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Decolonization of Education in South Africa

A Basic Education problem.

12 minutes to read
Nastassja Wessels

The decolonization of education in South Africa is something that needs to be tackled, but at the same time is undertheorized, even though current circumstances might stand in between learners and their successful mastery of a subject.

The necessity of change

Modes of learning are idiosyncratic, both socially and individually, through the distinctions culture raises between the cognitive and social characteristics of being human. Culture is considered socially transmitted information entrenched in the human brain (Alvard, 2003), which makes the social environment a pivotal contributor to pedagogy since contexts determine the type of social interaction, such as teaching and learning in the case of education, that humans are engaged in. Although learning is an individual experience, it is initiated and experienced through social interaction (Backus, 2016) and one could therefore infer that when unequal social conditions exist, such as within most postcolonial societies today, the pedagogical process and learning outcome could be affected in an undesirable manner. Conversely, the entrenchment of information through culture, as an implicit form of learning, could be disturbed under favourable conditions, hence certain behaviours and learning outcomes can be lost or unlearned in dysfunctional educational conditions.

Similarly, the historical social inequalities discussed here are entrenched in South African society. The explicit and implicit effects of history on the sociocultural context of South Africa are yet to be detached from material spaces such as the classroom. Affirmative action educator recruitment is still in place officially and there is a serious lack of resources in previously disadvantaged schooling contexts, with collective societal memories not yet free of the complex past. Consequentially, a range of protests about university fees and the unequal social conditions of students have led to a call for the decolonization of education from the #FeesMustFall[1] student movement, as part of a political agenda intent on realising socio-economic change. While this is mostly discussed within the context of higher education, little theorizing is done about the material effects of decolonization on pedagogy, learning and its broader implications on social development, which could improve the post-apartheid education problem in basic education.

Additionally, little has been done to define ‘decolonization of education’ in the basic education context, with the concept being mostly related to higher education, in terms of curriculum changes. This paper argues that instead of decolonization, or a removal of Western or European curricular knowledge constructs, a complete transformation of basic education and pedagogy is necessary for higher education to be affected in succession. A renewed focus on constructivist pedagogy and learning development necessitates an influence on structural change. A demand for the decolonization of education implies that the current education system practices require improvement, otherwise decolonization would merely be a sociopolitical matter. This has led me to ask: why is there a lack of theorizing on the practical outcomes of decolonization of basic education in South Africa?”

Decolonization of education

The logical road to answering this question requires establishing a definition of ‘decolonization of education’. Thus far ‘decolonization’ has had its focus particularly in the political arena where distinctions have been made between two specific paradigms originating from two of the most prolific South African Struggle heroes, i.e. Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko. Within the broader society there exists a struggle between a Mandela, non-racial, all-inclusive paradigm and a Biko, zero tolerance, intentional decolonization paradigm (Wolff, 2016), which ironically continues racial classifications under the guise of seeking justice for past transgressions. This means that distinctions between whiteness, or Eurocentricism; blackness, or Afrocentricism; and others, amongst which Western ideology, are promoted by questioning the origins of curricular knowledge through differentiation, demanding renewed differentiation. Decolonization of education in this way can be seen as a critique of the inclusive, non-racial, multicultural rhetoric propagated by the post-apartheid government under Nelson Mandela. It was seen as simply continuing the heritage of Apartheid principles, rather than necessitating a purge of the harrowing legacy left by an unequal, segregated society, as Biko followers would argue. The Mandela paradigm creates an abstraction of decolonization, while the Biko paradigm puts it into practice, inevitably leading to a homogeneous relation to ‘Africanization’ and little attempt at defining decolonization outside of its political associations. This has led to a lack of definition in practical terms or its implications on educational practices.

Empirical and quantitative studies proving a correlation between decolonization and the problems experienced in South African education, both basic and higher, are yet to be endeavored. For this reason I’ve turned to Ernst Wolff, who in his paper, “Four questions on curriculum development in contemporary South Africa” (2016) tackled the decolonization of philosophy in the higher education context. Despite the specificity of the content, his theories may be flexible enough to approach the broader context of education, especially since he evaluates curriculum design in terms of relevance and applicability. He acknowledges the struggle between unequal social conditions and pedagogy in South Africa, suggesting an end to “self-colonization” (2016, 447) as the inherent post-Apartheid education problem, rather than merely assigning blame to the lack of resources and continuation of Apartheid’s social inequalities. In other words, Wolff’s theories led me to ask the question: why is the focus on decolonizing a curriculum, when it is possible that pedagogy and the teacher’s preconceived notions about learners are the matters that may require decolonization? This is especially evident from his statement “it is not only territories and populations that can be colonized, but all aspect of life, up to and including the mind” (Wolff, 2016, 453), implying that colonization is still committed to the collective memory of South African society.

Wolff also tackles Africanization as a proxy for decolonization by critiquing its normative definitions such as “purifying a curriculum from Western influence” (2016, 454), arguing that it

... should not be understood as mechanically swopping one body of work for another, but as a demanding of intellectual work of (re-)deploying whatever cultural goods we have access to, to the advantage of solving pressing questions of [the African] continent, one of which is decolonization (Wolff, 2016, 454).

The normative definition of the decolonization of education, in particular within higher education, thus conceives knowledge in binary terms: that which is European/ Western and the other, which is African in this particular context. Therefore Wolff argues for heterogeneity of knowledge as ‘whatever cultural goods we have access to’ instead. Essentializing knowledge in binary terms in this way forces us to conclude that decolonization of education is yet to be defined and problematizes Africanization as a proxy. This means that decolonization of education may be subjective and dependent on autonomous socio-economic schooling contexts where more constructivist approaches to education may be necessary to overcome the social realities experienced by learners.

Wolff, considering relevance and applicability to these social realities, concluded “there is no direct correlation between students’ disorientation by study material and the illegitimacy of teaching such material” (2016, 455). However, he did argue that Africanization, ambiguously delivered as a proxy for decolonization, yet as decolonization in action should be “a process of continuous confrontation of curriculum design with the questions relevant to people’s lifeworld [sic]...” (2016, 454 – 455). This echoes Paulo Freire’s ideologies championing social realities as an important factor of successful pedagogy: 

"One cannot expect positive results from an educational or political action program, which fails to respect the particular view of the world held by the people. Such a program constitutes cultural invasion, good intentions notwithstanding." (Freire, 1968)

Education is after all a cultural phenomenon and basic education is one of the initial steps in the life cycle of socialization. 

Ena Lee’s (2015) suggestion that culture is used as a proxy for race has been a naturalized practice in South Africa, which the Department of Education may have legitimated unwittingly. This can be deduced from the continuation of racial inequality, displayed through the poor allocation of resources and Bantu Education[2] tendencies instigated through the lowering of pass rates and difficulty levels of the curriculum specifically designed for the underprivileged groups. However, the Education Department will not admit to this. In my own schooling experience of the public school system in a previously disadvantaged community, subjects such as art and design or computer technology are also not available and learners are therefore unable to pursue careers in these fields. This only continues social inequalities based on race or privilege: the school learners attend determines the subjects they are exposed to and thus their future socio-economic conditions.

Luisa Martín Rojo in her work “The social construction of inequality in and through interaction in Multilingual Classrooms” supports this idea, by characterizing education through valuation as ‘symbolic capital’, raising the importance of schooling or basic education for social mobility:

"... as social institutions that produce and distribute knowledge and other forms of symbolic capital ... schools potentially play a key role in both capacity building and social development and may facilitate individuals’ social mobility... Superiority and inferiority are constructed in terms appropriate to the school and to the dominant culture, as a form of ‘cultural racism’ (Grosfoguel 2003) ... [In this way] education not only plays an essential part in the reproduction of social inequalities, but also naturalizes and legitimates them (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977)..." (Rojo, 2015, 490-492).

This describes the effect of the South African education system in clearer terms, as the vehicle that drives inequality in the broader society by inadvertently creating a ‘knowledge hierarchization’ as described by Rojo: 

"This logic of knowledge hierarchization leads to devaluation of the students’ currently available symbolic capital, since the symbolic capital they possess is not considered adequate and cannot be used in the construction of knowledge." (Rojo, 2015: 498)

If all learners cannot have access to equal basic education, how will society become equal on a socio-economical level? 

Moreover, in light of this pivotal role of basic education, why is decolonization mostly debated in political and higher education contexts, rather than basic education contexts? This is especially peculiar since the causes of unequal social development within an economically unequal society such as South Africa, can be attributed to a dysfunctional basic education system, as Rojo suggests. These are the questions the South African Education Department should invest in tackling if basic education is to be taken seriously as a key factor in social mobility of the underprivileged population.

Basic education and the social construction of inequalities

The Basic Education Department in South Africa sparked uproar upon changing the pass requirement for grade 7 to 9 learners[3] from 40% (40/100) to 20% (20/100). The justification was that some learners would not continue with math from grade 9 to grade 10 and that it would be unfair to hold back these learners from progressing, since Math is a compulsory requirement for advancing to the next grade. This may be true in some ways, but does it fix the learning problem South African learners are facing? I would argue that it does not. A learner may, for example, decide against continuing with math based on reaching only 20%, interpreted as not doing well, rather than their (lack of) affinity towards the subject. This may in turn be a direct result of problematic pedagogical factors influencing the ability to grasp, enjoy and therefore pass the subject. In other words, what is a learners’ affinity for math being measured against, if at all? What if a learner possesses the ability to perform well in math, yet is prevented by a hegemonic psychosocial context, characterized by the ‘colonized mind’ Wolff alluded to before? This ‘colonized mind’ thus prevents teachers of all ethnicities (i.e. South African teachers as a whole) from interpreting learners’ true potential based on their preconceived prejudice towards the lower socio-economic, subaltern group as inferior in intelligence, stemming from the Verwoerdian Bantu Education Act. Teachers’ pedagogical focus thus results in an unequal valuation of their learners, which means their “decisions regarding what will be learned, how and when [...] and [their] understanding of the aims of the program as well as [their] expectations in relation to [their] students” (Rojo, 2015, 493) are affected by their ‘colonized minds’.

Alvard (2003), additionally, provides an argument for the impact of contextual influences on learning behavior by distinguishing between observational learning and local enhancement, the latter being individual learning development through exposure to favorable conditions. This also happens to echo the Applied Sciences definition of ‘culture’, which is the maintenance of tissues, cells, bacteria, amoung other things, in suitable conditions of growth (2017, Wikipedia: “Culture Disambiguation”). We can therefore reason from Alvard’s argument that one cannot rely on one context or condition alone: "Via local enhancement, there is no mechanism for innovations to be incorporated and passed on to others. That is, there is no way for cultural complexity to develop if local enhancement is the sole cultural mechanism" (2003: 137). That is to say, a classroom environment as the sole cultural mechanism for a subject like math, where the power relations are imbalanced or top-down, and the authority of the teacher may negatively influence how the learner receives the information, can lead to obstruction of the learning process. The assumption that learners may not choose to continue with math to grade 10 is flawed with prejudice as Rojo (2015) suggests above.

Some would argue against pass requirements as a measurement of successful learning, and thus support the 20% rate, partially by referring to the issue of standards. It raises questions about what the true ‘standard’ is that institutionalized education should be measured against. In other words, does teaching and learning exist to develop individuals in aid of society or simply to develop individual intelligence? I tend to agree with Ernst Wolff (2016) who, in talking about university education, said:

"The wager of much [...] education is that the world needs, next to so many other valid and important forms of intelligence, through sustained attention to the underlying questions of fields of study, prepare the students for the long-term work of problem-solving in diverse uncertain situations." (Wolff, 2016: 455)

If we consider that the core function of education is to prepare the learner for the realities of the social world, then decolonization of education cannot be approached as the core problem in post-apartheid education in South Africa. In fact, in practice, and in light of what Rojo is saying, decolonization can be seen as more of an abstract pedagogical problem than a practical learning problem.

A tale of two systems

Decolonization of basic education is severely undertheorized within the larger decolonization of education debate. This is mostly due to the gross lack in defining what decolonization of education means, but also since measures such as reducing the pass requirement appear to be the South African Basic Education Department’s solution to correcting the socio-economic educational problems caused by Verwoerd’s Bantu Education Act. Instead of asking why learners have a problem with reaching a higher pass requirement and attributing the problem to teaching and learning methods, the pass requirement is lowered; and instead of correlating decolonization to a learning problem, it is approached in abstract pedagogical terms with a problematical focus on higher education’s politics rather than basic education realities.

The focus on Africanization of the curriculum rather than the ‘colonized minds’ of the educators, places the origins of knowledge in binary terms: European versus African. Instead, applicability and relevance should be acknowledged in a more constructivist approach to pedagogy and learning, since education is a cultural phenomenon. This proves that a decolonization paradigm is subjective and the act of decolonizing education is dependent on autonomous schooling social contexts that will approach the realities of the unequal socio-economic conditions currently characterizing the South African education system. Spaull (2012) would describe this as “A tale of two systems”, which legitimizes inequality in education and leads to an undertheorization of the true practical implications of decolonization of education in South Africa. 


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[1] The Fees Must Fall movement is a student movement that started in 2015, calling for free, decolonized education and the removal of outsourced services from the Higher Education context.

[2] The Bantu Education Act of 1953 was to put “African education under the control of the government and [extend] Apartheid to black schools,” (Overcoming Apartheid: N.D). Hendrik F. Verwoerd was quoted as saying: “There is no place for [the African] in the European Community above the level of certain forms of labour.” (South African History Online: 2016).  

[3] These are learners who turn 13 years old in grade 7, 14 years old in grade 8, 15 years old in grade 9, and 16 years old in grade 10, etc.