“Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained.”
-James A. Garfield, 1880
It is no coincidence that in times of great violence, political turmoil and socioeconomic strife, education prevails as the lifeblood of societies and cultures all over the world. It is also no coincidence that schools and school children are often the first targets for violence and suppression during times of conflict. Education holds vast power for the upward mobility of entire societies, and is therefore greatly feared by leaders who seek oppressive control over regions and nations.
During a recent trip to South Africa, I witnessed the manifestation of James Garfield’s words firsthand. My trip to South Africa was part of a program called Zones of Conflict, Zones of Peace, known as “Zones,” operated through Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Doha, Qatar. Zones implements two trips each year for Georgetown undergraduates studying in Qatar to historically conflicted locations like Northern Ireland, East Timor, Rwanda, and Israel and Palestine.
As a graduate student of conflict resolution at Georgetown’s main campus in Washington, D.C., I had a chance to participate in Zones South Africa, as a mentor for 13 undergraduates. Zones provides aspiring practitioners in international affairs with a unique opportunity to understand global conflicts. Students are encouraged to leave the program with ‘informed confusion’, which they can continue to explore in an academic setting. Ideally, Zones trips are intended to inspire a student’s post-graduate life and career, beyond the 10 days they spend visiting a country.
South Africa left me in awe and inspired by the importance many of its citizens place on higher education as a tool for social equality, upward mobility, and personal growth. In a country once hindered by segregated education, institutions of higher learning are being reclaimed as representative of the entire “Rainbow Nation.”
South Africa’s Racial History Shapes Its Education System
During Apartheid, many South African universities were designated as ‘white’ or ‘non-white’ institutions. One of the most prestigious universities in South Africa, Witwatersrand, or “Wits,” was segregated throughout the Apartheid regime until democratization in 1994. While in Johannesburg, our group spent the day at Wits participating in discussions on a variety of topics such as history, migration patterns, gender, and inequality. Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib brought the current reality of entrenched social and economic inequalities to the forefront, forcing us to question whether socioeconomic divides throughout South Africa have taken the place of racial ones.
Though Wits once barred non-whites from enrolling, it was often a hotbed of grassroots opposition to Apartheid. Today, Wits is still known for having a politically-active student body, so much so that classes are often cancelled because of campus-wide political demonstrations.
The following day, our guide Thabo took us to visit the Kliptown Youth Project, a cause into which he and his brother have invested countless personal resources, including their time, energy, and money. Kliptown is located in Soweto, one of South Africa’s largest townships along the southern border of Johannesburg, an area known for its mining industry. The Youth Project sits amidst cramped one-room tin shacks that are often home to six to eight people or more. Little socioeconomic change has come to Kliptown since the end of Apartheid in 1994, leaving its residents with a persistent lack of infrastructure and opportunity. Lack of plumbing causes water runoff to trickle down the streets, electricity is siphoned from nearby electrical poles, and children walk miles to get to school.
Glimmers of hope for larger social change lie in the Youth Project, where 18 to 20 year olds from the community aid in the development of Kliptown’s children. Many of the young adult leaders were once themselves participants in the Project, and are now enrolled in area colleges studying a wide variety of topics from psychology, to engineering, to English thanks in part to scholarships and support from local and international donors.
Our group spent the entire afternoon at the Youth Project where, over the course of one day, more than 400 children are given food, access to books and computers, tutoring, dance and art lessons, cooking instruction, and recreational time in a large astro-turf play area. In the middle of our visit, a group of boys performed a traditional gumboot dance, in which dancers stomp with and pound on large Wellington boots to create a loud, rhythmic cacophony. A practice that originated in the wet gold mines of South Africa as a way for black miners to communicate with one another, as talking and drumming were strictly prohibited, it has now become a continent-wide phenomenon.
Later, we were able to break off into smaller groups for playtime with the younger children. They included us in yard games and self-taught dances that revealed their resilience, spontaneity, and joyfulness, even in the face of persistent hardship. I learned more that day about the lives and struggles of a township community than I could have ever learned in a classroom lecture or museum. The personal interactions our group experienced via traditional games, dances, food, and conversations were an incredibly powerful way to build mutual understanding and trust.
Yet, the Kliptown Youth Project is only one of countless interventions that seek to fill the gaps in South Africa’s primary and secondary education system. Following the end of Apartheid, South Africa exchanged its traditional Christian National education system, a cornerstone of its culture of oppression, for an Outcomes-Based Education system, yet the new system has failed to deliver results. According to a study by Beeld, an Afrikaans-language daily newspaper, 47 percent of students drop out by the end of Grade 10 because they are underprepared in primary school for the demands of a high school education.
A number of international education assessments in math, science, reading, and literacy have ranked South Africa last amongst African nations, indicating that students lack the foundational skills necessary to pass Matric exams and successfully enter college or the workforce. Nicholas Spaull, a researcher of primary education at Stellenbosch University in Cape Town, estimates that approximately 75 percent of students come from poorer backgrounds and have very little chance of accessing higher education opportunities due to the low quality of their education.
Kliptown is combatting these national trends by providing young students with tools to sufficiently supplement their formal schooling in order to pass the Matric exam and go to college. The goal of obtaining a degree that once seemed so unattainable is now a reality for many of these children and their young adult mentors. And the most inspiring thing of all? Most students want to come back to Kliptown to better their community. They see a path of upward mobility through higher education not just for themselves but for their families, friends, and neighbors. The multiplier effect produced by gaining an education is quickly palpable.
The same was true for students at the University of Western Cape (UWC), located just outside of Cape Town where we spent the second half of our trip. Once designated a ‘non-white’ institution, UWC was formerly referred to as “Bush University” because of the large number of students in attendance from rural South Africa and townships in the swampy Cape Flats surrounding Cape Town.
The university continues to attract a lot of disadvantaged young people and adults who have been underserved by South Africa’s education system, but who seek opportunities to further their education. UWC has instituted a number of mechanisms to help students get their degrees at minimal costs. As one longstanding professor told us, “We are an engaged university with a society in transition.” It is only fitting that Archbishop Desmond Tutu was their chancellor for 24 years.
Collective Resilience Fosters Growth in Educational Opportunities
When engaging with South Africans from all regions of the country, many express their enthusiasm for higher education as a mechanism for individual empowerment and larger social change. But systemic issues and inequalities continue to hinder individual aspirations in formidable ways.
As we journeyed through Johannesburg, we came to know more about our young bus driver, Robert. Originally from rural Limpopo, the northernmost province of the country, he moved to South Africa’s largest metropolis to obtain a degree in firefighting at the University of Johannesburg. Upon graduation, he attempted to enter the firefighting field but was barred from doing so by a pervasive culture of nepotism. It has now been 10 years since Robert graduated and he has yet to enter his intended profession. Though he struggles to support his wife and children, his happiness, optimism, and willingness to share his story were unforgettably powerful. Robert’s resilience is representative of that of many South Africans who continue to face immense hardship in a post-Apartheid era, yet maintain hope against all odds.
In South Africa, ubuntu, a Bantu word for “humanity towards others,” has come to signify both the moral quality of a person and a philosophical phenomenon. For Archbishop Tutu, ubuntu was the glue that held together the volatile and fragile nation of South Africa after the end of Apartheid. Today, the humanity encompassed in ubuntu is evident in Kliptown’s children, who depend on the Youth Project to support them in pursuing opportunities through higher education, and in the Youth Project’s young adult leaders, who return to Kliptown each day to inspire more young people to follow in their footsteps. And it is equally visible in people like Robert, who, amidst the reality of inequality and adversity within his desired profession, continue to champion the value of a college degree.
South Africa’s storied past has created a complex web of barriers that prevent many young South Africans from achieving their full potential. Yet, many remain hopeful that higher education, by creating a pathway for social equality, upward mobility, and personal growth, has the potential to change the country’s socioeconomic future. Nelson Mandela said it best: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” For both the youth of South Africa and the students of Zones, no truer words were ever spoken.