The Development and Impact of the Apartheid Curriculum


Taking a step back into apartheid, a lot of the responsibility for the lack of an educational mindset and a culture of learning[1] (This concept is discussed further in Section 5.) among the black community today can be attributed to the Bantu education. Under the direction of the white elite, the goal of native education in South Africa was to impart a white supremacist ideology. At the onset of apartheid, missionary schools, which previously had sought to educate blacks in light of the European model, were shut down and replaced with second-rate public schools, which would serve to educate blacks along their “native” lines. Bantu education was justified by the Dutch governmental spokesperson at the time, Dr. H.F. Verwoerd, who claimed that “There is no place for him [the African] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labor”.[2] Thus, it was the Department of Native Affairs’s responsibility to design an educational trajectory for the blacks that would prepare them for the menial jobs they would assume in the future. According to repressionist advocates, industrial education would be an appropriate subject in the education of a native, just so long as the native did not procure knowledge surpassing that of manual labor. Any skill unable to be defined as menial would place them undesirably in competition with the white man.[3]

The curriculum as designed by the apartheid government had a highly influential hand in the production of unenthusiastic and apathetic students. To begin with, the Bantu curriculum was not designed to provide students in the first years of primary education with a foundation of knowledge that aimed at preparing them for further schooling. Instead, what the apartheid government devised was a curriculum that would mold the black population into future laborers of the white country. Before Bantu education was instituted as a mechanism of oppression, students attending missionary schools received a general education that was not specifically tied to their traditions or Bantu heritage.[4] However, with the formation of the Commission on Native Education (better known as the Eiselen Commission), between 1949 and 1951, any opportunity for blacks to receive a European education was suffocated.[5]

The Eiselen Commission was responsible for developing the guidelines for the creation of native schools, designing the appropriate curriculum, and ultimately, limiting black potential. Overall, the curriculum was devised to “prepare Natives more effectively for their future occupations”[6] and was sufficiently limited and simplified to coincide with the capacity that whites believed blacks held and with the few opportunities blacks were given in their future. The first term of reference established by the commission and which reflected the intent of the government stated that:

The formulation of the principles and aims of the education for Natives as an independent race, in which their past and present, their inherent racial qualities, their distinctive characteristics and aptitude, and their needs under the ever-changing social conditions are taken into consideration.[7]

Thus, the curriculum for blacks must entail their present circumstances and prepare them for their future experiences as subordinates in South African society. As stated in the 1954 Senate Debates:

  1. Education must prepare people [Natives] for their “opportunities in life”, which for Africans was to be in the rural areas and as migrant workers;
  2. Education must instill within Africans that they are not to have equal rights and that their development is to be confined within their own sphere.[8]


Overall, the commission would design an education curriculum that would allow blacks enough knowledge of English and Afrikaans to suit the needs of their white employers (but never enough to be a threat) and would train them in manual skills for their futures in such appropriate fields.[9]

The Bantu curriculum, though argued by its originators to be a benefit for the Bantu, was solely designed to cater to the interests of the white population. History in Bantu schools for example, was not taught as a general discipline but focused only on South Africa and the history of the Natives in the country. “If we [South Africans] are to develop a pride of race in the Natives, not only as preventative for miscegenation with the Whites, but as a basis for the responsibilities of self-government, we cannot afford to omit from our courses of study an account of the history and institutions of the races of South Africa.”[10]

Similarly, courses in citizenship and good conduct were introduced to the Bantu children during their primary years to ensure their understanding of their position in South African society before they dropped out of school. Such social science courses were aimed at teaching black students about their duties, responsibilities, and privileges in the domestic space and in society at large, the authorities who had control over the daily lives of the natives, the laws of the government pertinent to blacks, and, ultimately, how to be a subservient citizen and accept the natural domination of the white population.[11]

While devising the Bantu curriculum, the whites in charge of the commission analyzed the syllabi used by the mission schools in educating the natives and determined that the literary and bookish education they were receiving did more harm than good, for it was ill fit for their futures in either industrial or agricultural fields.[12] As a result manual labor was included into Bantu curricula. In the primary schools, native children were trained in making a product that was useful and ultimately marketable. Courses such as cardboard modeling, gardening, carpentry, rudimentary agriculture, basket making, mat weaving, and brick making were standard training for boys, while girls underwent courses in sewing, needlework, and domestic work. Older students had the opportunity to further their education not in traditional universities but in training schools, where they would be introduced to more industrial training in preparation for their future occupations. For girls this meant training primarily in cooking, laundry work, and sewing, while boys were taught tree-planting, heavier agriculture, road-making, leading water, and carpentry.[13]

While the whites were educating the blacks to be manual laborers who would undertake the menial jobs that whites did not desire, an air of fear grew amongst the white industrial class. If there were to be an influx of black, highly skilled laborers, white industrial employment would ultimately be threatened, for blacks were much less expensive to employ than any white European laborer. Thus, training schools were encouraged to convince their apprentices to return to the Bantu people at the end of their training. Overall, there was a general consensus among whites that although a handful of black artisans would be able to amount to the skills of the white man, this was a rare occasion, and, ultimately, the race could not accomplish this feat, for “their mental and physical limitations, their heredity and tradition, stand in their way, and the Natives do not believe in themselves as the white man does.”[14]

Still the white man’s underlying fear of subordination by an educated black mass resulted in careful restriction on subjects taught in Bantu schools and the depth of information relayed to students. For example, algebra and geometry were seen as unnecessary subjects and were omitted from the curriculum, while geography was retained, but it was taught in such a way that left most black students with only a knowledge of the countries and oceans immediately surrounding them. Geography courses in South Africa began at Standard III with the teaching of the province the students lived in. The syllabus only advanced to the country of South Africa by Standard IV, the continent by Standard V, and the world by Standard VI. Because only a small number of black students matriculated to Standard VI, large numbers of students exiting Bantu schools were left with a very limited understanding of the world around them.[15]

Problems in Bantu schools revolving around the vernacular and the use of the mother tongue and official languages were pertinent to apartheid education as well. At the time of apartheid there were many languages spoken throughout the black community, and each area spoke one of now eleven official languages. By teaching black students through their primary years in their mother tongue, linguistic tribalism would be promoted, which would serve to divide the black community into separate and distinct subsets as opposed to one unified and threatening mass.[16]

The debate over the appropriate time to fully immerse Bantu students into the official languages of English and Afrikaans was long and significant. Ultimately, what the commission understood about using primarily mother tongue instruction was that it would “reduce the horizons of Africans, cramping them intellectually in the narrow bounds of tribal society, and diminishing the opportunity of intercommunication between the African groups themselves and also with the wider world in general of which they formed a part.”[17] Instead of teaching students in Bantu schools about scientific theories and terminology using the English language, for example, the Commission of Native Education established a committee to create words in the native languages (“Bantuize” Western words) to describe such phenomenon and to replace the technical jargon. Many blacks in the country understood, however, that they could not escape the modern world and its vernacular, which the Bantu languages simply were not equipped to cope with, and that they would need a strong understanding of one of the official languages in order to improve their appearances in the work place.[18]

Ultimately, it was decided by 1959 that Bantu primary schools would instruct in the mother tongue from Standards II through Standards IV, and by the late 1960s, this instruction was being pushed into the first half of high school as well. Throughout a child’s primary education, English and Afrikaans were two language courses in the curriculum, until the final two years of high school when they became the languages of full instruction.[19] The change over to the official languages was drastic and choppy, however, where “either the subject concerned could be taught partly in the mother-tongue and partly in the new medium, or a lesson could be taken first in the mother-tongue and then repeated in the new language.”[20] Neither of these methods provided students with a strong grasp of either English or Afrikaans, the two languages that enabled them a sliver of a chance at becoming more successful as future laborers.

What also harmed Bantu students were the teachers and their own poor understanding of English. Prior to 1954, teacher training schools were almost entirely staffed by native English speakers who were responsible for creating strong teachers to be employed in the Bantu schools. After the qualifications for teaching certificates were lowered, the staff in teacher training schools quickly changed and consisted mostly of blacks speaking primarily Bantu languages with a lackluster knowledge of English. Secondary schools were soon staffed with either Bantu-speaking teachers, or Afrikaans-speaking Europeans. Thus in this situation, students were not being fluidly immersed in the English language: “A vicious cycle has been set up… student’s opportunities of learning to use English correctly and fluently as a medium of communication are very much fewer than they were years ago.”[21] All in all, students came out of Bantu schools with little working knowledge of either of the official languages, making it extremely difficult for them to be able to communicate with people and employers outside of their language group.

The Bantu education system diminished the desire to learn in the black community. In the end, what black students were going to school for was to get less than satisfactory instruction on how to be future manual laborers. Though the argument in favor of Bantu education stressed the intent to promote “the needs of the [black] community and the cultural heritage of the people,”[22] critics of the system questioned the need for separate development and pointed out that much of the black population had accepted Westernization as the new ideal way of life and that those blacks living in urban areas were quickly “detribalized.”[23] Blacks who had been educated through mission schools prior to 1953 were strong critics of the new system of Bantu education. They understood the benefits of a sound education like they had received through the British system. To them, it was a vital, if not the only way of advancement and integration: “To them one of the most effective ways of achieving this [integration] is by education—an education essentially in no way different from, or inferior to, that of other sections of the community.”[24] Upon the arrival of a separate, specialized Bantu curriculum, the desire of blacks to learn and expand their opportunities was trampled. They lost interest in education and could no longer see its purpose or potential.



  1. A Culture of Learning is embedded within a society and its corresponding culture and reflects the importance of education within the larger culture. Cultures that value education place high importance on having a sturdy education system and are considered to have strong cultures of learning. Societies with strong cultures of learning involve education in many different realms of society, not just in the school system.
  2. Van Zyl, 12.
  3. Loram, The Education of the South African Native, 19.
  4. Hunt Davis Jr, “Bantu Education and the Education of Africans in South Africa,” 11.
  5. Hunt Davis Jr., 8.
  6. Hunt Davis Jr., 9.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Hunt Davis Jr., 14.
  9. Loram, 97.
  10. Loram, 99.
  11. Hunt Davis Jr., 44.
  12. Loram, 127.
  13. Loram, 154.
  14. Loram, 157.
  15. Hunt Davis Jr., 44.
  16. Horrell, 55.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Horrell, 54-55.
  19. Hunt Davis Jr., 42.
  20. Horrell, 57.
  21. Horrell, 59.
  22. Hunt Davis Jr., 21.
  23. Hunt Davis Jr., 23.
  24. Hunt Davis Jr., 25.


Apartheid Transition Copyright © 2011 by Andy. All Rights Reserved.


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