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A decade after South Africa's first democratic election: prospects for indigent African learners in Durban.

In the cosmopolitan city of Durban, situated on the east coast of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, the population of more than three million is made up of people from various points of origin in the world. The province of KwaZulu-Natal, once a renowned colony of the British Empire, has been home for centuries to South Africa's biggest ethnic group, the Zulus.

In the 18th century, the British found the warm temperate climate of the coastal region suitable for the cultivation of sugar cane and other tropical fruits and vegetables. Several attempts to woo the Zulus into sugar cane cultivation and the wider colonial economy failed, forcing the British to seek indentured labor from India. Between 1860 and 1914, when Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi returned to India after a 21-year stay in South Africa, more than 100,000 Indians were brought to the Natal colony to work as indentured laborers. The Zulus were content with their non-monetary political-economy structures and oral traditions that were used to transmit knowledge from one generation to another.

As the expanding economy of Natal required more labor, the colonial authorities imposed upon the Zulu population, through taxation and reduced access to land, and restricted them to mainly "unskilled" work. This inevitably drew the Zulus into new forms of economic exchanges and networks, but without the privileges of equal integration--forbidding them access to higher levels of economic and political positions. The colonial economy created a hierarchy that was race-based, with the whites at the top, Indians second, "coloreds" (people of mixed descent) third, and Africans fourth. The latter three groups were severely restricted to their own designated areas. Until the 1990s, state subsidies for social service delivery and access to economic and political opportunities were based on this hierarchy. Education, too, was subsidized on this hierarchical structure, constraining Africans from participating on equal terms with the other, more privileged, segments of the population. Renegotiated socio-political structures restricted the Zulus, who represent more than 70 percent of the population, to only 13 percent of the land. As a result of minimized contact with other racial groups and progressive forms of education, the Zulus retained their language (i.e., isiZulu) as their lingua franca.

Based on ethnographic research conducted in five schools in Durban, this article addresses three issues that are widely perceived as major problems in the transformation of education in post-apartheid South Africa: 1) the rapid and unplanned integration of state-funded schools that has led to overcrowding of classrooms, 2) the class and domestic backgrounds of the indigent isiZulu-speaking African learners who dominated the schools in the areas of study, and 3) the second-language proficiency of their English-speaking teachers of Indian origin.

Educational Scenario in Post-apartheid South Africa

The primary schools in the five suburbs researched were designated for Indian occupation only during apartheid under the notorious Group Areas Act of 1950; schools that were built within these precincts were for Indian enrollment only. After South Africa had its first democratic general election on April 27, 1994, what was once Indian-dominated classrooms became increasingly African occupied. Disparities in language, class, and culture led to the move of Indian children to the previously white-dominated schools in neighboring suburbs.

Since 1994, cultural diversity and multilingualism replaced apartheid's pillars of racial and cultural exclusivity and the two-language policy of English and Afrikaans. The new "language in education policy" promotes multilingualism, in that it:

* Recognizes cultural diversity as a national asset and seeks to promote multilingualism and develop the country's 11 official languages

* Endorses an additive approach to bilingualism

* Gives individuals (in practice, parents and guardians) the right of choice with regard to the language of learning and teaching. (Department of Education, 1995b, pp. 3-4; cited in Sookrajh, 1999, p. 102)

Apart from the promotion of multilingualism, the concomitant processes of desegregation and deracialization also were set into motion. But the achievements to date, after more than a decade of democracy, are still not as positive as the state would like people to believe (see Carrim, 1998; Freer, 1995; Jansen, 2004; Le Roux, 1997). The data that follows provides insight into some of the limitations that have marked the process of educational transformation and highlights how students, especially the young African learner, are still left disadvantaged. As a result of overcrowded classrooms, the learners' impoverished backgrounds, and the teachers' lack of preparedness to teach in desegregated classrooms (see also Le Roux, 1997), the first few generations of indigent African learners in post-apartheid education are unlikely to succeed in their educational endeavors.

The Research Methodology and a Glimpse at the Selected Schools

Data for this article were gathered over a period of four months, from February through May 2004. Teachers and their school principals from five schools, used as the core group for this article, were interviewed on a minimum of two occasions and were asked a range of questions concerning the number of children in their classrooms, the ethnic and racial make-up of their learners, the teachers' ability to cope with English second-language learners, their learners' domestic backgrounds, and the possibilities for them to continue with secondary and tertiary education. The author also focused on African learners' communication preferences and observed school facilities to examine the feasibility of implementing the outcomes-based education (OBE) approach in the sample schools. Teachers drew up profiles of the learners in their classes and spent time discussing general aspects of their roles and responsibilities, as well as individual cases they believed might provide further insights into the research project. Additional interviews were conducted with five more principals and 20 other teachers from 12 more schools, to cross-check and establish the consistency and veracity of information that was gathered from the five core schools.

Four out of the five schools are situated in the midst of predominantly Indian suburbs; in all of the five schools, the teachers were primarily Indian. While the learner population had changed drastically since 1994, with African children replacing Indian children, the Indian teacher population remained constant. Only one school is situated in a predominantly African area--an area of low-cost housing and squatter settlements. The figures collated during fieldwork illustrate that significant changes have taken place in class size and the racial make-up in each class. The total number of learners in the five classes was 223, out of which only 36 were of Indian origin and 187 were of African origin.

Changing Racial Demography of the Five Classrooms: Causes and Consequences

In the five classrooms surveyed, the average number of learners was 44.6 (38, 49, 46, 40, and 50). In terms of the Indo-African racial breakdown, the numbers were, respectively: 18/20, 4/45, 0/46, 14/26, and 0/50. All of the principals in the schools surveyed concurred that the statutory requirement was 32 learners per classroom, as set by the Department of Education's "Post Provisioning Norm" (PPN). However, the changing social conditions in these five target areas, brought about through the rise in squatter camps, resulted in significant pressure on all resources, including schools. Before assuming power as the first post-apartheid government, however, the African National Congress (ANC) stated the following major objective in their Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP):

The democratic government must enable all children to go to school for at least ten years. The 10-yea r compulsory general education cycle should proceed from a pre-school reception year to the present Standard 7. The government must phase in compulsory education as soon as possible. We must ensure that no class exceeds 40 students by the end of the decade. (The Reconstruction and Development Programme [RDP], 1994, p. 64)

The recorded times taken by the learners to reach their respective schools ranged from 12.5 minutes to 55 minutes. In most of the cases, children woke up at 5:00 in the morning to be at school by 7:45 a.m. These children usually showed signs of extreme fatigue, which manifested as poor concentration in their classwork.

While these cases allude to the inherent problems of schools accepting children from far-outlying areas, their enrollment must be considered against the background of changing political conditions. Transformation of the South African polity has made non-enrollment of African pupils in schools an ultra-sensitive issue. School governing boards and principals therefore have chosen to admit whoever applies. The school principals were unanimous in their responses that even if they stuck to the PPN requirement, the facilities and required number of teachers were still too inadequate to cover their needs.

Poverty and Its Impact on Indigent Children's Education

Indigent parents struggle to transcend the boundaries of impoverishment. Indeed, their low income often left them unable to pay the school fees. Most of the learners' parents or guardians were wage earners in low-paid domestic work, small private businesses, and in unskilled municipal employment. In one school, many parents were well-educated and worked in white collar civil service jobs that offered unemployment and medical insurance, a housing subsidy, and other benefits. The discrepancies among families became evident concerning nutrition. Many families in this study, without a steady and adequate income, relied mainly on carbohydrate-rich meals, especially those made with maize. Teachers voiced concerns about their learners' food intake, which rarely included an acceptable allocation of vitamins and protein. One teacher's response summed up what others were saying about nutrition:

Most of these learners are eating bread--they are not starving. But they also eat too many snacks--like chips, biscuits, and sweets and sugary snacks that are being sold cheaply by vendors in schools. Perhaps these are the things that are contributing to their behavioral problems--their hyper-action, inattentiveness in class, and their low concentration.

Teachers also shared concerns over their pupils' dwellings and domestic circumstances, which were verified by personal tours into the squatter camps and low-income housing units. Three categories of dwellings emerged for African learners in the research: shacks in squatter camps, "maids' quarters" (which were part of an employer's residence), and homes owned by the residents themselves. From a sample of 187 African learners, 93 lived in shacks, 46 lived in maids' quarters, and 48 lived in their own homes. Only 70 of these children lived with their parents, and 20 returned from school to an empty house. The remainder either lived with a grandparent, a sibling, or some other unclassified person.

Children's situations within squatter camps were precarious. Squatter camps are often prone to damage from inclement weather conditions, as well as from unattended fires (often used for household chores). Such areas experience damage through one of these two conditions at least several times a year. Teachers have noted that when such calamities occur, children do not attend school or they show signs of poor concentration, hunger, and stress. Learners who lived in the maids' quarters of their guardians' or parents' employers are also vulnerable in their places of residence. Their mothers or grandmothers who work as maids (or household assistants) enjoy the convenience of more securely built dwellings, ongoing employment, and regular accessibility to food. But their employment is neither permanent nor does it include benefits. Cessation of employment generally leads to disruption in the lives of child ten, especially since they often have to relocate to rural areas, where their extended families provide a community-based social security network for them.

While most children lived in nuclear families, made up of parents and children only, the presence of grandparents, particularly grandmothers, illustrated the prevalent need that many still have for the conventional extended family. All of the children who had the privilege of an elderly family member present at home were appreciative and felt a greater sense of security than those who did not have this privilege. Without an elderly relative, siblings depended upon each other for after-school support or the children were entirely alone.

Language: A Barrier for Communication and Successful Education of Indigent Children

Education is considered one of the most preferred routes for leaving impoverishment behind; African parents view Indian teachers as having the necessary skills to help them achieve this outcome. However, language has proven to be a major barrier. African children attending the predominantly Indian schools are mainly from lower working class backgrounds--where isiZulu is the main means of communication. All of the teachers who were interviewed were positive about the learners in their classrooms and about their duties and responsibilities as teachers. However, the teachers' rating of the learners' communicative ability in English indicated a generally unfavorable picture, because most of the children only communicate in isiZulu.

Observations about learners' language use were based on their interactions en route to school, after school, and during their time spent on playgrounds. While walking to and from school in pairs and in groups, the children preferred to use isiZulu. Their communication in isiZulu emerged spontaneously and they evidently thought more dearly and articulated themselves more confidently and easily in this language. Few African children ever spoke to each other with any other language when they were not in the company of Indian children. Their attempts to speak to their Indian peers or to their teachers in English demonstrated a distinctly different accent and a lower level of fluency and confidence when compared to their communication in isiZulu.

While isiZulu is the predominant language in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, it still does not enjoy the same official status as English or Afrikaans. School staff and their governing bodies have only promoted isiZulu in schools since 1994. But English has become the first spoken language for most Indian teachers, and it is the standard means of official communication in most schools and universities in the country, at seminars, conferences, and workshops, and in official communications from the regional and national departments of education. Within the classroom, teachers are handicapped by virtue of their monolingual status. There are conceptual problems on both sides--between learners an d teachers--often arising out of their respective monolingual statuses. As one teacher commented:

Teaching is limited--justice cannot be done to themes or topics because of the diverse nature of the learners' inability to identify with different cultural environments, or their lack of exposure to certain contexts in the environments due to socio-economic factors and living conditions. The teacher gets frustrated, because topics cannot be extended for the benefit of those learners who can cope with a faster pace of teaching.

Classroom dynamics are a direct result of South Africa's political transformation. Most Indian teachers stated that they initially reacted with disappointment and frustration at the rapid pace of integration in their schools beginning in the early 1990s--when such extra-parliamentary organizations as the ANC and the Pan African Congress gained legitimacy and were no longer banned. The Indian teachers' inability to speak isiZulu interfered with their pattern and speed of work, as established with Indian children from middle class backgrounds. They were forced to reorient their approach to teaching entirely without assistance from the state. While the feeder communities (mainly African) accepted the normative practice of communication in English, teachers had no way to enhance the learners' quality of communication and conceptual approaches in English. Over time, however, teachers conceded the need to adapt by teaching at significantly reduced paces to allow for pupil comprehension and adaptation to the English language. One teacher, who fought for the privilege of teaching the same class from grade 1 to grade 3, responded in the following way:

At one stage, not a single African child who joined our school could speak English. But today, many of the children speak English, some of them fluently.... I have never been frustrated because I can speak Zulu (not fluently, though) and have used it to help the children. Remember, it is not only being able to speak their language that helps; there are other factors as well. You have to care, understand where they come from, they may sleep in class--don't hurt their feelings.

The situation here reflects the internationally known and researched practices of code-switching (Cleghorn & Dube, 1998; Huerta-Macias & Quintero, 1992; Jacobson, 1978). Teachers in multilingual classrooms who can speak the language of those learners experiencing difficulty in keeping pace with the medium of instruction often engage in code-switching to communicate the issues faster to the learner. Naidoo (2000) justified her study in the following words:

In my opinion, teaching in the English medium does not adequately address the language needs of EL2 [English Language Learners]. This is borne out by the low level of EL2 learner participation in certain science lessons. However, when I use isiZulu to explain scientific terms, the level of interaction between EL2 learners and me as teacher increases significantly. (p. 2)

While the teachers' attempts to communicate in isiZulu evidently lighten the learners' struggle to understand and conceptualize issues in class, the students are eager to master the English language. Responses from parents and learners explicitly indicate that they avoid the African-dominated township schools because isiZulu is the medium of communication there. As isiZulu has not incorporated the vast array of western scientific words and concepts, they believe such schools would hinder their aspirations to enter tertiary education and the mainstream economy.


The research presented here documents overcrowded classrooms that pose barriers to congenial learning environments. This problem is exacerbated by the impoverished living conditions suffered by most of the African learners. Progress in teaching also is hindered by the teachers' lack of fluency in isiZulu, as well as the learners' lack of fluency in English. In situations where unemployment and underemployment is extremely high, survival will demand that learners drop out of school to contribute to the household income. The state's approach to education is also exacerbating this difficult situation (e.g., inadequate funding for the rural areas). Outcome-based education only can be successful if the domestic and neighborhood conditions are sufficiently congenial for the development of a proper learning environment. The improvements necessary to uplift the conditions for African children also will require a greater investment from the state in education (with the goals of producing smaller class sizes and higher quality education in low-income indigent communities, to name but a few). Language poses a barrier to indigent children's educational progress, especially those who are attending schools located outside their own communities, who are learning in an unfamiliar language that is not heard at home. There is a need to attract and recruit, through incentives and rewards, highly qualified bilingual indigent teachers, fluent in their mother tongues and in English.

Moreover, it is important to encourage, and if possible require, bilingual proficiency (at least in one aboriginal language) among Indian teachers who are teaching in classrooms populated predominantly by aboriginal learners. It is also important that the schools adopt a culturally appropriate curriculum that integrates indigent children's cultural aspects in both curriculum and assessment practices.

References and Resources

Carrim, N. (1998). Anti-racism and the new South African educational order. Cambridge Journal of Education, 28(3), 301-320.

Cleghorn, A., & Dube, R. (1998). Code switching in mathematics lessons in Zimbabwe. Proceedings of the 6th annual meeting of the SAARMSE, University of South Africa (UNISA), Pretoria.

Department of Education. (1995a). White paper on education and training. Pretoria: Government Printers.

Department of Education. (1995b). Language in education policy. Pretoria: Government Printers.

Department of Education. (1997a). Towards a policy framework for assessment in general and further education and training phases in South Africa: Discussion Document. Pretoria: Government Printers.

Department of Education. (1997b). Norms and standards for teacher education, training and development. Pretoria: Government Printers.

Freer, D. (Ed.). (1995). Racism and anti-racism in real schools. United Kingdom: Guildford & Kings.

Huerta-Macias, A., & Quintero, E. (1992). Code-switching and biliteracy: A case study. Bilingual Research Journal, 16(3), 69-90.

Jacobson, R. (1978). Code-switching in South Texas--Sociolinguistic considerations and pedagogical applications. The Journal of the Linguistic Association of the Southwest, 31, 20-32.

Jansen, J. D. (2004, July). Race, education, and democracy after ten years: How far have we come? Prepared for the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA): Lessons from the field--A decade of democracy in South Africa, Pretoria.

Le Roux, J. (1997). Multicultural education: What every teacher should know. Pretoria: Kagiso Publishers.

Naidoo, A. D. (2000). English-isiZULU codeswitching in high school science classrooms: Effects, qualities, processes. Research report submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Master of Education Degree (Science Education), University of Durban-Westville, South Africa.

Reconstruction and Development Programme, The. (1994). African National Congress (ANC). Johannesburg, South Africa: Author.

Singh, A. (2001). The reproduction of ethnicity through children and childhood: Education in post-apartheid South Africa. International Journal of Anthropology, 16(2-3), 183-196.

Sookrajh, R. (1999). Formulation of school language policy within a curriculum context: A case study. Ph.D. dissertation in Education, University of South Africa.

Anand Singh

Anand Singh is Associate Professor, Social Anthropology, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
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Author:Singh, Anand
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Aug 15, 2005
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