Educational system played critical role in overcoming apartheid
By: Stephanie Ebbs
When students at the University of Western Cape arrived at the gate to protest the police we already waiting.
“The police would come and say ‘you have five minutes to disperse’,” said Llewellyn MacMaster, who was chairperson of the Student Reform Committee in 1985. “Five minutes for them was 1,2,3,4,5 and then they charge or shoot tear gas, then we’d scatter and run.”
On at least one occasion, police chased students and beat them up to send a message, MacMaster said.
“The day after that when you had all these wounded soldiers coming to the mass meeting, bandages, at least one guy walking with crutches because they beat him so severely and shot him with a rubber bullet short distance, so it temporarily paralyzed his leg,” he said.
Schools became a site for struggle in South Africa, especially after a heavily publicized student protest in Soweto in 1976 turned violent. Students organized mass protests and boycotts of the racial system and police would interfere or close schools to arrest politically active students or teachers.
“The local police station commander had greater authority in the school than the school principal had,” said Rahmat Omar, who was a high school teacher until she was arrested for political activity. “There were certain occasions when the police station commander would come into the school and instruct principal when we should take breaks, interfering completely with the timetable.”
Omar experienced the educational system’s support for liberation in many ways. Growing up in District Six, a “colored” part of Cape Town, literacy and religious groups taught progressive messages outside the schools, she said.
For many years, the white minority in South Africa discriminated harshly against the non-white majority of the population. The Dutch colonized the country in 1652 and their descendants, called Afrikaaners, controlled much of the country until the democratic election in 1990.
Schools were segregated by race and the 1953 Bantu Education Act required non-white schools to adopt a separate curriculum intended to educate non-whites as workers and nothing else.
This curriculum and materials focused on the history of the country since it was colonized in 1652, framing the history of the non-white population as the “colored” or “native” problem.
“If you were colored, there you were in the school and your own teachers were teaching you about the colored problem,” said Yusuf Gabru, a teacher and activist who later became minister of education in the ANC government.
Even in white schools some students sought opportunities to rebel against the curriculum. Renfrew Christie, who worked as a spy for the ANC, said his personal connection to World War II gave him an extra disdain for history class, which he dropped as soon as possible. Several of his relatives were WWII veterans and he had many Jewish classmates, some of whom survived the holocaust.
“From my earliest times I couldn’t see the difference between the apartheid nationalist party and Hitler’s outfit,” he said.
Despite this institutional bias, schools fostered activism and helped shape the movement’s most influential activists.
The education system under apartheid was obviously a horrendous system imposed by a really totally and utterly immoral government,” Gabru said. “It nevertheless created all the people who rebelled against it, very few of us didn’t go through that system.”
Reseachers took advantage of the contradictions in the system to transform the country through both small and large acts of resistance.
One example is when teachers refused to distribute flags and teach the national anthem when South Africa was nationalized in 1961.
“When the Republic of South Africa was declared there was instruction from the government that every school should distribute these flags and the new anthem and our schools just decided we were not going to do it,” Omar said. “And every child in every family was informed.”
Other teachers would embed political messages in their lessons, forcing students to learn about political issues while still working within the school curriculum.
In 1976, Yusuf Gabru was a mathematics teacher at Salt River High School in Cape Town. He said he would use the salaries of black and white mine workers to teach ratio and percentage, showing the discrimination while staying within the state curriculum.
Some teachers were more overt and dedicated to alternative or even progressive messages in the curriculum.
“It had huge impact on us because we knew what was written in these books was not the truth,” said Harold Herman, former dean of education at UWC.
Trafalgar High School was in District Six and was one of only five high schools in the country for colored students. Many students and teachers from the “colored” area of Cape Town became powerful activists in the liberation movement, like Steven Biko and Dullah Omar.
One of the trademarks of this school was its closeness with the Unity and People’s Education Movements in the 1980’s, which advocated for a more progressive and inclusive curriculum.
“Being at school at Trafalgar meant we got an education through the perspective of the Unity Movement,” Rahmat Omar said. “The majority of teachers at the school were members of the Unity Movement.”
Rahmat Omar and seven of her siblings went to school at Trafalgar. She became one of two women in the top ranks of the labor union COSATU and part of drafting the ANC constitution. Her brother, Dullah Omar, was the first in the family to graduate high school. He became well known as Nelson Mandela’s lawyer, worked high up in the ANC and was appointed the first minister of justice in the ANC government by Mandela.
The progressive teachers at Trafalgar taught students to think critically and question the political status of the country.
“Our history teacher would always bring in some challenge to the official version of history,” Omar said. “They taught that history began in 1652 when the Dutch arrived at the Cape so we would always get a counter story from the history teacher.”
She said her English teacher would use literature written in Afrikaans when Dutch settlers were fighting British colonialism to illustrate modern issues.
“Our Afrikaans teacher was very clever, you know the Afrikaaners had been involved in a struggle against colonial authority, against British colonial authority. So there was a lot of literature in Afrikaans that was anti-colonial but it was from the perspective of the Afrikaaner against the British imperialist. But he used that poetry and that literature, it was resistance poetry,” she said.
But schools weren’t just for learning about politics; some used education as the vehicle for anti-apartheid activism.
“Basically there were many people who became teachers not because they wanted to become teachers, but they saw that as an area in which you could get involved in the political struggle,” said Gabru, a former teacher and activist who became the ANC’s first minister of education.
Renfrew Christie is one activist who used education as a front to take down South Africa’s nuclear weapons.
After being drafted into the South African army at 17, Christie became a whistleblower. He leaked a report describing the potential damage from different sizes of nuclear weapons broken down by ethnic group, which he said could be described as “ethnic cleansing.”
From then on he said he would do anything to stop the government from getting the bomb. He used his aptitude for science to gain access to information as an academic, while hiding his true motivation.
He studied the growth of infrastructure in South Africa, starting with hydroelectric schemes and moving on to the expansion of electricity for his PhD at Oxford. Because he was writing a history of the country’s economy around electricity, he had access to documents at the country’s power utility archives and was able to track the development of the atom bomb.
He was eventually arrested for leaking documents and tortured into a confession, which laid out his discoveries in detail. After the confession was read into the public record at his trial the ANC used the information to bomb power plants and nuclear enrichment facilities.
Educators and student activists like Christie were a big part of the success of the liberation movement, but there was also collateral damage. Because schools were used as sites of the struggle, discipline disintegrated and the quality of education diminished, Herman said.
For many students and teachers the political activity was considered more important than learning, leading to an attitude of “liberation before education,” which supported boycotts and rebellion at the expense of student learning.
“We talk about the destruction of the culture of teaching and learning in the country and that’s one of the prices we paid for our liberation,” Herman said. “Because we allowed children to become almost pawns of the liberation struggle, they were helping to fight battles.”
Herman was a professor of education at the University of Western Cape and later dean of the education department. He is currently emeritus faculty and works with organizations like the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.
Llewyn MacMaster is a pastor in the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, previously known as the Dutch Reformed Church. He was dean of students and is now a project leader for the Centre of Inclusivity at Stellenbosch University.
Rahmat Omar became one of the highest-ranking women in the labor union COSATU, which worked with the ANC to draft the new constitution. She currently works as a senior lecturer on the education faculty and with the Centre for Adult and Continuing Education at the University of Western Cape.