Friday, February 5, 2010

Why we're here... The state education in South Africa

Hey, this is a group shot from our "Swearing-In" ceremony back in September.

Aren't we a fine looking bunch?

So many have asked: Why are you needed in South Africa? Isn't it a wealthy nation with plenty of resources?


I wondered the same thing. But I've learned.

(I'm getting ready to recklessly spout off, so to any of my fact-lovers, please feel free to correct me at any time!)

In 1994, Nelson Mandela (and others) brought democracy to South Africa. One of his priorities was improving the quality of education for all South Africans. His goal was daunting, when you think of how the South African democracy has come in behind: almost 50 years of Apartheid.

So, from 1948 to 1994, the severity of segregation between South Africans had a huge impact on the education system. Unfortunately, black South Africans were given a very, very low quality education. How low was the quality? The following is from Alistar Sparks' The Mind of South Africa:

Verwoerd explaining to Parliament in 1953:

(Verwoerd served as Prime Minister to South African from 1958 until his assassination in 1966; he is often called, "The Architect of Apartheid)

Education for blacks should not clash with government policy, he said, and should “not create wrong expectations on the part of the Native himself.” Then, he went on:

Racial relations cannot improve if the wrong type of education is given to Natives. They cannot improve if the result of the Native education is the creation of frustrated people who, as a result of the education they received, have expectations in life which circumstances in South Africa do not allow to be fulfilled immediately, when it creates people trained for professions not open to them, when there are people who have received a form of cultural training which strengthens their desire for the white collar occupations to such an extent that there are more such people than openings available.

Blacks inevitably saw this as education for inferiority, and their view was substantiated by the disparity in state expenditure on schooling for the different races. In 1953, the year of the Bantu Education Act, the government spent $180 on each white child in school compared with $25 on each black child. Many of the best black teachers quit rather than participate in an educational system designed, as they saw it, to condition young members of their race for am inferior station in life, and this contributed still further to the decline of black education. This perception of calculated inferiority, indeed of bending young minds to an acceptance of inferiority, made education one of the most explosive grievances in the black community, and it provided the spark for both the 1976 student uprising in Soweto and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the great national convulsion that shook South Africa in the 1980s. (196)

Ok, this kind of sets the stage, huh?

So, when Nelson Mandela (and others) set about to reform the South African education system, they had almost 50 years of extremely low-quality education to deal with and the entrenched mindsets that go along with it. South Africa has had three generations of poor quality teaching in the rural areas of South Africa and the educators teaching in South Africa today (or at least the ones over the age of 30), received the poor-quality training under the "Bantu Education Act."

While the South African Department of Education has developed a very good curriculum (in my opinion), the current educators have had little guidance in implementing it. Most educators seem overwhelmed with the new curriculum, having been "teaching the same way" for 30 or more years, and are reluctant to change. (And who isn't reluctant to change?)

The changes in the education system have proved exceedingly difficult.

Enter Peace Corps.

In the late nineties, Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela worked to bring Peace Corps volunteers into the South African education system to assist South African educators with the new curriculum. And that is why we are here.

For the past ten years, Peace Corps volunteers have been working with the South African education system. My group, however, is the first group allowed to actually teach within the schools. (In former years, the volunteers weren't allowed to teach because the unions argued for South African teaching jobs; now the teacher shortage is in such a crisis that volunteers are allowed to actually teach classes.)

Which is what I'm doing—teaching in South African schools.

When I first arrived in South Africa, I was terrified at the thought of teaching my own classes and hoped to work only as an advisor to the South African teachers in the schools I was assigned. (I’ve taught only on the college level in the States and I chose to work at this level because I suck at classroom management. A roomful of 35 South African sixth graders? NO WAY!)

However, I'd become so frustrated in trying to work with the educators (frustrated in a nice way), that I decided, "What the heck, give me some classes so at least I'll have something to do!" This tactic has worked out well because by actually teaching in the classroom, I've a way to relate with and work with the teachers of my schools.

But my teaching here is not without its frustrations. It is now February 5. Classes actually started on Jan 11 (for the college) and Jan 13 (for the primary school).

The largest frustration is trying to help both the primary school and the college to develop a teaching schedule that serves both, keeps me somewhat sane, and has no conflict. I suggested that I teach at the college in the mornings (so that I could attend the college’s morning staff meetings) and the primary school in the afternoons (so that I could attend the primary school’s afternoon staff meetings).

I want to do after school work with both the college and the primary school, but I thought we could work on that later.

This seemed like a reasonable solution to me. Silly me!

To complicate matters, we were pulled out of school during the second week of school for a Peace Corps training. I taught exactly 4 classes at the primary school before leaving for training. The college, while officially in session, was still registering students.

(In the US, registration for college semesters happens well in advance--like six months! To register for a term in South Africa, you wait until the first day of class, so it seems.)

Before I had left for training, the primary school's teaching schedule had changed at least three times and was in the process of changing again as I left for training.

I hoped things would settle down when I returned. Silly me!

So, I returned to class on Monday, I learned that my half-hour session of 6th grade English at the primary school would be cancelled because of preparation for an "athletics" session to follow on Tuesday. I would have no teaching sessions at the primary school on Monday or Tuesday. (All that planning for nothing.) On the other hand, this would free me for teaching my first class at the college on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, I went to class on time, but none of my students did, a trend that would realize all week.

On Wednesday, I couldn't teach at the college because I was supposed to be at the primary school at the same time. I went to teach two, half-hour sessions of 6th grade English at the primary school. On this day, I brought home with me seventy 6th grade English exams to grade.

I graded 35 of the exams Wednesday night to return to on section of the 6th graders on Thursday, to which I would find that classes were cancelled due to a memorial service.

(While at training, my village suffered a terrible storm with severe flooding. One of our 7th graders drowned while swimming in some of the floodwater.)

And of course, none of my college kids showed up to class on Thursday either.

On Thursday, after the memorial service for the learner that was killed, I went with my colleagues to another educator's house for condolences, as she has lost a grandchild in the night. After this visit, I went home to grade the other 35 exams for my 6th graders.

(Perhaps because I don’t now reside with a South African family, I have yet to attend a funeral service. Most of the other volunteers have witnessed many funerals and tomb-stone unveilings. I have a feeling that in 2010, I will attend more funerals in one year than I have my whole life.)

This morning, Friday, I went to my college class and yet again, no one showed. I hurried to the primary school for my 6th grade class, only to realize that I misunderstood the schedule and I had arrived late and missed a whole period.


Next week is another week.

Ke a leka. (kay uh lay kuh.) (I am trying.)

Soon, Karen


  1. Jason Carter wrote about attending funerals. He was able to participate the same as other members of the community. At the burial site, everyone placed a stone while walking past in a line. After, everyone gathered at the home of the family to eat and pray. Everyone crowded into the main room of the home mostly facing the grieving family members. The community kept coming until the room was getting uncomfortably full for Jason. People were standing and singing and praying as the room became more and more crowded. He found himself swaying with the group which continued to build until he was, at times, lifted off his feet, held in the hot pack of bodies, swaying and singing. I suppose this short passage makes it sound pretty awful, but it was very moving.

    Yes, I think you will attend many funerals. Remember your ocnscious observer and the writer within. You are doing very important work although it sounds frustrating. There are bigger things at work and the volunteers are making a difference. For the better or worse can't be known right now. It's a very large mountain of hate and discrimination you are chipping away at. It took half a century to build with concentrated government effort and momentum and will take a very long time to dismantle. Piece by piece, hopefully, it will get done and you are part of it. We are all watching and supporting you. Keep your chin up.

  2. I like the nation south Africa very much. But i didn't went there. Now, the democracy came to develop the education in South Africa. Ya, its a good thing. Education is must for every person.But the same time the education should be in correct way and it should be clear.