Author Archives: Molemo

Schooling the City: Re-mapping post-apartheid urban spaces through public school commons

Schooling the City: Re-mapping post-apartheid urban spaces through public school commons

All of the articles under the education theme have been great and stimulating thus far.  Reuben’s article on the necessity of producing alternative ways of evaluating the efficacy of higher education institutions particularly struck a chord. I am drawn to the ideas of crafting an identity, contextualizing existence and dismantling principles which promote hegemonic tendencies “in order to achieve maximum value in education”. Even though Reuben applied the analysis to higher education, I would like to focus on primary and secondary schooling as relating to the idea of integration or desegregation as an approach to reforming South African public schools since 1994. I’d like to ponder whether contextualising post-apartheid South African existence, accepting the creative endeavour of crafting a particular identity for SA education and its role in society, as well as using education imaginatively in order to dismantle, and not perpetuate, hegemonic practices can assist in augmenting the notion of integration or desegregation.

The legacy of colonial and apartheid systems undergirded by violence, racial capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy is still very much active in contemporary South Africa. Integration predominantly seeks to correct these constructed racial disparities between and within schools thus challenging the apartheid impulse to segregate the “races” (black, white, coloured, Indian) and breaking down the unjust borders placed between people. Integration is also intended to encompass responses to prevalent inequalities such as those of gender and economic access. As Soudien (2004: 105) points out, desegregation or integration in South African schools has the idea of social cohesion as its central characteristic.

What is meant by social cohesion in this instance is that through addressing past injustices within the schooling system, the creation of progressive and harmonious relationships amongst learners, teachers and fellow citizens are engendered, and the democratic ethos of post-apartheid South Africa is firmly instilled within the school environment. Although the idea of integration and desegregation has been useful in some regards, I’m reminded of a conversation with a childhood friend last year that points to its limitations and some of the ways in which essential components are bypassed. This conversation inspires a conceptual re-evaluation of the idea of integration and desegregation as the proxy in which to transform South African schools since the end of apartheid.

My friend shared her annoyance at the fact that she was told that her daughter was unlikely to be admitted to do her reception year at a public primary school in an affluent suburb east of Johannesburg. The reason given was that she did not live in the feeder area of the school and therefore could only be placed on a waiting list, rendering the chances of her admittance slim. What left my friend particularly dejected was that she had done all of her schooling in the general area in which the school is located whilst living in the same house, about 20 kilometres from the school, that she and her daughter live in now. Furthermore, I spent all of my primary school years at the school in question whilst living in the same area that she continues to live in now. This led her to ask the question: “what was the point of our parents struggling to get us into these schools back then if our children are going to struggle to get into them today?” Even though she clearly understood the reasoning behind policies that order preference according to those who live in the feeder area, and other similar preferential access policies, she suspected that in this case it’s also a strategy to keep these types of school mostly white, or at the very least, upper class.

Her suspicions helped us raise a few questions: firstly, what implications does such policy have in a country like South Africa where one of the essential tenets of apartheid ideology was to keep residential areas particularly in cities and towns, and therefore all the facilities therein, racially segregated; and secondly, how is that the colonial and apartheid construction of urban spaces in particular continues to play such a salient role in the attainment of a good education?

The racial demographics of public schools in post-apartheid SA have undergone significant and complex changes, of which the full scope cannot be explored here. Suffice it to say that the opening of gates to learners who were otherwise excluded from attend certain schools has resulted in a large influx of learners into better resourced schools. The best-resourced of these schools, former whites-only or Model C schools, have largely attracted previously-excluded learners who are able to afford the sometimes expensive school fees. Needless to say, former Model C schools, particularly the elite ones, generally remain the best-performing and best-resourced public schools. This means that racial desegregation has for the most part only occurred in former Model C, former Indian-only and former coloured-only schools, that is, in accordance with the racial hierarchy of apartheid, leaving former blacks-only schools located in mostly poor/working class areas excluded from many of the purported benefits of integration.

Even in many of the elite former Model C schools it is noted that much integration takes the form of assimilation, where previously-excluded learners are subtly coerced into accepting the established cultural norms, values and traditions of the school as a condition for successful participation (Soudien, 2004). Furthermore, when learners are admitted into these elite schools, it is generally preferred that they live in the middle to upper-class formerly whites only residential areas that the schools are located in so as to maintain the elite status of that school. Fees, ‘school traditions’ and feeder areas thus become some of the crucial factors in the sidestepping of meaningful integration.

In considering these factors, is it possible to have legislation that explicitly attempts to reconfigure the spaces we learn in? And, can an adjustment in our approaches to educational reform enable a different relationship to the spaces in which we live in general? Hunter (2010: 2642) uses the concept of relational understandings of space which “views places as defined not by neat borders but through social relations that `stretch’ across multiple (contested) scales” in order to “capture how schools are often hubs of great movement and how space (can be and) is actively produced by the actions of schools and parents”. Perhaps this understanding of space could be articulated together with a notion of spatial justice that renders the forging of inter/intra-spatial movements and thus ultimate production of new spatial and urban forms as a specific imperative of post-apartheid justice. This of course, would include learning from the already existing practices that understand urban landscapes as well as the public school spaces therein as ordinarily being a site for, and result of, series of spontaneous, creative and political encounters.

Beyond the obvious necessity of greater provision of relevant resources to poor and poor-performing schools, here are a few examples, albeit very tentative and off-the-cuff, of how this readjustment in thinking may work practically: there could be an overhaul of the policy of giving preference to learners within a specific catchment area, at least beyond a modest quota; learners could be provided with free public transportation on school days (either free for all learners everywhere or only those living outside of a certain radii from certain schools); an encouragement of broader movement by ensuring that competitive extra-mural activities are not only restricted to being amongst like-for-like schools located within the same vicinity; the creation of geographically diverse school clusters comprising of a variety of schools from different quintiles that are required to share certain amenities when necessary should be seriously and critically considered; the creation of special governing bodies or committees for these clusters; in addition to encouraging teacher professional development, correspondence, standardisation and networking (Delport and Makaye, 2009); these clusters could also seek the implementation of mandatory yearly or biennial teacher rotations within these clusters.

Moreover, there could be the introduction of periodic and carefully co-ordinated class or grade exchanges within clusters provided that learners aren’t generally unsettled; the capping and standardising of fees at fee paying schools so as to discourage the creation and entrenchment of elite schools determined by high fees; a possible adjustment in school times in order to accommodate learners who may have to travel longer distances; the inclusion of relevant curricula with a strong and self-referential focus on forms of justice and forms of the urban therefore educating learners of the creative processes they are a part of and letting them be active participants thereof.

The potential expenditure involved with such provisions may render them uneconomical, unrealistic and thus idealistic. But perhaps it’s through drastic kinds of imagining together with looking to already existing examples that people will gain an expanded conception of the spaces that they are permitted to move in and out of as well as the spaces that they may obtain value and identity from. It’s these movements and mobility that through regularly and uniquely placing particular bodies in otherwise unusual spaces seeks to challenge the sacrosanctity of private property and the vigorous protection of its value in certain areas (Pieterse, 2009), as well as confronting the general social currency found in static conceptions of authentically being from a certain place. The types of movements and mobility could allow various racial, class and gendered realities to be resisted, negotiated and produced with riotous ease and regularity.

Public schooling and the movements and mobility engendered by and with it will thus act as forms of urban commons. It’s through understanding public schools as repositories and producers of common urban spaces that the importance of shifting away from the reactionary and destructive ways that we inhabit, are constructed by, and construct our cities and towns can be emphasised. And therefore it’s important that legislators, administrators, school governing bodies, teachers, unions, parents, private companies and general inhabitants of the relevant locales are in unison with regard to the desire to explore these potentialities. The focus on cities and towns is not meant to minimise the necessity of creative measures to be undertaken with regard to education and space in rural and/or non-urban places. It is to emphasise however, that approaches such as integration or desegregation need to be conceptually reinvigorated to include factors that will not only radically pursue equal access to quality education but also recognise how the creative re/distribution and re/production of space is intrinsically linked to this project in South Africa.

Molemo Ramphalile is a regular Bokamoso contributor. You can read his short biography and previous articles here.


Delport, A and J, Makaye (2009). “Clustering schools to improve teacher professional development: Lessons learnt from a Zimbabwean case study”. Africa Education Review.6:1, 96-105.

Hunter, M (2010). “Racial desegregation and schooling in South Africa: contested geographies of class formation”. Environment and Planning A. Pp 2640-2657.Vol 42. Pion Ltd.

Pieterse, E. (2009). “Exploratory Notes on African Urbanism”. Paper presented at the 3rd European Conference on African Studies, Leipzig, 4-7 June 2009.

Soudien, C (2004). “’Constituting the class: an analysis of ‘integration’ in South African schools”.Pp 89-114in (ed) L. Chisolm(2004). Changing Class: Education and Social Change in Post-apartheid South Africa. HSRC Press: Cape Town.



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