Nelson Mandela On Education: the Bantu Education Act 1953 & Its Consequences

“Yet, even before the Nationalists came to power, the disparities in funding tell a story of racist education. The government spent about six times as much per white student as per African student. Education was not compulsory for Africans and was free only in the primary grades. Less than half of all African children of school age attended any school at all, and only a tiny number of Africans were graduated from high school.


Even this amount of education proved distasteful to the Nationalists. The Afrikaner has always been unenthusiastic about education for Africans. To him it was simply a waste, for the African was inherently ignorant and lazy and no amount of education could remedy that. The Afrikaner was traditionally hostile to Africans learning English, for English was a foreign tongue to the Afrikaner and the language of emancipation to us.

In 1953, the Nationalist-dominated Parliament passed the Bantu Education Act, which sought to put apartheid’s stamp on African education. The act transferred control of African education from the Department of Education to the much loathed Native Affairs Department. Under the act, African primary and secondary schools operated by the church and mission bodies were given the choice of turning over their schools to the government or receiving gradually diminished subsidies; either the government took over education for Africans or there would be no education for Africans. African teachers were not permitted to criticize the government or any school authority. It was intellectual “baasskap,” a way of institutionalizing inferiority.

Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd, the minister of Bantu education, explained that education “must train and teach people in accordance with their opportunities in life.” His meaning was that Africans did not and would not have any opportunities, therefore, why educate them? “There is no place for the Bantu in the European community above the level of certain forms of labor,” he said. In short, Africans should be trained to be menial workers, to be in a position of perpetual subordination to the white man.

To the ANC, the act was a deeply sinister measure designed to retard the progress of African culture as a whole and, if enacted, permanently set back the freedom struggle of the African people. The mental outlook of all future generations of Africans was at stake. As Professor Matthews wrote at the time, “Education for ignorance and for inferiority in Verwoerd’s schools is worse than no education at all.”

The act and Verwoerd’s crude exposition of it aroused widespread indignation from both black and white. With the exception of the Dutch Reform Church, which supported apartheid, and the Lutheran mission, all Christian churches opposed the new measure. But the unity of the opposition extended only to condemning the policy, not resisting it. The Anglicans, the most fearless and consistent critics of the new policy, had a divided policy. Bishop Ambrose Reeves of Johannesburg took the extreme step of closing his schools, which had a total enrollment of ten thousand children. But the archbishop of the church in South Africa, anxious to keep children out of the streets, handed over their two hundred thousand African students to the government. If all the other churches had followed the example of those who resisted, the government would have been confronted with a stalemate that might have forced a compromise. Instead, the state marched over us.

The transfer of control to the Native Affairs Department was set to take place on April 1, 1955, and the ANC began to discuss plans for a school boycott that would begin on that date. Our secret discussions among the executive turned on whether we should call on the people to stage a protest for a limited period or whether we should proclaim a permanent school boycott to destroy the Bantu Education Act before it could take root. The discussions were fierce and both sides had forceful advocates. The argument for an indefinite boycott was that Bantu Education was a poison one could not drink even at the point of death from thirst. To accept it in any form would cause irreparable damage.

They argued that the country was in an explosive mood and the people were hungry for something more spectacular than a mere protest. Although I had the reputation of being a firebrand, I always felt that the organization should never promise to do more than it was able, for the people would then lose confidence in it. I took the stance that our actions should be based not on idealistic considerations but on practical ones. An indefinite boycott would require massive machinery and vast resources that we did not possess, and our past campaigns showed no indication that we were up to such an undertaking. It was simply impossible for us to create our own schools fast enough to accommodate hundreds of thousands of pupils, and if we did not offer our people an alternative, we were offering next to nothing.

Along with others, I urged a week’s boycott. The National Executive Committee resolved that a weeklong school boycott should begin on April 1. This was recommended at the annual conference in Durban in December of 1954, but the delegates rejected the recommendation and voted for an indefinite boycott. The conference was the supreme authority, even greater than the executive, and we found ourselves saddled with a boycott that would be almost impossible to effect. Dr. Verwoerd announced that the government would permanently close all schools that were boycotted and that children who stayed away would not be readmitted For this boycott to work, the parents and the community would have to step in and take the place of the schools. I spoke to parents and ANC members and told them that every home, every shack, every community structure, must become a center of learning for our children.

The boycott began on April 1 and had mixed results. It was often sporadic, disorganized, and ineffectual. On the east Rand it affected some seven thousand schoolchildren. Predawn marches called on parents to keep their children at home. Women picketed the schools and plucked out children who had wandered into them. In Germiston, a township southeast of the city, Joshua Makue, chairman of our local branch, ran a school for eight hundred boycotting children that lasted for three years. In Port Elizabeth, Barrett Tyesi gave up a government teaching post and ran a school for boycotting children. In 1956, he presented seventy of these children for the Standard VI exams; all but three passed. In many places, improvised schools (described as “cultural clubs” in order not to attract the attention of the authorities) taught boycotting students. The government subsequently passed a law that made it an offense punishable by fine or imprisonment to offer unauthorized education. Police harassed these clubs, but many continued to exist underground. In the end, the community schools withered away and parents, faced with a choice between inferior education and no education at all, chose the former. My own children were at the Seventh-Day Adventist school, which was private and did not depend on government subsidies.

The campaign should be judged on two levels: whether the immediate objective was achieved, and whether it politicized more people and drew them into the struggle. On the first level, the campaign clearly failed. We did not close down African schools throughout the country nor did we rid ourselves of the Bantu Education Act. But the government was sufficiently rattled by our protest to modify the act, and at one point Verwoerd was compelled to declare that education should be the same for all. The government’s November 1954 draft syllabus was a retreat from the original notion of modeling the school system on tribal foundations. In the end, we had no option but to choose between the lesser of two evils, and opt for a diminished education. But the consequences of Bantu Education came back to haunt the government in unforeseen ways.
For it was Bantu Education that produced in the 1970s the angriest, most rebellious generation of black youth the country had ever seen. When these children of Bantu Education entered their late teens and early twenties, they rose up with a vehemence.

On June 16, 1976, fifteen thousand schoolchildren gathered in Soweto to protest the government’s ruling that half of all classes in secondary schools must be taught in Afrikaans. Students did not want to learn and teachers did not want to teach in the language of the oppressor. Pleadings and petitions by parents and teachers had fallen on deaf ears. A detachment of police confronted this army of earnest schoolchildren and without warning opened fire, killing thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson and many others. The children fought with sticks and stones, and mass chaos ensued, with hundreds of children wounded, and two whitemen stoned to death.”

(Taken from Nelson Mandela’s 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom)

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