Thirty years after the arrival of South African democracy, what are the results for schools?

The big report takes us to South Africa where we mark the 30th anniversary of the first multiracial elections on Saturday 27 April. On 27 April 1994, all South Africans were called to the polls. The vast majority of voters would vote for the African National Congress (ANC) which would then elect Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president. This man of culture, a former lawyer, made access to education a priority after half a century of apartheid in which the non-white population received a deliberately degraded education. In power for 30 years, the ANC managed to generalize access to education, sometimes at the expense of quality. Overcrowded classes, schools in poor condition, the illiteracy crisis, the challenges are still numerous as evidenced by this excerpt from Romain Chanson’s great reportage

The first black president elected after multiracial elections on April 27, 1994, Nelson Mandela made education one of his priorities to repair the damage caused by the apartheid segregation regime since 1948. Despite significant progress, the education system still lags behind.

Education and Emancipation: The Record of the ANC in South Africa

“South Africans are more educated, more emancipated and in better health than under apartheid,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said during the presentation of the program of his party, the African National Congress (ANC), on February 24, 2024 in Durban. Voters are called to the polls on May 29, 2024 for the general election, which coincides within a month with the thirtieth anniversary of the country’s first free elections on April 27, 1994.

The ANC, Nelson Mandela’s former party, is therefore highlighting its results in the hope of winning the general election. “From kindergartens to schools, from colleges to universities, the number of people enrolled in our non-segregated and free institutions for the vast majority of students has increased significantly,” hailed President Ramaphosa during his speech in Durban. In 2022, among people aged 20 and over, only 6.9% had no formal education compared to 19.1% in 1996, according to the 2022 census.

South Africa has come a long way. The apartheid regime imposed separate education for whites, away from urban centers and of degraded quality. “The aim of the apartheid education system, known as the Bantu Education Act of 1953, was to limit access to higher education for blacks. The apartheid regime provided primary education, but then there were few opportunities to go to secondary school and university,” explains Professor Brahm Fleisch from Wits University in Johannesburg.

Expanding access to education for all

Nelson Mandela’s government and those that followed committed to building schools so that as many people as possible could be educated in free schools where a meal would be served. They focused on quantity, that is, on the universal school. But today the quality of education is lacking. According to the latest survey by the International Program for Research in School Reading (PIRLS), 81% of students in CM1 do not understand what they are reading. The press warns of a “ticking time bomb of illiteracy”. South African journalist Adriaan Basson sees the South African education system as “the worst failure of the ANC” in its thirty years of rule.

At a town school in Illinge near Queenstown in the Eastern Cape province, an English teacher estimates that almost half of her fourth-grade students struggle with reading. “They know the words, but I can’t ask them to illustrate what they read, but it’s quite complicated for them,” Nombulelo Vali testifies that students are switching from learning the local language to English. one of the eleven official languages ​​of South Africa. This change may be disruptive to students.

But the conditions for learning are also missing. Classes are overcrowded, like that of Nombule Vali who has to teach 48 students at the same time. Poor learning conditions were condemned by Amnesty International. “The education system remains marked by serious inequalities and underachievements that are deeply rooted in the legacy of apartheid, but also linked to the fact that the government has not taken action to correct them,” the NGO noted in a 2020 report. This degraded environment is also one of the factors of school dropout, which according to the NGO Zero Dropout is almost 40%.

Yizani Sifunde’s project for awakening young children

The school in Illinge is too small and has no library. Access to books and encouraging children to read are challenges South Africa must address. Several associations have joined forces in Queenstown to help nurseries. They publish and offer books, train educators in learning to read, create a network of storytellers. The project is called Yizani Sifunde (let’s start reading in xhosa) and it has just finished after three years of implementation. An independent evaluation of the program reveals that in just 8 months, the proportion of young children considered to be severely behind in reading and language learning fell by half among beneficiaries.

The government claims to have understood where the needs are. “These studies (PIRLS, on reading skills) highlight what we need to improve, like stimulating very young children, providing resources so that children can read many books. We do not agree to these studies thinking that we can be equal with Russia or Finland”, defends Angelina Motshekga, Minister of Basic Education*.* She also says that she has to make do with a limited budget. The NGO Equal Education condemns the austerity budget “which is at odds with the government’s human rights obligations”.

Thirty years after the arrival of democracy, the government is criticized for not investing enough in education. However, everyone recognizes progress since Nelson Mandela came to power, but the quality of education in public schools is still unattainable. During the campaign, President Ramaphosa promised to increase the teaching of mathematics, science and computer coding. Ambition for modernity for an education system that still looks too much like the past. 

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