The opening moment of education in South Africa coincides with the foundation of the colonial experience at the Cape in 1652. Six years after the Dutch East India Company established its colony at the Cape, the first formal school is begun in 1658. This school was founded by Commander Jan van Riebeeck for the slave children brought to the Cape in the Dutch ship, the Amersfoort, which had captured them off a Portuguese slaver.

The Beginning of Formal Education

The establishment of the first school in the country’s history is deeply significant for two reasons. Firstly, this school had many of the characteristics that have come to frame the South African experience. It was profoundly oppressive. As the slave children are enrolled, so they are forced to take new identities. Nothing of their past was given recognition in the school. Their treatment by the colonial authorities was harsh. And then, to buy their obedience, they were plied with alcohol. But, like their descendents who refused  to accept anything less than the best education that can be provided, they rejected this degraded education. They did so by ‘voting with their feet’ – they escaped from the school into the mountains surrounding the Cape. The significance of this school in presenting the themes of domination and resistance, is vital for understanding South African education.

The other important feature of the period takes us, however, into a different direction. While this early school was extremely oppressive, we have, in this first 150 years of Dutch occupation of the Cape, a number of deeply important developments – classic vignettes – which speak powerfully to our understanding of South African history. While slaves and the indigenous people, the Khoisan, faced great challenges during this time because of the harsh laws of the Dutch, we see a number of instances  where these oppressed people begin to organise themselves. This is in defiance of the Dutch East India Company or without their knowledge. Two instances are important to record for understanding our history differently. The first is that contrary to much of the historical narrative, even that which is sympathetic to the cause of the oppressed and which gives no or little voice to the marginalised, the slaves and the Khoisan exercised agency. They taught themselves to read in communities like Genadendal or, as they did in the heart of the Colonial town of Cape Town, they kept themselves religiously intact by starting madrassas, Islamic schools, where they taught each other to read and write. Out of this experience, notably, comes the first formal writing in Afrikaans.

Early British Domination

The establishment of a proper system of education begins with the period of British rule at the Cape. This period was marked by a systematic attempt on the part of the British to anglicise Cape society. The period beginning with the occupation of the Cape by the British in 1795 ushers in important social, political and economic developments. The slave trade is abolished in Britain in 1807 and slavery is formally abolished in all colonies of the British empire, including the colony at the Cape,  in 1833. The period is marked by the emergence of colonialism proper.

Schools played an important part in this experience. In 1839 an Education Department was established at the Cape with a superintendent, James Rose Innes, at its head. This position was bureaucratised with an administrative apparatus by the end of this century. In Natal, after annexation in 1843, attempts were made to develop an education structure. These only stabilised in 1858. Meanwhile, constitutional provision was made for education in the Transvaal Republic in 1858 and properly so in 1863 in the Orange Free State. Important about this period is that it marks the institutionalization of education in the country and its formal deployment in the cause of building a white identity. One might refer to this period as a period of state-building on the part of the white establishment. The great apparatuses of power were introduced, such as the formal parliaments, the institutions of the military, the hospital services, and alongside these, the institution of the Anglican Church. Yet, at the same time, during this period there is evidence of black and white children being educated in common classrooms. The oldest schools in the country, such as the South African College School (SACS) founded in 1829, for example, has children of colour. As the process of Anglicisation happens, it happens with some ambiguity.

Alongside of this process of formalisation, another key experience takes root. Significant steps continue to be taken by the rapidly growing missionary movement to provide education for both black and white children. This story begins with the arrival of the London Missionary Society in 1799 and takes shape in the work of people like Dr Phillip and the subsequent establishment of important institutions such as Lovedale College. Emerging clearly out of this development, of course, are the abiding themes of conflict. These conflicts are expressed on several levels and persist in the missionary movement itself, in its target community, the African and slave people, and between the missionaries and the latter, into the climactic era of full modernity in the middle of the 20th century.

Mineral Revolution

The 19th century is an era of revolutionary change in South Africa. The country experiences the mineral revolution which sets in motion the great wars on the military front, on the cultural front and the identity front. Key to understanding this period are the frontier wars and the discovery, during the 1860 to 1880 period, of gold and diamonds, and then finally, the conflict between the British and the descendents of the Dutch, the Afrikaners. This latter conflict comes to a head with the South African War of 1899-1902. Together these experiences shake up the country fundamentally. The frontier wars, taking place on the eastern seaboard with the Nguni-speaking communities in what is to become the regions of the Transkei and Natal, and also with seSotho speakers in the North and Northwest parts of the country, achieve not only the military conquest of the African people, but critically also the conquest of their ways of life. These twin forces, which open up routes of opportunity for the missionaries, come to impose British modernity everywhere in the country. Critically, and somewhat unexpectedly, while this experience is underway, less attention is paid to the schooling of the local people than their administrative incorporation into the state. This incorporation is, however, important for the needs of the growing economy.

Out of the series of wars emerges the single political entity of South Africa. The attendant systems of education that emerge during this period take their shape and character from the rapid experience of industrialization and the cultural conquest of the local people.

An allied experience during this period that should not be neglected is the relationship between South Africa and the British protectorates of Basutoland, Swaziland and Bechuanaland and the historically mandated territory of South West Africa. Significant about the period is understanding how strongly, with the exception of Lesotho, the educational systems of the region are tied up with the missionary and colonial experience and how significant these are in the challenges these countries have to confront when they become independent during the period from the 1960s to the early 1990s.

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.


Moving into the democratic era, the most recent period of South African education history is focussed on the legacy inherited by the post-apartheid state and the choices facing the state in terms of policy development and South Africa’s relationship with its neighbours. Important about this period is the consideration of policy choices in relation to the themes of power and its reconstitution and the imperative of reviewing the current era against the historical experiences which give it its social, political, economic and cultural character.

The relevance of our early education history is that it speaks clearly to the relatively well-known themes of our present, domination and resistance. Our history of the last 25 years, during which the youth of our land sacrificed themselves for the cause of liberation, poignantly echoes the example of their ancestors 350 years ago. And long may they continue to act when they see injustice. But it is the less well-known theme of acting in our own interests, seen in the Genadendal and madressah examples from early Cape history, which we need to highlight today. As we confront the intense difficulties at our schools and come face-to-face with our teaching and learning challenges -  the decline in reading, writing, comprehension and computing - it is the example of acting in our own interests that we need to recover. What does this mean? It means, minimally, that we hold everybody to account, from political authorities to teachers, students and administrators in our schools (ourselves included!). It means that we insist that we only get what is the very best that this country can deliver for us: good classrooms, good laboratories and good libraries; good teachers who teach to the best of their abilities and who are self-conscious of their strengths and shortcomings and can act on these; and students who value the privilege of learning and recognise their own responsibilities as learners. Beyond these minima, however, we ought to seize the moment, like those in the early days of our history. As bureaucrats, we need to look beyond the superficial indicators of school-life. We need to think deeply about how our leaders can be engaged creatively to confront the complexities of our schools. As teachers we need to be always trying new ways of being better at what we do. And as learners, we need to keep asking the question, what else is there to know and how do we get it? It is this urgency out of our past that is the creative legacy with which we move into our future.

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