Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Apartheid nostalgia, education and agency

By Athambile Masola

The media coverage about the shambolic state of education in South Africa (with a recent focus on the Eastern Cape) is disturbing. The views vacillate between inspiring hope for change and declaring doom over the future of the thousands of young people whose right to basic education is being flouted in the majority of poor schools and who will emerge from their classrooms with a substandard education.

The most disturbing views have been from respected public intellectuals such as Professor Jonathan Jansen and Dr Mamphela Ramphele. Both have drawn parallels between the apartheid education system as well as the current education system. Dr Ramphele was harangued when she made the statement about the current education system being worse than the apartheid system. Recently, Professor Jansen declared that the implications of the current system of education will make the 1976 uprising look like a picnic when young people become “gatvol” with the lack of quality education. These views are valid given the statistics and stories about education (those in the media and those which remain untold). The reference to apartheid in relation to the education system draws my attention to democracy and what it means for education.

Apartheid education successfully oppressed and placed limitations on black people for generations. Education in a democratic dispensation was meant to do the opposite: it was meant to liberate South Africans through access to quality education. This is not happening. As it was during apartheid, chaos still reigns in many schools where teaching and learning do not happen, thus jeopardising the development of children and communities. Our current education system further entrenches the grave social inequalities we see in South Africa where those with money and social capital can enroll their children in privileged schools.

However, as someone of the born-free generation who has chosen the teaching profession, I am filled with dread when I contemplate what education means in our not-so-new-democracy. Without a functioning education system for the majority of the people in this country, it seems that democracy is undermined. If the current system is worse than apartheid and we are doomed to repeat the 1976 uprising, what does this suggest about the possibility for change for a generation of people with the promises of democracy ensured to us? The agency of young people who are black, poor and receiving a poor education is being undermined because the only recourse available, according to Professor Jansen, is revolt and mayhem instead of creating other opportunities for themselves as citizens of a democracy.

If we accept this, then democracy is only meaningful for those who are privileged, educated and the lucky few who make it through a poor education in spite of the poor education they have received. This is the minority of the population. We need to shift the conversation about education where young people are constantly victims of the vagaries of the government’s failure to improve education. How do young people confront the obvious challenges without being overwhelmed by a future of destruction?

There has been little focus on young people and their perceptions of the role they can play in rectifying the mistakes of the past. Where it has happened, many of my peers are content with climbing the corporate ladder, but for the majority, this option is not available. One of the principles we take for granted in our democracy is the extent of civic involvement and what this really means for education and the future of this country. Young people are afraid of being seen as activists, but this seems to be one of the available solutions.

The idea of young people who lack agency while waiting for “Mr President” to solve their problems (as is the case in the Eastern Cape) is not sustainable for the future of this country. Activism need not simply be about making a noise, but it is the principle of “making the circle bigger” by using the resources available to create the opportunity for change.

I recognise that the option of being an activist is mostly available for people who have resources and social capital, but volunteering in a school requires time. Reading to a primary school learner simply requires time and the ability to read; mentoring a high school learner requires time and knowledge, but the point is that this is achievable and not mutually exclusive with the reformation that is needed in order for bigger change.

Athambile Masola is a teacher at a high school in Cape Town.

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    • Humble Bee

      What you are doing is the first step – as a committed teacher who is asking these questions. Eevery teacher like you is a hero and the leaders of the solution to this terrible problem.

    • RogerP

      I think it’s dishonest to use the word nostalgia in the heading because the word means a yearning for the past, something I am sure neither Dr Ramphele nor Prof Jansen support.

      That said, I agree with the notion that democracy is meaningful only for the privileged, educated and lucky few. In other words, the new elite are the real beneficiaries; everyone else remains a victim.

      If you take Moletsi Mbeki’s thesis in “Architects of Poverty” as correct, the new elite have just adopted the old institutions of apartheid. That system required a pool of cheap, uneducated labour.

      That so little progress has been made in 18 years suggests that this is deliberate, if unspoken, policy. I find it difficult to believe that there is nobody within the orbit of the ruling party who can tackle this problem.

    • Khethelo Xulu (UCT)

      A good article Athambile,

      Indeed active citizenry is not only about making noise but its about opening a space to help others, it can be about giving a necessary information and motivating young people not to fear to take chances and work hard. As you say ” I recognize that the option of being an activist is mostly available for people who have resources and social capital, but volunteering in a school requires time. Reading to a primary school learner simply requires time and the ability to read; mentoring a high school learner requires time and knowledge” This is also what I used to tell people, We can always complain about resources and government not delivering but do we all play our part where we can?

      South Africa will be a better country, if you and I have play a role to shape our country not only criticizing while nothing we do. That is why some of us are having initiatives such as Dikakapa-Everyday Heroes [ D-EH] (Western Cape), Magaeng Developers for Science and Engineering [MDSE] (Mpumalanga and Kwa-Zulu Natal), and Bumbanani Youth For Social Change [BYSC], these initiatives are intended to ignite the dream of young stars in our impoverished rural areas and Township schools. Its about just sacrificing your time and help in our communities, You too and you do something for our country to move forward.

    • MLH

      Interesting column.

      I would have preferred to learn something of your own story. With all that is currently said about the teaching profession (lousy salaries, incompetent teachers) what made you decide it is important to make your mark in the classroom?

      Most children who opt for your career have had shining role models in the field and we hear too little from teachers and schools that are making it work for pupils.


    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The problem is Outcomes Based Education which is project based and can’t be done by children on their own as can textbook based education – which is why it was scrapped in both Canada and Australia long before the ANC introduced it and stubbornly persisted in the teeth of all the evidence.

      We are now where Zimbabwe was 20 years ag0 – when they were saying “things were better under Ian Smith than under Mugabe” and “Mugabe is getting bad advice…, Mugabe can’t know…”

      We have “education was better under apartheid”, “the police service was better under apartheid” “hospitals were better under apartheid”, and

      “Mandela is too old…” “Mandela does not know…”

      (ref: “African Laughter” by Doris Lessing.

      And for interest sake who pays for your education scholarship – Cecil John Rhodes or Nelson Mandela? I never understood how that combination legally was allowed, considering the terms of Rhodes’. will.

    • Matthew Beetar


      This is taken from the Mandela Rhodes Foundation website (

      In an address at Westminster Hall, London, on July 2 2003, The Mandela Rhodes Foundation’s Patron, Mr Nelson Mandela, said:

      ‘We have agreed to and support this joint initiative believing that the bringing together of these two names represents a symbolic moment in the closing of the historic circle … We know with confidence that the work of The Mandela Rhodes Foundation will substantively contribute to a better life for the people of South Africa and further abroad on the African continent … It speaks of a growing sense of global responsibility that in this second century of its operation the Rhodes Trust finds it appropriate to redirect some of its attention and resources back to the origins of (its) wealth.’

    • africalover

      You have a point of course but it is high time one alights from high horses.
      That too many schools dispense poor quality education in SA is undisputed, and that all pupils should receive decent education as well. But we should be aware that when quality education is broadened, this will in no way equate with a rewarding job for all educated in the present economic dispensation – unless we go for Peruvian armies, which is not sustainable. Companies need more than say HR managers or even computer experts, they need general workers, even cleaners. And, as a society, we need peasants and farmers and possibly nannies, not to mention personal in state services.
      There is nothing shameful in those jobs. What is needed is to guarantee decent living conditions for all working by reducing the huge gaps between salaries and fostering social redistribution systems.

    • Lennon

      Out of curiosity: When anyone makes the statement that apartheid education was better what is meant by this?

      Are they not referring to specifics of the education system such as the ability to comprehend something like basic maths?

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      Apartheid education was text book based with qualified teachers. The new education system is project based and the new teachers are “workers” not professionals. The ANC forceably retired many of the trained white teachers.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Matthew Beeter

      What does all that gobbledygook actually mean?

      Cecil John Rhodes was a “capitalist” and an “imperialist” and he left ALL his money, every penny of it, to charity and the people of SA on specific terms when relating to bursaries. Have the specifications been changed? Has Mandela put in more money?

      What people forget about “capitalism” is that the biggest philanthropists in the world are the richest capitalists – but even Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie did not leave ALL their money to the people.

    • http://[email protected] athambile

      @Lennon:good question.i’ve thought about that too and i’m at a loss.the issue would need a blogpost of its own because there structural and ideological issues about apartheid education being “better” and particular for which race group this refers to.hence the dig at the idea of nostalgia-for previously white schools,it’s been business as usual except there aren’t as many slices from the pie because the education of the majority is supposed to be going to poorer [email protected]:i think the issue with the options you pose(where people can be cleaners and nannies)is the idea of much choice do people have in the opportunities they get to either be an engineer or a nanny?currently,it seems that people who opt for low income and low skill owrk is because of the bad education they have received which has limited their [email protected]:my story is quite simple-i went to a really great school(a bubble really),but came from a rocky family,but because of the school i went to,i felt i had choices and i chose to be a teacher so i could be the kind of teacher my teachers were.and i’ve been lucky with getting a post in a new school without the backlash of “fomer model c” or “previously disadvantaged” so i don’t feel too compromised in my decision.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Blacks got the same basic education as whites on the same textbooks and curriculum under apartheid at junior school, but at senior school they did not get maths and they got trade orientated subjects – to become carpenters, engineers, cooks, shefs etc etc (exactly the jobs that now amke money!)

      What blacks wanted was the same academic stream. What both blacks and whites got was an inferior curriculum and system which no child without the home help of an educated adult can do. The projects need adult supervision and access to magazines, books, libraries, internet or enclyopedias to complete.