‘Apartheid made maths difficult for blacks’ and other myths – historian Hermann Giliomee defends Bantu Education

By Hermann Giliomee

Bantu Education: Destructive intervention or part reform?

As the crisis of education in black schools has worsened, or rather become more evident, so the tendency to “Blame Verwoerd” has intensified.

Senzo Mchunu, MEC for Education in Kwazulu-Natal, declared in late July: “One of the points we found was a problem in Maths and Science. It was Verwoerd who made the subjects difficult because he thought blacks would be a threat to him’.[1]

Addressing the Limpopo textbook crisis on Talk Radio 702, President Jacob Zuma said: “What is happening today is what Verwoerd did, where the black majority were historically not given education. We are dealing with a system that had put black people back for centuries.” According to Zuma, Verwoerd created the textbook crisis in Limpopo. [2]

Redi Tlhabi, who interviewed Zuma on Talk Radio 702, expressed outrage over the president’s remark that he did not know who was to blame for the textbook scandal, but agreed with him about Verwoerd. “The president was right in that Verwoerd worked to create a system that was intent on stifling the black child and making sure that she or he did not thrive.” She added: ‘Today, in 2012, I did not expect that the ‘liberation party [the ANC] would want to further Verwoerd’s goals: to keep the black child poor, uneducated and deprived.” [3]

President Zuma’s comments attracted a retort from Mamphela Ramphele, a product of Bantu education and a previous UCT Vice-Chancellor. Speaking at an education conference she commented on the current state of black education: “The monumental failure in South Africa was not Hendrik Verwoerd’s fault but that of the current government”. She continued: “Children under apartheid’s ‘gutter education’ were better educated than children are today.”[4]

Hendrik Verwoerd, National Party Minister of Native Affairs from 1950 to 1958 and Prime Minister from 1958 to his assassination in 1966, remains one of the most complex figures in South African history. In the contemporary debate, he is, however, little more than a demonic figure, denounced and excoriated as the architect of all our misfortunes.

Equally, while his policy of Bantu Education looms large in the popular imagination it is very poorly understood. Despite the significant work that has recently been done by historians in this area, many opinion-formers’ knowledge of this policy does not stretch much beyond a notorious single quote by Verwoerd in a 1953 speech.

Although the Bantustans and Bantu education were inextricably linked, Bantu education could, to a considerable degree, also be considered on its own merits. This article attempts to focus only on some of the aspects of this system, such as funding and the relative value of mother tongue education, and not on the more ideological aspects like the attempt to use the schools to foster distinctive ethnic identities.

Verwoerd’s Bantu education signalled the introduction of mass education in South Africa. After 1994 a new regime has removed all forms of racial privilege, but black public schools remained in a state of crisis. It is important to go back to the founding years of the system to establish to what extent the roots of the crisis could be traced back to these years.

The indictment

The indictment of the education system Hendrik Verwoerd, Minister of Native Affairs, introduced in 1954 consists of several charges. The most important are:

  • He closed down a functioning system of black education that included some good mission schools like Lovedale and Healdtown
  • His policy based on ‘the assumption of an inferior potential of African minds’ was ‘explicitly designed to prepare blacks for a subordinate place in society.’[5]
  • He discouraged the teaching of Mathematics and Science
  • The policy deliberately starved black education of funds

Closing down a functioning system?

Missionary societies dominated the provision of black and coloured education before the accession of the National Party to power in 1948. In 1939 the Minister of Education in the United Party government admitted that two-thirds of black children were without any school experience whatsoever.[6] During the war years the government improved the provision of education to blacks considerably, but by 1950 less than half of black children between the ages of 7 and 16 were attending school, and only 2.6% of black pupils were enrolled in post-primary standards. The average black child spent only four years in school.

Among the mission schools there were a few excellent high schools, but, as a historian commented, the renowned reputation of these schools ‘should not obscure the fact that most mission schools were poor primary schools with large dropout rates’ and that the ‘mission system was breaking down at all levels.’[7] With the demand for education growing rapidly, schools had to take in far more children than they could teach effectively.

The state helped by providing salaries for approved teaching posts, but overall state aid was insufficient in a modernising economy. School buildings were dilapidated and classes overcrowded. Most schools were understaffed and there was a severe shortage of competent teachers.

In the mid-1940s both the United Party government and the Natives Representative Council, the main body for articulating black opinion, sensed that the system of black education was in need of drastic overhaul. The main sticking points lay elsewhere. There was firstly the question of funding.

ZK Matthews, the leading black authority on education and a prominent member of the ANC, demanded the modernisation in terms that, implicitly at least, meant apportioning resources for equal educational opportunities. But whites baulked at the expense. RFA Hoernlé, a leading liberal, observed that while a large number of the white voters do not mind  ‘native education’ as such, it would be suicide in most constituencies for a Member of Parliament ‘to advocate, let alone vote for, the proposal that whites should be taxed in order that natives could be educated.’[8]

Another major point of conflict was over the extent to which traditional black culture had to be made part of the school syllabus. Matthews argued for the ‘preservation of the African heritage and for using the powers of the vernacular languages to effect social rejuvenation.[9] Some ANC leaders, however, rejected any ‘Bantuization of native education’. Blacks had to be educated ‘to live side by side with Europeans’.[10] Developing proficiency in English was generally regarded as much more desirable than using the Bantu languages as media for instruction.

In 1954 the government took over the coloured and black schools that the state partly funded and moved control of black and coloured education from the provinces to central government. As part of his ambitious plan to overhaul black education Verwoerd insisted that black education had to be rooted in the ‘native community’. ‘It is in the interest of the Bantu that he be educated in his own circle. He must not become a black Englishman in order to be used against the Afrikaner.’[11]

To the extent that the policy tried to foster different ethnic identities in the black community it was a dismal failure, but that was not the sole rationale of the policy.[12] In , the decades that followed, however, the issues of promoting the Bantustan policy through the education policy and mother tongue education became hopelessly confused.

Both Werner Eiselen who headed the commission that laid the groundwork for Verwoerd’s policy, and Verwoerd himself, firmly believed in mother tongue education as the best form of education  A Professor of Anthropology before he became a chief inspector of native education in the Transavaal, Eiselen had a great respect for the particularity of blacks and genuine concern for the preservation of Bantu language and culture.[13] To him there was little doubt that blacks would learn better through their own languages.

Verwoerd received his secondary school education in the medium of English in Milton Boys School in Bulawayo before enrolling at the University of Stellenbosch. He became the first student in the country to write his doctoral dissertation in Afrikaans. In 1924 he received his doctoral degree, a year before Afrikaans was proclaimed an official language. Afrikaans quickly developed from a low-status language to one that could be used in all walks of life. Afrikaans-speakers, along with English speakers, now began to experience the benefits of what language expert Neville Alexander called “mother-tongue education from cradle to university.”[14]

Bantu education, as introduced by Verwoerd in 1954, entailed the provision of eight years of mother tongue medium education (MTE). In addition well-trained teachers and competent speakers of English and Afrikaans taught these languages as second languages. In the ninth year of school, students were expected to switch to learning through the two second languages, Afrikaans and English.

The department laid down the principle that it would not use African languages as media of instruction in secondary school until the black community requested it. An education advisory council, which was established in terms of the policy, polled the boards of control of black school all over the country to asses their support for different options: It provided the following result[15]:

1 Afrikaans and English 64%
2 Only Afrikaans 5%
3 Only English 31%
4 Mother tongue 1%

The scant support for mother tongue as medium of instruction in the two highest school standards is an important indication the black population – unlike the Afrikaans one – were not convinced of the merits of mother tongue instruction.

Yet Bantu education was not out of line with what many Western scholars regard the best educational practice. Developed countries teach their children in the mother tongue because they are convinced that such a policy is pedagogically much sounder. They also believe that it improves people’s ability to make a contribution to the economy than those taught in a second or third language. Many developing countries, by contrast, tend to use the colonial language of instruction because they believe, incorrectly as it happens, that it is a short cut to a good education and job opportunities.

In South Africa the results of Bantu education between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s was positive, measured by pass rates. Kathleen Heugh, an acknowledged authority on language use in education, writes: “Between 1955 and 1975, there was a steady improvement in the achievement in literacy and numeracy… Eight years of MTE resourced with terminological development, text-book production, competent teacher education and competent teaching of English, resulted in a school-leaving pass rate of 83.7% for African students in 1976. This is the highest pass rate to date.”[16]

One of the reasons for the disastrous downturn in black education after 1976 is the introduction of a policy that limited mother tongue education to the first three years, which is generally accepted as quite inadequate. Heugh concludes: apartheid’s education policy consisted of two phases. The first part, up to 1976, worked to the educational advantage of black students; the second part, from 1976 on, to their disadvantage, with mother tongue education limited to three or four years.[17]

Based on racist assumptions?

Those who charge Verwoerd with implementing a policy with racist assumptions usually base it on a reading of his speech in parliament in 1953 when he introduced the policy. Here Verwoerd attacked the existing policy, which, in his words, showed the black man ‘the green pastures of the European but still did not allow him to graze there’. By that he meant pupils were provided with skills that employers did not want from black workers.

He criticised the existing policy as uneconomic, because money was spent on education with no clear aim. This frustrated educated blacks, who were unable to find the jobs they wanted. He said: ‘Education should have its roots entirely in the Native areas and in the Native environment and the Native community … The Bantu must be 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.’

This comment is quoted in virtually every article on the subject. It is often distorted by quoting only the first part – ‘There is no place for him in the European community above certain forms of labour’ – and by omitting the qualifier that Verwoerd added: ‘Within his own community, however, all doors are open.’ [18]

Today the first part of the quote sounds very harsh, but it was not out of line with existing policy. A study states: ‘The overwhelming demand among urban employers was for workers with basic literacy, who could be employed as unskilled labour. In most cases “tribal labour” was preferred.’[19] There was little demand for blacks who had completed the more advanced standards.

The previous United Party government had also seen little need for the training of large numbers of black artisans for employment in the common area. The policy emphasised the training of whites for skilled labour in the so-called “white areas”. Blacks could only expect to do skilled work in the reserves. In terms very similar to those Verwoerd would use later, the secretary of the Department of Native Affairs told the De Villiers Commission on Technical and Vocational Training in 1947 that ‘the unfolding of extensive government development schemes’ in the reserves would produce a large number of skilled posts.[20]

White supremacy was clearly incompatible with a steadily rising, better educated, urbanized black population moving up to strategic levels of the economy. Recognizing this, J.G. Strijdom, Transvaal NP leader, warned D.F Malan in 1946 that it would be impossible to maintain racial discrimination if the quality of education of the subordinate people was steadily improved. ‘Our church ministers,’ he added, ‘were far too eager to compete with other missionary societies in trying to provide the most education to blacks.’ If the state in the future tried to withhold equal rights from educated people it would lead to ‘bloody clashes and revolutions.’[21]

To put it in non-racist terms, by modernizing the provision of education to the subordinates, however incompletely, the apartheid state ran the risk of sowing the seeds of its own destruction. An opinion survey conducted in 1981 showed that black children’s rejection of segregation steadily increased with higher education levels. About half of the children with only 4 years of schooling said whites could keep their own housing areas and schools, against only a third of those in Standards 7 to 9, and only one tenth of those in Std 10 and higher. See Table 1.[22]

Table 1: Black political responses (%) according to level of education – 1981

Whites can have their own… Std 2 or below Std 3-6 Std 7-9 Std 10 and above
Laws against mixed marriages





Own housing areas





Own schools










Recreation facilities





Transport and Buses





Note: Only percentages accepting segregation are given

Source: Hermann Giliomee and Lawrence Schlemmer, From Apartheid to Nation-building, p.119

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