Implications of Township Culture on Education


Significant research has not been conducted in the townships of South Africa on the cultures within the domestic space and the community; however, my research thus far has directed my hypothesis to this area: the townships and the domestic places that surround the poorly functioning public schools. Theory often used to explain lackluster educational systems points to the culture that encompasses it. The establishment and importance of a culture of learning has its cultural ties. Patterns have arisen that point to rote learning, poor teaching skills, low morale, and the learning conditions in schools as leading causes for high percentages of dropouts and failures in South Africa. The relationships between those who impart knowledge (teachers and parents) and the learners must also be considered. Overall, relationships and the sharing of educational practices and beliefs are what construct much of an individual’s culture and a community’s culture of learning.

Culture, when defined as “consisting of shared ideas, which are learned and affected by experience and which constitute a system of knowledge expressed in social interaction and in patterned behavior,”[1] is easily applicable to the individual as opposed to a society at large. Jack R. Rollwagen, a cultural anthropologist who specializes in world poverty and economic underdevelopment as well as world system analysis, and the founder of the academic journal, “Urban Anthropology,” has developed a relative and unique theory on what constitutes culture. According to him, there is no truth to the idea of a “society” where members share a culture, follow similar trajectories, and interpret the everyday using the same thought patterns. Instead, his theoretical approach to explaining the individual’s position in a larger social body is based around the concept of personal relationships. He understands individuals as creating their own unique culture based on their individual relationships, the sharing of ideas in these relationships, and the application of these ideas in their lives.

Analyzing cultural pluralism (the notion that minority groups hold on to their independent cultural traditions) in a complex society helps to explain Rollwagen’s theory of human relationships and individualistic definitions of culture. Cultural traditions are thought by many anthropologists to be implanted in different “fields of activity” in the social world.[2] Individuals take up certain positions and hold distinct relationships in each field; however, these “fields of activity” are all interlaced. They are also all “fields of social interaction,” where individuals form bonds with others in that particular field and share ideas and form beliefs revolving around the network’s activities. The ideas thriving in these small units of correspondence thus form a cultural facet, which subsequently fits among the other pieces of one’s culture that is defined by alternative “fields of activity and social interaction” that the individual is involved in. In the end, each individual’s idea of culture is composed of different sets of shared beliefs that have been determined by their specific sub-groups of society.[3]

Education is not high on the list of values in the black community. The African community of South Africa is a complex social structure with a culture composed of many interconnected fields of activity, each defined by both Western ideas and by indigenous traditions. To begin to understand the position of education in the structure of black society, the valued fields of social interaction must first be defined. Current research on these fields have highlighted the following as being most pertinent to the lives of the black community: the fields of domesticity, the community, kin, politics, occupation, religion, ancestral practices, and tradition.[4] In these valued fields of activity, education does not appear.

The low value of education in black culture is evident in the poor culture of learning both in the home and at school. Such features include: poor attendance, high dropout rate, unenthusiastic teachers, low moral and an absence of inspiration, and extremely dismal assessment results, matriculation results and outcomes overall.[5] Looking at this long list of visible evidence occurring in primarily black schools, I ask what has the biggest influence over these unattractive features and poor outcomes? As mentioned previously, governmental and social policy has some effect on the workings of these schools, but when these two factors are being adapted and amended and outcomes are not changing accordingly, then there must be another influence at play.

Based on the definition of culture adopted from Rollwagen, blame for students’ poor performance, lack of interest, and low matriculation rates must be placed on those responsible for imparting and promoting a culture of learning among the youth. Thus, in the field of education, where the values of effort, diligence, and curiosity are typically stressed, the teachers and parents of the black education system are falling short and are doing little to foster these qualities in their students and children. Overall, it is my argument that the persistent poor outcomes of primarily black schools in South Africa are the responsibility of school administration, teachers, and parents – those responsible for imparting knowledge and building a culture of learning.

Though Rollwagen’s theory identifies culture as unique to each individual, people are involved in similar social groupings; thus, it is typical that a community will share similar beliefs. During apartheid, the black population of South Africa banded together to foster black consciousness and to fight for black empowerment. During this time, a strong system of beliefs and ideas, including black empowerment, civil rights, and equal opportunities resonated throughout most of the black fields of activity, creating a powerful new culture for the black community. Education was hit hard during the apartheid struggle. The black culture of learning, already weak because of indigenous values[6], was broken down even further as learners resisted both authority and the Afrikaans apartheid education system.[7]

Hostility to white authority served as a guiding device for blacks as they began to redefine their culture, for themselves, by themselves, and unique to themselves. This ideology was central in each field of black life, and it was consistently passed from relationship to relationship and became ingrained in the culture of each individual. It is also worth mentioning that during this period of heightened “black consciousness”, the community and the family became even more important in black society; thus the sharing of belief systems, frustrations, and ideas (among many other things) was constantly being transferred from one member to the next. At the end of apartheid, the values established by the family and the community would have a drastic impact on an individual’s perspectives and actions. Consequently, because parents and learners had challenged education and the authorities in the school system for some time, a passive attitude towards education became culturally defined, and a cycle of uninterested and apathetic students was initiated.

Political and social history throughout apartheid was not the only factor that produced apathetic students, however. The culture of the domestic space, the attention parents place on education outside of the classroom, and what is valued (over education) within the black community must also be looked at. Little research has been conducted on this potential factor, and a detailed ethnography of the culture within the home and the values of township communities will have to be obtained in order to fully flesh out this hypothesis. In the meantime, recorded personal accounts from township inhabitants for various other studies have been examined in the search for general values within the domestic space that could point to the casual neglect of education in the black community.

Through these accounts it is revealed that mainly women run the domestic and community fields of the township. This system is linked with past and present migrant labor systems where men were and still are separated from their families in order to pursue a low-paying job in, for example, either a factory, a mine, or at a farm.[8] The Bantu linked womanhood to caring for and sustaining the family, not to earning a wage, and while men were gone, women were responsible for building the community and fulfilling community needs. While manhood was once linked to being a provider, it is now linked to the number of sexual partners one man has: “manhood connected to a man as a head of household is disappearing and being replaced by other values, where the man as lover with many girlfriends, isoka, has become confirmation of manhood.”[9] In general, Bantu men found work hard to come by and would neglect unpaid work and care of the family for fear of further losing their manhood.

Still today, women in the township lack the steady and reliable assistance of men and are often stuck maintaining the household and caring for many children (including many times foster children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews) by themselves. Motherhood is highly valued within the township community; however, the domestic space in which women are so dedicated does not cater well to the needs of a primary or secondary school student. One of the biggest issues students face at home is the lack of a quiet place to study and to complete their assignments. The small shack is most often always crowded, and sources of light are insufficient. In addition to the unfavorable setting, when students get home from school their primary responsibility is not to their studies but to their domestic duties, and they are called upon by their mothers to assist with chores and the care of younger children.

Furthermore, women in the townships are of little help when it comes to assisting their children with schoolwork. Women who were educated during apartheid (up until 1994) underwent a very domestically-centered education where curriculum focused on sewing, cooking, and other household duties. Thus, the schoolwork and subjects their children are bringing home are beyond their mothers’ academic level. Women in the townships also have little faith in the benefits of having a sound education. The economy in South Africa is not conducive to employment at the present time, let alone to blacks with a secondary education under their belts; therefore, women would rather have their children help them at home and with the younger children than support an endeavor that seemingly does not produce significant results.

This unsupportive environment has notably affected township children as students. Under their mother’s guidance, children are taught to be quiet and respectful of their elders. They are expected to fulfill the duties asked of them, and any questioning is frowned upon. This translates negatively in the classroom: “Pupils were not encouraged to ask probing questions or to query issues. When pupils asked questions, they were sometimes told, ‘Don’t be clever from the bush.’”[10] Children learn primarily from observation and imitation rather than query and use participation in daily activities and tasks of the black community as the basis for their education. Questioning is not encouraged, and children often fear the reprimand they would receive for disrespecting their parents. Similarly, parents refrain from questioning their children as well, and they do not see the point of testing their children on comprehension of lessons, or mastery of the material they are learning. Parents instead base their child’s growth on real-life experiences within the fields of activity prominent in the community. Unfortunately, there are few events that children are exposed to that fall outside of typical duties and daily activities and that provoke them and stimulate their interest.[11] All in all, students receive little support and motivation outside of the classroom, resulting in a flat education where they accept the facts they are given and the experiences they have at face value; their education is based on the values instilled by a cycle of poorly-educated and apathetic parents who were raised in the same manner.

In U.S. inner city schools a poor culture of learning is also established in the home and is reflected in student work ethic and intellectual understanding. Severe behavioral problems and high dropout rates can be traced back to students’ parents and the lack of parental participation in fostering a culture of learning beyond the classroom. Misbehavior in inner city schools is frequently linked to the loss of family structure, poverty surrounding the family and community, violence, and low expectations, encouragement, and desire. Students are growing up in neighborhoods ridden with gangs, drugs, violence, and with parents who “have little hope of obtaining employment that will provide more than the barest of necessities and minimal, if any, heath-care.”[12] Children in these circumstances have other things to worry about besides their schoolwork. They are ultimately being burdened with the larger problems of their parents and the welfare of their family.

Setting a cycle of hostility towards education, parents who are unemployed and unable to provide for their children lose faith in the benefits of education. Inner city adolescents, ”live in communities in which the rhetoric that stresses education as the route to mobility is subverted by daily evidence to the contrary,” where parents, relatives, and neighbors are jobless and in poverty, and are demonstrating that education is not a guarantee for a good job and a secure future.[13] Thus students surrounded by these conditions know that going to school will not ensure a future free of struggle, and they avoid the insecurity of the situation by dropping out of school early, confirming joblessness. They then choose to follow paths they are more familiar and comfortable with, on the streets and with gangs where affirmation and acceptance offers them a sense of worth. [14]

Reminiscent of South African black males, men in inner cities of the United States who are unemployed may feel deprived of their manhood because of their inability to provide financially for their families. Acting as a caregiver to their children would not serve to enhance their shrunken feelings of masculinity; therefore, they are not dedicated or reliable father figures. As in the townships, men are not stable characters within the household, and mothers are left to be the main caregivers with a different male partner frequently flowing in and out of the home.[15] Mothers are often times young dropouts as well, who have children as a way to feel worth, and they are unable to provide a suitable culture of learning for their children when the time comes.

Parents in these circumstances may lack expertise or knowledge as to how to help their children, but there is little evidence that they do not care. However, both their lack of expertise and their lack of suitable circumstances for promoting the children’s educational development, means that the expectations which schools should have about the possibility of home support must be realistically based.[16]


Opposition to education is also fostered by African American parents who believe that education strips their children of their customs and culture, and replaces the black in them with white: “He or she must learn to think and act white… a minority person must give up his own group attitudes, ways of thinking and behaving, and, of course, identity… a subtractive process.”[17] African American inner city parents often believe that schools are biased in the curriculum and that teachers and administration fail to understand black children and what their educational needs are. With this fear lurking among parents, children often oppose the efforts of teachers, the rules, and school in general in order to hold on to their roots and avoid a disconnection with their community. All in all, “These ambivalent attitudes toward education have made it difficult to adapt and succeed in educational settings.”[18]

A culture of learning outside of the school is just as vital to a student’s educational growth as is the experience within the classroom. Parents of students in both South Africa’s townships and in inner city U.S. schools may want nothing more than for their children to have a strong education that will help them hold a decent job and will provide for them in their futures. Upward mobility within society through the means of a solid education is not just a myth, and parents know that this credential is mandatory if they desire a better life for their children. What parents do not understand, however, is that a sound education must continue outside the classroom as well, and that schools are not the only agents of change. In order to improve student outcomes in township and inner city schools, a culture of learning must be cultivated, beginning inside the home and with the family.



  1. Van Heerden, 52.
  2. Loram, 109.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Van Heerden, 54.
  5. Steyn, “School Management in South Africa,” 100.
  6. These values do not coincide with traditional Western ideas of education but rather familial relationships, domestic responsibilities, and skills of labor and craft.
  7. Van Zyl, 14.
  8. Bak, “Townships in Transition: Women’s Caring Keeps the Township Together,” 258.
  9. Bak, 259.
  10. Van Heerden, 64.
  11. Van Heerden, 60.
  12. Singiser, 171.
  13. Yeo, 57.
  14. Yeo, 31.
  15. Johnson, Failing School Failing City: The Reality of Inner City Education, 46
  16. Quinton, 65.
  17. Yeo, 56.
  18. Yeo, 57-58.


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


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *