the hill top had been incessantly “buzzed” by aeroplanes which had prevented the attendees from hearing the speakers. Then a helicopter had landed sten-gun carrying policemen who were reinforced by other police who had arrived in trucks.

The eyewitnesses told reporters that the attendees had put up their hands and shouted “We are not fighting”, but the police had opened fire and not stopped until there was no-one left standing to shoot at.

This shooting became known as the Pondoland Massacre but little was known about it outside of Pondoland as the government had drawn a curtain of silence around the area. However, my parents, being sensitive people, knew what was going on and it disturbed them greatly. Of course these events also affected the students at the school.

The Sharpeville shootings had also occurred that year, in March. So the whole country was in a state of high tension and the Government had declared a “State of emergency” which amounted to martial law. The Transkei was especially tense and whites were becoming panicky. A clandestine organisation known as Poqo was said to be spreading violence against whites and because of the Government’s clamp-down on reporting, rumours flew around at a great rate.

"Jock" Joubert

"Jock" Joubert

The net result of all this for me was that I was enrolled the next year at Umtata High School to re-write my Matric. This was a new experience for me as Umtata High was a co-ed school. In my class was a fellow-student called Roy Joubert with whom I became very firm friends. He was more commonly known as “Jock” and we did a great deal together. It was as a result of our friendship that our respective parents also became firm friends.

It turned out that the Jouberts had also known my aunt Mary, my father’s younger sister, who was married to the former head of St John’s College in Umtata, John Smithen, who had subsequently moved to be the head of Tiger Kloof High School near Vryburg in the then Northern Cape.

So this was 1961, another year of great changes. The year of the referendum of which my father writes in the next chapter of his memoirs, the year of “Decimal Dan, your Rands Cents man” – the decimalisation of South Africa’s currency – the year of South Africa becoming a republic and its departure from the Commonwealth.