While studying abroad in the spring of 2010, I had the opportunity to volunteer as a teacher’s assistant in the schools of the Kayamandi township outside of Stellenbosch in South Africa. I worked in both a pre-primary school with approximately 210 students and in a seventh grade after-school program that included approximately 60 students. My observations of the classrooms, including the conduct and interests of the students and the role of the teachers led to a collection of data on the workings of a township school. At the conclusion of my time there, I had compiled an ethnography that was composed of both observations and interactions with the students and teachers, as well as information on teachers’ skills, student conduct, student skill levels, the struggles students face, the way they play, and their interactions with the teacher and assistants.
The observations I made regarding the students’ abilities and the teachers’ methods of teaching in the classroom led me to formulate a hypothesis as to why students were performing so poorly in school. One key experience I had in the grade R (reception year) classroom sparked my interest in the issue of poor outcomes in black township schools. In the Kayamandi pre-primary classroom, much of what the learners were being taught revolved around the writing of letters and numbers. The goal was to have the learners be able to write their names, count the number of objects they saw, and connect the verbal number to the written number. When my fellow teachers’ assistant and I designed lessons, we focused on these two goals and had the students practice writing letters and numbers by first connecting the dots that composed certain letters that formed small words, or that reflected the number of objects they would count on the page. We would then ask the students to copy the letter and or number they had previously traced on an adjacent line. The teacher would first demonstrate to the students by filling out a worksheet herself and then tack it to the wall. The students struggled with connecting the dots in the correct manner and had even more difficulties drawing the letters and numbers without the assistance of the guiding dots. They would easily become frustrated when we would go around to assist them and hold their hands with a crayon to go through the motions of writing. It took the majority of them a good amount of time to complete a worksheet of five or six words or numbers. Most of the time the learners would be in a hurry to complete the activity, hand it in to the teacher who would put their name on it, and go out for recess play. The other assistant and I would check to see that the students had completed their worksheet to the best of their ability before they could go out and play. This often led to quick sloppy work and sometimes tears. Students would frequently hand us their papers to be checked, only to be disappointed that they had to sit down and work more on their writing.
Observing the teacher’s activities, the ways in which she conducted the class, and the papers she handed back to the learners gave me an understanding as to why the students had such a nonchalant work ethic. Generally, the teacher would collect the papers her students handed her without examining the work or reviewing it with the student and let the student out to recess. She also assigned them a large number of coloring worksheets that required little to no technical practice or thought. When they did not spend the day coloring, the teacher would sing with the students, read to them, have short lectures, and allot time to play. Using observations such as these, I will compare what occurred in the classroom with lesson plans and standards devised by the local board of education. I will also attempt to explain why the teachers I encountered were more like babysitters than educational instructors, and why daily lessons were so weak pedagogically.
My evaluation of the influences on primarily black, public school outcomes is based on both archival research as well as personal observations made while working in the school system of the Kayamandi township. I also consulted statistical reports comparing the outcomes of public/private and previously black/white schools, the funding provided for public post-apartheid schools, and the effects of the new educational policies set forth by the government. Existing research on the effects of poor government policy, inefficient resource allocation, and teaching credentials will also be considered in the process of uncovering the deeper cultural influences of poor outcomes in the township education system.
The country of South Africa suffered nearly five decades of apartheid rule. During this time, the black population felt a tremendous amount of oppression in all aspects of their lives as the white minority, specifically the ruling Afrikaans population, sought to subjugate the natives and marginalize them in society. The Bantu Education Act of 1953 established a system of education for the natives that can be credited with the lack of an educational mindset among black South Africans. Under the direction of the white elite, the goal of native education was to impart a white supremacist ideology.
The submissive education that was laid out for the natives of the country established an irrepressible trajectory that has been difficult to shake even after apartheid has ended. African parents and teachers were educated under white supremacy and know little more than what they were taught and what they experienced. As a result, the method of teaching Africans that was constructed during apartheid remains in public schools today. 
As apartheid has been over for more than fifteen years now, a transition is underway to accommodate the previously disadvantaged peoples in South African society. The new government, the African National Congress (ANC), came into power in 1994 and immediately set on a mission to paint over the segregated system that the apartheid rulers had so thickly applied in South Africa. One area identified as needing improvement was the post-Bantu education system in the public and still primarily black schools in the prominent township communities. These schools have notoriously produced poor passing rates, high dropout rates, low assessment scores, unprepared students, and overall dismal outcomes.
Overall, the ANC was focused from the start on improving the country’s economic standing and status in the international realm and saw education as a way to foster the economy and a promising future from the roots. The British system of education became the model for the post-apartheid curriculum – the lifeline that would rescue South Africa (along with primarily black schools) from her history and her troubles. In an effort to dissolve the once discriminatory system, the ANC has poured excessive funding into the development of previously black schools and has implemented numerous policies to correct the dismal assessment results being generated there. Despite these efforts, outcomes from previously black schools in terms of assessment, competency, and overall matriculation rates have been relatively static.
- In South Africa it is standard to categorize someone by the color of their skin, thus black, white, and colored, (a mix of races including black, white, and Asian ancestry), will be used to appropriately talk about each group of people. ↵
- Afrikaans refers to the Afrikaans-speaking segment of the population who are descendents of the Dutch settlers and who are the primary architects of apartheid. ↵
- “Native” is an early term used for the black Bantu population. The Bantu tribes spread across South Africa before the whites came to colonize the country. ↵
- Low, “Education for the Bantu: A South African Dilemma,” 21-27. ↵
- The phrase, “primarily black,” and “primarily white” will be used frequently when discussing types of schools in the country. Though apartheid ended and desegregation occurred across the country, there is still a division between the races when it comes to schools. Whites typically attend private schools or public schools in generally white areas, while public schools in townships consist primarily of all black students. ↵
- Van Heerden, “Black University Students in South Africa: The Influence of Sociocultural Factors on Study and Performance,” 51. ↵
- During apartheid, segregation of school resulted in strictly black schools. After the end of apartheid these schools, though still primarily black, are now considered previously black schools due to the abolition of segregation. ↵
- Johnson, “Education: Keystone of Apartheid,” 214-237. ↵