Bantu Education: Destructive intervention or part reform?
As the crisis of education in black schools has worsened, or rather become more evident, so the tendency to "Blame Verwoerd" has intensified.
Senzo Mchunu, MEC for Education in Kwazulu-Natal, declared in late July: "One of the points we found was a problem in Maths and Science. It was Verwoerd who made the subjects difficult because he thought blacks would be a threat to him’.
Addressing the Limpopo textbook crisis on Talk Radio 702, President Jacob Zuma said: "What is happening today is what Verwoerd did, where the black majority were historically not given education. We are dealing with a system that had put black people back for centuries." According to Zuma, Verwoerd created the textbook crisis in Limpopo. 
Redi Tlhabi, who interviewed Zuma on Talk Radio 702, expressed outrage over the president’s remark that he did not know who was to blame for the textbook scandal, but agreed with him about Verwoerd. "The president was right in that Verwoerd worked to create a system that was intent on stifling the black child and making sure that she or he did not thrive." She added: ‘Today, in 2012, I did not expect that the ‘liberation party [the ANC] would want to further Verwoerd’s goals: to keep the black child poor, uneducated and deprived." 
President Zuma’s comments attracted a retort from Mamphela Ramphele, a product of Bantu education and a previous UCT Vice-Chancellor. Speaking at an education conference she commented on the current state of black education: "The monumental failure in South Africa was not Hendrik Verwoerd’s fault but that of the current government". She continued: "Children under apartheid’s ‘gutter education’ were better educated than children are today."
Hendrik Verwoerd, National Party Minister of Native Affairs from 1950 to 1958 and Prime Minister from 1958 to his assassination in 1966, remains one of the most complex figures in South African history. In the contemporary debate, he is, however, little more than a demonic figure, denounced and excoriated as the architect of all our misfortunes.
Equally, while his policy of Bantu Education looms large in the popular imagination it is very poorly understood. Despite the significant work that has recently been done by historians in this area, many opinion-formers’ knowledge of this policy does not stretch much beyond a notorious single quote by Verwoerd in a 1953 speech.
Although the Bantustans and Bantu education were inextricably linked, Bantu education could, to a considerable degree, also be considered on its own merits. This article attempts to focus only on some of the aspects of this system, such as funding and the relative value of mother tongue education, and not on the more ideological aspects like the attempt to use the schools to foster distinctive ethnic identities.
Verwoerd’s Bantu education signalled the introduction of mass education in South Africa. After 1994 a new regime has removed all forms of racial privilege, but black public schools remained in a state of crisis. It is important to go back to the founding years of the system to establish to what extent the roots of the crisis could be traced back to these years.
The indictment of the education system Hendrik Verwoerd, Minister of Native Affairs, introduced in 1954 consists of several charges. The most important are:
He closed down a functioning system of black education that included some good mission schools like Lovedale and HealdtownHis policy based on ‘the assumption of an inferior potential of African minds’ was ‘explicitly designed to prepare blacks for a subordinate place in society.'He discouraged the teaching of Mathematics and ScienceThe policy deliberately starved black education of funds
Closing down a functioning system?
Missionary societies dominated the provision of black and coloured education before the accession of the National Party to power in 1948. In 1939 the Minister of Education in the United Party government admitted that two-thirds of black children were without any school experience whatsoever. During the war years the government improved the provision of education to blacks considerably, but by 1950 less than half of black children between the ages of 7 and 16 were attending school, and only 2.6% of black pupils were enrolled in post-primary standards. The average black child spent only four years in school.
Among the mission schools there were a few excellent high schools, but, as a historian commented, the renowned reputation of these schools ‘should not obscure the fact that most mission schools were poor primary schools with large dropout rates’ and that the ‘mission system was breaking down at all levels.' With the demand for education growing rapidly, schools had to take in far more children than they could teach effectively.
The state helped by providing salaries for approved teaching posts, but overall state aid was insufficient in a modernising economy. School buildings were dilapidated and classes overcrowded. Most schools were understaffed and there was a severe shortage of competent teachers.
In the mid-1940s both the United Party government and the Natives Representative Council, the main body for articulating black opinion, sensed that the system of black education was in need of drastic overhaul. The main sticking points lay elsewhere. There was firstly the question of funding.
ZK Matthews, the leading black authority on education and a prominent member of the ANC, demanded the modernisation in terms that, implicitly at least, meant apportioning resources for equal educational opportunities. But whites baulked at the expense. RFA Hoernlé, a leading liberal, observed that while a large number of the white voters do not mind ‘native education’ as such, it would be suicide in most constituencies for a Member of Parliament ‘to advocate, let alone vote for, the proposal that whites should be taxed in order that natives could be educated.'
Another major point of conflict was over the extent to which traditional black culture had to be made part of the school syllabus. Matthews argued for the ‘preservation of the African heritage and for using the powers of the vernacular languages to effect social rejuvenation. Some ANC leaders, however, rejected any ‘Bantuization of native education’. Blacks had to be educated ‘to live side by side with Europeans’. Developing proficiency in English was generally regarded as much more desirable than using the Bantu languages as media for instruction.
In 1954 the government took over the coloured and black schools that the state partly funded and moved control of black and coloured education from the provinces to central government. As part of his ambitious plan to overhaul black education Verwoerd insisted that black education had to be rooted in the ‘native community’. ‘It is in the interest of the Bantu that he be educated in his own circle. He must not become a black Englishman in order to be used against the Afrikaner.'
To the extent that the policy tried to foster different ethnic identities in the black community it was a dismal failure, but that was not the sole rationale of the policy. In , the decades that followed, however, the issues of promoting the Bantustan policy through the education policy and mother tongue education became hopelessly confused.
Both Werner Eiselen who headed the commission that laid the groundwork for Verwoerd’s policy, and Verwoerd himself, firmly believed in mother tongue education as the best form of education A Professor of Anthropology before he became a chief inspector of native education in the Transavaal, Eiselen had a great respect for the particularity of blacks and genuine concern for the preservation of Bantu language and culture. To him there was little doubt that blacks would learn better through their own languages.
Verwoerd received his secondary school education in the medium of English in Milton Boys School in Bulawayo before enrolling at the University of Stellenbosch. He became the first student in the country to write his doctoral dissertation in Afrikaans. In 1924 he received his doctoral degree, a year before Afrikaans was proclaimed an official language. Afrikaans quickly developed from a low-status language to one that could be used in all walks of life. Afrikaans-speakers, along with English speakers, now began to experience the benefits of what language expert Neville Alexander called "mother-tongue education from cradle to university."
Bantu education, as introduced by Verwoerd in 1954, entailed the provision of eight years of mother tongue medium education (MTE). In addition well-trained teachers and competent speakers of English and Afrikaans taught these languages as second languages. In the ninth year of school, students were expected to switch to learning through the two second languages, Afrikaans and English.
The department laid down the principle that it would not use African languages as media of instruction in secondary school until the black community requested it. An education advisory council, which was established in terms of the policy, polled the boards of control of black school all over the country to asses their support for different options: It provided the following result:
1 Afrikaans and English 64%
2 Only Afrikaans 5%
3 Only English 31%
4 Mother tongue 1%
The scant support for mother tongue as medium of instruction in the two highest school standards is an important indication the black population – unlike the Afrikaans one – were not convinced of the merits of mother tongue instruction.
Yet Bantu education was not out of line with what many Western scholars regard the best educational practice. Developed countries teach their children in the mother tongue because they are convinced that such a policy is pedagogically much sounder. They also believe that it improves people’s ability to make a contribution to the economy than those taught in a second or third language. Many developing countries, by contrast, tend to use the colonial language of instruction because they believe, incorrectly as it happens, that it is a short cut to a good education and job opportunities.
In South Africa the results of Bantu education between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s was positive, measured by pass rates. Kathleen Heugh, an acknowledged authority on language use in education, writes: "Between 1955 and 1975, there was a steady improvement in the achievement in literacy and numeracy… Eight years of MTE resourced with terminological development, text-book production, competent teacher education and competent teaching of English, resulted in a school-leaving pass rate of 83.7% for African students in 1976. This is the highest pass rate to date."
One of the reasons for the disastrous downturn in black education after 1976 is the introduction of a policy that limited mother tongue education to the first three years, which is generally accepted as quite inadequate. Heugh concludes: apartheid’s education policy consisted of two phases. The first part, up to 1976, worked to the educational advantage of black students; the second part, from 1976 on, to their disadvantage, with mother tongue education limited to three or four years.
Based on racist assumptions?
Those who charge Verwoerd with implementing a policy with racist assumptions usually base it on a reading of his speech in parliament in 1953 when he introduced the policy. Here Verwoerd attacked the existing policy, which, in his words, showed the black man ‘the green pastures of the European but still did not allow him to graze there’. By that he meant pupils were provided with skills that employers did not want from black workers.
He criticised the existing policy as uneconomic, because money was spent on education with no clear aim. This frustrated educated blacks, who were unable to find the jobs they wanted. He said: ‘Education should have its roots entirely in the Native areas and in the Native environment and the Native community … The Bantu must be guided to serve his own community in all respects. There is no place for him in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. Within his own community, however, all doors are open.’
This comment is quoted in virtually every article on the subject. It is often distorted by quoting only the first part – ‘There is no place for him in the European community above certain forms of labour’ – and by omitting the qualifier that Verwoerd added: ‘Within his own community, however, all doors are open.’ 
Today the first part of the quote sounds very harsh, but it was not out of line with existing policy. A study states: ‘The overwhelming demand among urban employers was for workers with basic literacy, who could be employed as unskilled labour. In most cases "tribal labour" was preferred.' There was little demand for blacks who had completed the more advanced standards.
The previous United Party government had also seen little need for the training of large numbers of black artisans for employment in the common area. The policy emphasised the training of whites for skilled labour in the so-called "white areas". Blacks could only expect to do skilled work in the reserves. In terms very similar to those Verwoerd would use later, the secretary of the Department of Native Affairs told the De Villiers Commission on Technical and Vocational Training in 1947 that ‘the unfolding of extensive government development schemes’ in the reserves would produce a large number of skilled posts.
White supremacy was clearly incompatible with a steadily rising, better educated, urbanized black population moving up to strategic levels of the economy. Recognizing this, J.G. Strijdom, Transvaal NP leader, warned D.F Malan in 1946 that it would be impossible to maintain racial discrimination if the quality of education of the subordinate people was steadily improved. ‘Our church ministers,’ he added, ‘were far too eager to compete with other missionary societies in trying to provide the most education to blacks.’ If the state in the future tried to withhold equal rights from educated people it would lead to ‘bloody clashes and revolutions.'
To put it in non-racist terms, by modernizing the provision of education to the subordinates, however incompletely, the apartheid state ran the risk of sowing the seeds of its own destruction. An opinion survey conducted in 1981 showed that black children’s rejection of segregation steadily increased with higher education levels. About half of the children with only 4 years of schooling said whites could keep their own housing areas and schools, against only a third of those in Standards 7 to 9, and only one tenth of those in Std 10 and higher. See Table 1.
Table 1: Black political responses (%) according to level of education – 1981
Whites can have their own…
Std 2 or below
Std 10 and above
Laws against mixed marriages
Own housing areas
Transport and Buses
Note: Only percentages accepting segregation are given
Source: Hermann Giliomee and Lawrence Schlemmer, From Apartheid to Nation-building, p.119
Yet for the Afrikaner nationalists to deny the subordinates a proper education would undermine their conception that they were serious in their commitment to rehabilitate the subordinate population. Verwoerd’s compromise would be to expand black education greatly, with the provision that it be closely linked to lower level jobs in the economy and, in the case of skilled work, to service to the black community.
The first half of Verwoerd’s formulation in 1953 affirmed what was already the situation on the ground. Blacks had always been excluded from skilled or other advanced jobs and the central state bureaucracy. What was new was, as a recent study noted, ‘Verwoerd’s aim of creating new opportunities for blacks in the homelands and what was called ‘serving their own people’.
It is ironic that Verwoerd today is branded as a racist when he was the only member of NP government in the 1950s who, as far as I know, is on record explicitly rejecting racist assumptions. In his class notes, as Professor of Sociology at the University of Stellenbosch between 1927 and 1936, he dismissed the idea of biological differences among the ‘big races’, adding that because there were no differences, "this was not really a factor in the development of a higher civilization by the Caucasian race." He also rejected the notion of different innate abilities. He observed that what appeared to be differences in skills in the case of Europeans and Africans were simply differences in culture due to historical experience.
In the first few weeks of his term as Minister of Native Affairs Verwoerd made an astounding proposal, which historians surprisingly have ignored. It shows that he initially did not intend to limit opportunities for blacks to do advance jobs to the homelands. Verwoerd became Minister for Native Affairs on 19 October 1950, and six weeks later, on 5 December had a meeting took place at his request with the members of the Native Representative Council, which included several leading ANC members. Stating that he expected large numbers of blacks to remain in the big cities for many years, he announced that government planned to give blacks ‘the greatest possible measure of self-government’ in these urban areas. All the work in these townships would have to be done by their own people, enabling blacks to pursue ‘a full life of work and service.’
For this reason, Verwoerd continued, blacks had to be educated to be sufficiently competent in many spheres, the only qualification being that they would have to place their development and their knowledge exclusively at the service of their own people. Verwoerd invited the NRC members to meet him after the session for a ‘comprehensive interview’ about these matters and to put forward proposals, offering a prompt reply from government to their representations.
This was a fateful turning point in South African politics. A new field for black politics could have been opened up if this offer had been accepted, particularly if it set in motion a political process that could have entailed talks between government and the urban black leadership on the election of urban black councils, the formula for the allocation of revenue, the staffing of the local councils’ bureaucracy, property ownership and opportunities for black business. It would have opened up a whole new area for the development of black managerial and administrative capacity, something that country would sorely lack when whites handed over power in 1994.
Discouraging the teaching of Mathematics and Science?
In his 1953 speech Verwoerd also remarked that it made little sense to teach mathematics to a black child if he or she could not use it in a career. Probably taking its cue from these words, a recent study alleges that as a result mathematics was no longer taught as ‘a core subject in black schools’. In fact, the policy did not change and mathematics continued to be a school subject. The small number of blacks who matriculated with a school-leaving certificate remained steady. From 1958 to 1965 a total of only 431 black matriculants passed mathematics.
The main problem was a lack of qualiﬁed teachers in key subjects, particularly the natural sciences and mathematics. Nevertheless, the overall impression of scholars writing in the 1960s was of a definite improvement in the provision of mass education and the general standard of literacy, contrary to the popular perception today.
A 1968 study by Muriel Horrell of the SA Institute of Race Relations was critical of Bantu Education, especially its use of mother-tongue instruction, but wrote approvingly of the syllabi. Those for primary classes were ‘educationally sound’ and an improvement of the previous syllabi, while those for the junior and the senior certificate were the same as those used for white children. Ken Hartshorne also states that the syllabuses were ‘very much the same as those used in white provincial schools and were an improvement on those in use previously’.
Deliberately starving Bantu education of funds
Strong criticism has been directed at the insufficient and discriminatory funding of black education. The common assumption is that the blame for this dreadful discrepancy lies squarely with the policy as announced by Verwoerd. He stated that the state’s allocation to black education would be pegged at R13 million; any additional money had to come from direct taxes that blacks paid (2 million). As a result the gap in the ratio of white to black per capita spending widened in these years from 7 to 1 1953 to 18 to 1 in 1969.
But it would be wrong to concentrate only on the racial gap in per capita spending. What firstly should be taken into account was major increase in the number of black pupils, the figure rising from 800 000 in 1950 to 2,75 million in 1970. This drastically affected the per capita spending on blacks. Secondly the spending on school buildings, along with other capital spending, was in the case of black education not brought into the budget of the education department, as was the case in white education, but in that of the Department of Public Works. It is estimated that capital expenditure represented roughly 15 to 20 per cent of the spending on black education if all expenses had been brought into the budget for black education.
Table 2: State spending on education 1952 to 1987 in real 1987 rands (‘000s)
1 280 105
1 747 764
2 719 104
3 181 656
4 098 822
1 959 922
3 320 700
1 007 569
3 400 250
Note: Black figures include TBVC states.
Source: Hermann Giliomee and Lawrence Schlemmer From Apartheid to Nation-building, p.106. Researched and complied by Monica Bot.
Finally and perhaps most importantly the policy on pegging education funding to the revenue from black taxpayers was not implemented as announced by Verwoerd. From the table above it can be inferred that the policy was adhered to only between 1957 and 1962, when there was an increase of only 2 % on spending. In the next five years, between 1962 to1967, spending grew by nearly 50%. The government had accepted that the great increases in the enrolment of black pupils had made the policy quite unrealistic. According to Joubert Rousseau, later a Director General of Bantu Education, Verwoerd secured approval for the amount allocated to black education to be supplemented from the loan account. The loans were never paid back.
A serious problem affecting the implementation of the policy was the inability to attract a sufficient number of black teachers to meet the growing demand for education. A recent study passes a measured judgement of the system: ‘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.’  It is to be doubted that the main opposition party in parliament, also subject to white electoral pressure, would have substantially narrowed the gap in per capita at a much faster rate.
The table gives a good indication of apartheid’s rhythm. The severity of the 1950s, particularly as far as blacks were concerned; the slow relative improvement in state spending on blacks in the 1960s and the substantial increases in expenditure between 1970 and the end of the 1990s, particularly in the periods from 1977 and 1982.
Vewoerd in perspective
Any assessment of Hendrik Verwoerd can only be done within the context of his times. He was an academic who was impressed with the way in which social scientists in the USA between the World Wars sought to find ways in which the modernisation of society could occur without intensifying conflict between ethnic groups and classes. He believed that the modernisation of the South African economy after the Second World War made it imperative to establish a system of public education for blacks that would provide literacy and numeracy for blacks, who in the 1950s, could not hope to progress further than semi-skilled jobs in industry. No one foresaw the very rapid economic growth in the 1960s.
Phasing out the state subsidies to some top black schools like Lovedale and Healdtown was a bitter blow to members of the urbanised black elite, intensifying its resolve to reject the apartheid system outright. Yet for twenty years after its introduction Bantu education encountered little black opposition, with black parents failing to heed the calls for school boycotts. This opposition only surfaced in the mid-1970s after the policy had been adapted to enable large numbers of black children to advance to much higher standards than was possible in the preceding decades. Inevitably this was accompanied by the increasing politicisation of the pupils as JG Strijdom had warned.
Was Verwoerd sincere in his stated commitment to educate blacks for service to their own community?David (Lang David) de Villiers, who was one of the top advocates in the 1960s, worked closely with him in the 1960s preparing South Africa’s case in the dispute over South Africa’s mandate of South West Africa that was heard by the World Court, He judgment was that it was totally alien to Verwoerd’s character to mislead. He made it abundantly clear that defending and promoting white interests was unambiguously his priority.
As far as Bantu education was concerned, he never seemed to understand that blacks in the top rate mission schools resented the loss of the identity of the schools as much as the Afrikaners would have done if an alien government had changed the character of a Paul Roos Gymnasium or Paarl Gymnasium.
Unlike many supporters of the National Party, Verwoerd did not consider well-educated blacks a threat as long as they directed their aspirations to their traditional "homelands". But the Bantustans were not necessarily the end of the road. When a follower questioned the wisdom of establishing new black university colleges, he replied: ‘We shall have to negotiate frequently with [blacks] in the future over many issues, including education and politics. It would be better to negotiate with people who are well informed and educated.' He died in 1966 just when it became clear that the homelands had no or little hope of becoming viable states.
Despite the elimination of racial disparities in spending and classroom numbers black public education is in such a dismal state that, in the words of an authority like Mamphela Ramphele, it compares poorly with the Bantu Education of the 1950s and 1960s. The black matric pass rate of 1975 has not yet been emulated. The fault seems to lie somewhere else.
The article firstly posed the question whether Verwoerd abolished a functioning system. To that the answer was that there were a few well functioning church schools, but the rest of the system was in drastic need of overhaul. Was the policy based on racist assumptions? If by racism is meant the ideology of a biologically-based distinction between superior and inferior abilities the answer is negative. The policy discriminated against blacks by insisting that they would be able to do advanced forms of work only in the homelands. Studies found that the syllabi of schools in the higher standard were the same as those in white schools. The increasingly high disparity between the per capita expenditure on white and black pupils was related above all to the rapid increase in black numbers. As table 2 indicates actual spending increased rapidly after 1962. If capital expenditure, which was put on the budget of another department is added, the increases were quite substantial.
A character in Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending, which won the 2011 Man Booker Prize remarks: If one can pin the blame on a single person no else is really guilty; but if one blames a process everyone is somehow complicit. Blaming Verwoerd for the current failures of black education seems to be so much easier. The alternative view — that we are all complicit — is perhaps too ghastly to contemplate.
*Hermann Giliomee’s The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Crucial Test of Power (Tafelberg) will appear at the end of October this year (see here).
This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.
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