Amersfoort Legacy - Turning points

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The Coming of Apartheid

Key to understanding this period is the National Party winning the white election in 1948 and the process of instituting formal apartheid. The significance of apartheid is the systematic organisation of South African social, political and economic life along rigid racial lines. The period is marked by the introduction in the early 1950s of a series of landmark pieces of legislation, culminating, in 1953, with the Bantu Education Act.

The purpose of the Bantu Education Act is two-fold. It formally brings to an end missionary control of the education of black people and institutes a system of mass education. While school attendance is not compulsory, it is introduced everywhere. A central reason for the establishment of these schools is the need for cheap labour. Children learn to read and write, but critically, and this is the second purpose that critics have argued is behind the establishment of Bantu Education, only for the purposes of employment. The kind of education that is introduced is deliberately inferior. It takes place, moreover, under the auspices of the homeland system, central to which is the construction of apartheid’s ethnic identities. In the course of the apartheid government’s rule, new nations-in-the making are established such as the Ciskei and the Transkei, ostensibly self-ruled and independent, but in reality, reservoirs for the production of cheap labour.

The signature development of the later years of this period is, of course, the beginning of the great youth revolt. Frustrated by the inferior education they receive, young people turn their schools into sites of mobilisation. Soweto 1976 marks the beginning of the process of rejection by young people of this apartheid education. Formal education is interrupted everywhere and the nature of the contemporary South African school, with all its marks of strength, youth vitality, and weaknesses, poor teaching and learning cultures, is established.

As these developments take place inside and outside South Africa, the ANC attempts to establish new and alternative approaches to schooling in an attempt to guide the youth revolt. The great alternative schools of the People’s Education period come into being, as does the African National Congress school in exile, the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College, named after the youth activist hanged by the Pretoria regime in 1979.

Last updated : 10-Mar-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 21-Jul-2011