Reconsidering Verwoerd and Bantu Education

Hermann Giliomee replies to the criticisms of Martin Prew

Martin Prew's response to my article on Bantu education reminds one of the story told by Stanley Engerman and Robert William Fogel in the second edition of their Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, published in 1989. Hailed as a great breakthrough in the understanding of American slavery, the study found that the physical condition of slave labourers was considerably better than that of free industrial labourers.

Between 1974, when the first edition was published, and 1989, when a second edition appeared, the book was the subject of an intense and often bitter debate. In the "Afterword" of the second edition the authors remarked that every time they presented their data in seminars there always was someone who took them aside and asked nervously  ‘What are you guys trying to do? Sell slavery?' (p.258). Their reply was that their work actually tried to prove how much progress blacks had made despite slavery.  Fogel, incidentally, later won the Nobel Prize for Economics.

The problem is that Bantu education is such a central part of the political mythology of the anti-apartheid movement that it has become very difficult to discuss it, as historians are obliged to do, within its proper historic context. It is simply impossible for many ANC-aligned academics and professionals to concede that anything good could have come out of apartheid.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is very frank about this. He wrote in a preface to the fifth edition of South Africa: A Modern History by Rodney Davenport and Christopher Saunders (2000) that ‘perhaps convention' precludes historians from passing moral judgement, but that his vocation placed on him ‘no such inhibitions'. He concludes: "Ultimately it is irrelevant whether racism or apartheid sometimes produced good results. Because the tree was bad the fruit also had to be bad.'[1]

What Martin Prew and I have to decide is whether we want to write about Bantu education as historians emphasising the context of the time or as clerics ‘without inhibitions'.

I do not know why he presents me as an apologist for Bantu education. I never claimed that Bantu education was a fair or equitable policy. Nor did I deny that it was anything but segregationist in its intent and execution. My central question was whether Bantu education could be considered as part-reform of the pre-1953 education policy or as -the ANC has tended to do -- a destructive intervention.

I agree with the study of Johannes Fedderke (formerly professor of economics at UCT), R de Kadt and J Lutz, that Bantu education represented a case of part-reform. That study passes a measured judgement: ‘The experience of black schooling during the 1950-70 period was one of partial modernization, generating a higher enrolment of black pupils, without providing additional teaching resources at a comparable rate.' [2]

The old system, built on mission schools, was in a large part breaking down due to a lack of finance, properly trained teachers and supervision. I did not praise, as he alleges, the clearing away of mission schools. I happen to think it would have been better if the government had continued to assist the few well performing mission schools, but I doubt that any government anywhere would be prepared to fund schools that directly oppose its policy.

It is important to note that Verwoerd did not abruptly closed down these schools but stated that he would phase out the state subsidy to these schools over a period of four years.[3] The governing bodies had a choice: they could become state schools or they could remain private schools. Some did indeed continued to function as private schools 

For the first time South Africa was moving toward a modern system of mass primary education for blacks, albeit in a racially skewed system, and to a slow but not insignificant expansion of black secondary education. Between 1955 and 1970 black numbers rose from 800 000 in 1950 to 2,75 million in 1970. At the same time, however, the growth rate of black public school teachers remained constant, which remained a major problem.

My article does not attempt to justify apartheid as a system or segregated education as a policy. It simply stated there was no electoral support in either the National Party or United Party for substantial funding for black education or integrating the education system. The only support within the electorate, apart from a small stratum of liberals, was for segregated education.

In his own ranks Verwoerd was questioned about the wisdom of establishing segregated university colleges. His reply was: "We shall have to negotiate frequently in future with blacks about many things, including educational matters and policy issues. It would be better to negotiate with people with a good grounding and properly trained.'[4] He was appalled that there were only a handful of people with tertiary qualifications in the Congo when it received independence and observed that if South Africans wanted peaceful co-existence such a situation had to be avoided.[5] To a son who questioned the possibility that there ever could be black rule in South Africa he said: ‘Anything is possible.'[6]

Verwoerd did not enunciate any new policy when he said that within the so-called white areas blacks would not be able to do the white collar jobs to which many of the better educated aspired.

What was considered new in the second half of the 1950s was the conception of new opportunities opening up in the homelands. In 1958 a well-regarded Africanist from the USA commented, without criticism, on Verwoerd's vision of the homelands as dynamic areas of political ‘self-determination' for blacks, where job opportunities would arise to which they could not aspire elsewhere.[7]

As far as I can establish it was only by the end of the century that some liberal historians presented the policy as explicitly and deliberately racist and evil. The most widely read general history of South Africa argued in its fifth edition (published in 2000) that both the Eiselen report and the Act were based on the ‘assumption of an inferior potential in African minds' and were ‘explicitly designed to prepare blacks for an inferior place in society'.[8] In a previous edition (published in 1987) there is no reference to such assumptions or designs. The 2000 edition is a reflection of the fact that a new government preoccupied with white racism had come to power. Apartheid was no longer seen only as a wrong or misguided policy, but as evil. The latter view is absent in most of the liberal writings of the 1950s and 1960s. While rejecting apartheid as a policy, these studies tended to see the policy as emanating from a power struggle between whites and blacks in which the NP government did everything to prevent white defeat.[9]

This raises the question of intent. In writing The Last Afrikaners Leaders: A Crucial Test of Power (Tafelberg), scheduled to appear on 18 October, I found that several of the journalists and academics commenting on the manuscript considered Verwoerd to be devious and perhaps malign in his intentions. ‘Was he sincere?' On economic and development issues he laboured under major illusions, but I could not find evidence of Verwoerd deliberately misleading anyone. If he had a fault it was his brutal honesty.

One must observe that the blunt, callous words in which Verwoerd expressed the policy of Bantu Education did much to discredit it from the mid-1970s onwards when there was a resurgence of black popular opposition.

The widening of the per capita spending on white and black children is often invariably cited as evidence of malign intent. Three aspects closely related to this are often ignored. First, there was a large demographic disparity. In the 1950s and 1960s the average childbearing black woman had 6,3 children compared to 3.3 in the case of white women. Second white teachers received much higher salaries not only because of racial discrimination but also because they were much better qualified.

Third, the studies tend to focus only on the widening racial gap of per capita spending but do not take into account Monica Bot's research, which shows much increased spending on black education. As I noted in the previous article on Politicsweb, the Verwoerd government did not stick to its stated policy of restricting its spending to a fixed amount plus the sum provided by taxes blacks paid. Between 1962 and 1967 spending on black education jumps by half. 

For reasons he does not specify Prew argues the important figure is not the overall budget spent on black schools but the per capita amount spent on each black learner compared to each white learner. He adds: ‘This margin stayed fairly steady at about 1:10 during the apartheid era'. However, Ken Hartshorne, in his authoritative study, states that the gap narrowed to 5:1 in 1990.[10]

But there is also the possibility of agreement between me and Prew in some areas. He writes that "many black children were probably schooled better in apartheid era schools than in many of the poorest performing schools now, in that they could read and write in mother-tongue and some in English and Afrikaans." He acknowledges the merit of system largely based on mother tongue education.

For my part, I did not emphasise Bantu education continued to fall short of its stated aim to extend at least primary education to all blacks.  By 1970 a quarter of blacks in the age group 7 to 11 were not in school.

A recent study rated our education system 140th out of 144 countries, while we occupy the 143th place in Maths and Science If blame to be attributed - and I am not sure that blame will get us anywhere --who is to blame after 18 years of majority rule? 

At the end of UCT's recent Poverty and Inequality conference, co-sponsored by the National Planning Commission, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe mentioned the legacy of Bantu Education, and then there was a dramatic moment when a young black student asked quite a tough question: ‘How come the government constantly talks about Bantu Education, Bantu Education, Bantu Education? I didn't grow up under Bantu Education and I'm not sure what it has to do with me - I feel it cannot be blamed for my problems.'


[1] Rodney Davenport and Christopher Saunders, South Africa: A Modern History (Johannesburg: Macmillan, 2000), p. xix.

[2] JW Fedderke, R de Kadt and J Lutz ‘Uneducating South Africa: The Failure to address the need for Human Capital, International Review of Education , 46. 3, 2000, pp.257-81.

[3] GJ Rousseau, ‘Iets oor Bantoe Onderwys", Wihelm Verwoerd (compiler), Verwoerd: So onthou ons hom (Cape Town: Protea, 2001), p.172.

[4] Gilles van de Wall, ‘Verwoerd, die hervormer', Verwoerd, so onthou ons hom, p. 166.

[5] Van de Wall, ‘Verwoerd, die hervormer', p.166.

[6] Daniël Verwoerd, ‘Vader', Verwoerd, so onthou ons hom,' p.78.

[7] Gwendolen Carter, The Politics of Inequality: South Africa since 1948 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1958), pp. 102-03.

[8] Rodney Davenport and Christopher Saunders, South Africa: A Modern History (London: Macmillan, 2000), p. 674. Compare TRH Davenport, South Africa: A Modern History (Johannesburg: Macmillan, 1987), p. 375.

[9] See, for instance, Monica Wilson, ‘The Growth of Peasant Communities', in Thompson and Wilson, Oxford History of South Africa , pp. 78-79.

[10] Ken Hartshorne, Crisis and Challenge: Bantu education, 1910 to 1990 (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1992), p.42.

Hermann Giliomee's The Last Afrikaner Leaders: a Crucial Test of Power (Tafelberg) will be published by Tafelberg Publishers by mid-October.

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