Education – An Example of the Class Struggle in South Africa

As an expat living in South Africa, you cannot escape daily images of the stark contrast between rich and poor. You will cruise comfortably in your big car past lines and lines of people patiently waiting for a minibus taxi they will be crammed into 15 apiece. You will drive by the shacks of Diepsloot on the Northern outskirts of Johannesburg and marvel how so many people can live on such little land, often using homemade building materials for their makeshift shelters, feeling slightly guilty about your spacious, walled-in home with manicured lawns and a swimming pool.

But I just came across another, more subtle example of this divide, highlighting the still deplorable state of education in this country.

It is the story of my domestic’s son, let’s call him Themba for “hope.” (You might recall that I named my domestic Sibusiso for blessing, but it turns out I picked a male name – I am hereby rechristening her Sibongile for “we are thankful”). Sibongile had been ecstatic about a month ago, when she showed me a text message she got from the local high school in her township, informing her that Themba was admitted to grade 12. Although born here to South African parents, he had been educated in Zimbabwe and completed school there last year, returning to Johannesburg in hopes of further education. His best avenue on that path, Sibongile had decided, was to repeat the last grade here to improve his grades and gain a modest scholarship or “bursary” to what I imagine is some kind of community college. But the school here wouldn’t take him last year without a report from the Zimbabwe school, which that school was late in issuing. So he spent an entire year, essentially doing nothing, waiting to be readmitted to school. Which Sibongile’s text message said he was, as of last month.

She went out and bought his uniform and supplies, happily sending him off to his first day of school yesterday. Not an hour later, he called, telling her that he was sent home because the school didn’t have the transcript from the previous school. This already got me going – what kind of a school official sends a student home over missing paperwork? Paperwork, mind you, they should already have in their records? Surely they should have made sure the paperwork was in order before the first day of school, and before sending a message of acceptance. But this is South Africa. I won’t even say “this is Africa,” because bureaucratic stupidity seems to be a hallmark of South Africa alone. As there was nothing to be done, Sibongile and I set off in my car to retrieve the missing record from her house. Taking the taxi would have taken much longer, so I offered her the ride and perhaps some moral support. Nothing irks me like being told “it can’t be done.” We found the record, drove to the school, Themba in tow, took note of the long line of other parents waiting in the front office, and walked straight to the window. A brief conversation in Zulu followed, the record was looked at, stapled to Themba’s file, and he was told to report back to a certain teacher. Problem solved, right

Children in Diepsloot near Johannesburg, South Africa
Children in Diepsloot

But I should have known better. Not an hour after we returned, Themba had been sent home again, this time because the provided record was “insufficient.” As by now the school day was close to being over, Sibongile decided to go back to her house after work (she lives with us during the week) so that she could show up at the school in the morning to sort things out. I chastised myself for not being more assertive on her behalf. I should have insisted on speaking to the headmaster right there, instead of taking the filing of the document as an affirmation. I now remember even looking at the record in question myself, and having my doubts. It was a thin sliver of paper, listing a school name and some subjects marked either “ordinary” or “ungraded,” the latter turning out to be a more flattering version of “failed.” This, Sibongile assured me, was mainly due to almost an entire year worth of teacher strikes in Zimbabwe, so that the students couldn’t sit for their exams. Also, there was no mention of the subject of math at all. However, all these complications didn’t seem insurmountable, and I had full confidence that by today everything would be back to normal.

As of now, the situation is this: The school insists that it cannot place “overage learners” into a grade if there is no record of their prior achievement. Since Themba’s record does not list the actual grade level he completed, it is not sufficient. The fact that he is only overage (19) because the school didn’t admit him last year, but assured him he would be taken this year if his record was produced, and that he was officially accepted into this school months ago, making his mother believe everything would be fine, doesn’t seem to have any bearing, even though it seems grossly unfair. This is what Sibongile found out this morning. She has lost all her defiant battle spirit from yesterday, telling me that “all the joy has gone” from her. Themba is at home, devastated, and the only course of action seems dubious at best: A sister knows of an affordable private school who might take him, allowing him to accumulate a record, which he could a few months from now hopefully use to transfer back to the (free) township school he wants to attend.

I wasn’t going to give up that quickly. After all, I’ve passed my apprenticeship in South African bureaucracy by my dealings with Eskom.  So I picked up the phone and asked my way through to who I think is the principal of the school in question (not an easy feat in and of itself, since the school has no landline and cannot be found in any phone book, a single cell phone carried along hallways of screaming students its only connection to the outside world). He basically confirmed the story and, when I wasn’t giving up easily, got hostile and just hung up on me. 

Since then, I’ve been busy. I’ve called the Gauteng Department of Education, all ten numbers, to no avail. Voice mail, then more ringing, but no one picking up. What kind of country is this? An entire provincial government department that cannot be reached?  I sent them an email, which I have no hopes of ever being answered. I then sent a letter to a newspaper, the Mail and Guardian, and I called another newspaper, the Star, where I was advised to keep calling the education department and that they might print a story if I continued to get nowhere. Something at least. So I continued to call my list of 10 numbers, and after another hour of this succeeded in getting a live (live!) person on the line. She wasn’t the right one, of course, but I tried to keep her on the phone as long as possible to extract the most amount of information possible, knowing I would never get such a chance again. She gave me three names and numbers, all of which were either wrong or landed me in voice mail. You get the picture. I’m not going to go into more detail, but I spent the last two hours calling the most improbable numbers and speaking to the most unhelpful people, who essentially gave me the runaround between the school, the district office, and the department of education. Each one is insisting that the other is in charge, and I have accomplished nothing. And I’m going to venture onto politically correct thin ice and admit that after all these calls I caught myself perking up when a new contact didn’t have an African name. But I did track down a person who claims she will handle an appeal if I fax her the questionable report so that she can examine it. However, that document is now en route with Themba and Sibongile’s sister to God knows where, and of course a copy doesn’t exist.

With nothing else to do at the moment, I cannot help but reflect on the lessons from this. Sure, the school officials are being needlessly rude and indifferent, but they might not act entirely out of line. There probably are rules concerning overage learners, and even though somebody dropped the ball and left this poor family hanging, they can not simply admit an ineligible student.

I recall a most interesting chapter in the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell discussing the difference between privileged children from educated families and underprivileged kids. He describes a study where a group of families of very different backgrounds were followed for a certain time period and their every behavior recorded in order to determine what factors contribute to the achievement gap. The outcome is revealing: It is not only a difference in education that privileged children are receiving, but something more intangible – a sense of entitlement and importance, lending such kids an assertiveness in dealing with the world at large that helps them advance. It is fostered by constant encouragement by the parents to argue one’s case, to stand up to adults and state one’s opinion. 

I was actually very glad at the time to be told that all that arguing Noisette and I are having to endure might actually be good for something! In any case, this study found that lower-class children do not have such a sense of entitlement (a term I’ve actually come to view as negative but apparently there is a positive side to it), that they tend to be much more submissive and quiet, thinking they have no right to speak up. It is not a matter of intelligence, or race. It is simply a learned skill that underprivileged children lack. 

Why am I telling you about all this? Because I think Themba’s school experience highlights the findings of this study. It starts with Sibongile not asking the Zimbabwe school for better documentation. Or asking the school here for an official document of acceptance. Or never asking to speak with a person of authority. Her dealings consist of an entire web of acquaintances and partial knowledge and heresay, and the concept of doing proper research and asking your way through to the person in charge is entirely alien to her. And is it any wonder? When not too long ago you had no rights whatsoever and could land in prison just by not carrying an ID with you? Yes, the South African bureaucracy is formidable, but if every single citizen would stand up and fight for their rights instead of simply giving up, it might have been forced to improve a long time ago.

Formerly, when Nelson Mandela was still locked away on Robben Island, there was the Department of Bantu Education, run by whites who were quite happy to maintain a largely uneducated black population as cheap labor (an excellent account of the many injustices of that education system can be found in the book Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane.


Today, post-Apartheid, there seems to be a Department of Uncaring Education indifferent to the struggles of South Africa’s underprivileged masses.

Share this: