Category Archives: 2015 Blog Theme

Goodbye race? Class and educational achievement in South Africa

By: Gcobani Qambela*


A while back I read an interesting article by Stanford University professor of Education and Sociology, Sean F. Reardon. The article, “No Rich Child Left Behind”, raises the alarm in the United States on the substantial differences in educational outcomes between students from high and lower income backgrounds. In his research on the “rich-poor gap in test scores”, Reardon found that the gap between the test scores of the rich-poor was currently “40 percent larger now than it was 30 years ago.” What is fascinating about the study by Reardon is how it shows that in the American context now, family income, more than race, is the better predictor about a child’s prospect of (educational) success.

In the article “Schooling the City: Re-mapping post-apartheid urban spaces through public school commons”, Molemo Ramphalile notes that in South Africa, post-apartheid “integration” was meant in part to correct the “legacy of colonial and apartheid systems undergirded by violence, racial capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy” while at the same time also fixing the “constructed disparities between and within schools [by] challenging the apartheid impulse to segregate the “races” (black, white, coloured, indian)” by breaking down the unjust borders placed between people.

In his experiences in an affluent suburb on the east of Johannesburg, Ramphalile notes that the preference by a particular school to accept students primarily from a restricted “feeder area” while in some cases understandable, however also has the implication of leaving the school and many like it “mostly white, or at the very least, upper class.” It is no coincidence according to Ramphalile that, despite former whites only / “Model C” schools being open to all learners / racial groups, they still largely attract “previously-excluded learners who are able to afford the sometimes expensive school fees”. Moreover an implication of this is that deracialisation of the schooling system occurred primarily in the Model C schools “leaving former blacks-only schools located in mostly poor/working class areas excluded from many of the purported benefits of integration.”

Indeed South Africa focused research by Stephen Taylor and Derek Yu shows socio-economic status plays an important role in determining the educational achievements of South African students. Taylor and Yu show that there are vivid differences in the performance of the poorest and richest schools in South Africa which are for the most part determined by the socio-economic context, with the Education NGO ‘Equal Education’ also showing the importance of school infrastructure in student success.

In the 2014 matric results, it is worth noting that while for instance the national pass rate stood at 75.8%, only 28.3% of these managed to get a bachelor degree pass. In contrast however, although a smaller sample, the students who sat for the Independent Examination Board (which assesses mainly private schools) attained an overall pass rate of 98.38% with 85.45% of the students writing the IEB examinations gaining degree pass. Yet the recent controversies about the racism at Curro Roodeplaat Foundation private school in Pretoria, and the decision of the Gauteng Department of Education to institute an investigation into racism at private and independent schools in the province shows even these schools are not a safe haven for even upper-class black children. Despite the entry of a few elite black children into exclusive private schools in South Africa, this, while providing greater access and opportunity for educational achievement, still does not exempt many from pervasive racism.

Despite education being a constitutional right in South Africa, as Mark Hunter notes in “Love in the Time of AIDS: Inequality, Gender, and Rights in South Africa”, for the most part “the educational system meant to provide [education] is highly skewed.” This has created what hunter terms an “uneven rights” system where it’s “schools for the rich [and] cell phones for the poor.” This means that the poor, who are unemployed and cannot access Model C schools are encouraged by opportunist advertisers to purchase “middle-class life” by owning the latest cell phones so they “can live like the rich [even if they are] unemployed.” Hunter notes that this pursuit to consume “freedom” by post-apartheid advertisers deliberately reworks “images of political struggle to convey the message that black South Africans have won the right to consume. To consume is to be free – to be aware of one’s rights and citizenship.”

This is worrying, because as Reardon notes, what is fuelling educational inequalities is not only the issue of inequalities in income or that the rich have more money, but rather that the rich are using their money differently. Reardon observes that in the era where even a university degree is not a guarantee for employment, high-income families are channelling their resources (money, time and knowledge) toward the cognitive development and educational success of their children as they realise “that early childhood experiences are central to winning a lifelong educational and economic competition.”

To begin moving forward in a way that is progressive, according to Peardon, we have to move beyond conversations that blame the poor, and look at “upper-tail inequality” and “the behaviour of the rich” in (re)producing inequalities. In the South African context, there is thus a need to ponder deeper than race, as Ramphalile argues, to explore public school spaces that are conducive to the “imperative of post-apartheid justice” that does not restrict educational achievement by race or class. As we continue to look into the “post-2015 agenda”, it is important that these nuances be accounted for in looking at educational inequalities and inequities, not only in the South African context, but also continentally in Africa and ultimately, globally.

Gcobani Qambela is a regular Bokamoso contributor. Read his  previous articles here.

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