Journal Article

IDS Bulletin Vol. 34 Nos. 1

Integrating South African Schools?

Published on 1 January 2003

It is more than 15 years since South African schools have effectively become ‘open’.

In the mid-1980s, following the lead of the Sacred Heart College in Johannesburg, many schools, often in defiance of the apartheid government, took the decision to open their doors to children of all races. In 1994, when South Africa became a democracy, this process was completed with the abolition of apartheid education and the establishment of a single, unified and non-racial education authority.

The question that this study seeks to answer is: what forms is inequality taking in schools in the new and democratic South Africa? The purpose of this article, therefore, drawing on a medium-scale study on inclusion and exclusion in 12 schools spread across three provinces in South Africa, is to begin the process of developing an understanding of what is happening in schools with respect to issues such as race, class, gender, religion and language. How are these issues being re-articulated in the new South Africa?

The article is by definition tentative. While the studies in each school were relatively intensive, the scale of the work is limited and must be seen as suggestive of what is happening in the country as a whole. In seeking to understand the schools’ policies around inclusion and exclusion, the article focuses on their access and governance practices.

The understanding of difference used in this article is based on the work of scholars such as McCarthy and Crichlow (1993; see also Sayed and Soudien, this volume), who have argued that differences are social constructs that emerge within the contingent realities defined by ideology, economics and culture. In this study, recognising South Africa’s past, race is the major focus, but is analysed in relation to and with the factors of class, religion and language.

The focus of inclusion and exclusion in South Africa’s education has traditionally fallen on white schools. The reasons for this are two-fold: first, the apartheid government bestowed on its white schools inordinately generous resources and attention, which made them among the best anywhere in the world, and second, it assiduously policed admission processes in white schools. The effect of these policy stipulations was to turn white schools into objects of both desire and dislike. White schools were able to call on state and community resources, which allowed them to provide their children with immensely privileged school experiences inside and outside of the classroom. Black children could only gaze from afar at what they were denied and dream of what they were being denied. At the same time, symbolically, white schools came to represent the worst ideological excesses of the apartheid system and so were forced to bear the brunt of black people’s anger.

When the apartheid system began breaking down, previously excluded African, coloured and Indian children moved in large numbers into the formerly white schools. African children began to move into formerly Indian and coloured schools. For African schools, significantly, this amounted to a flight of the more economically stable elements within their midst, leaving those schools largely with the poorest members of the community. The effect of these developments has yet to be studied.

While empirical evidence of the nature and the extent of the movement of South African children across their apartheid divides is not available, the assumption that the strongest movements have occurred from African to white schools is open to question. Based on anecdotal evidence, it would appear that the movement from formerly African schools to Indian and coloured schools has been as strong as, if not stronger than, that of Africans into formerly white schools.

The approach taken in this article is to study schools across and between racial lines to show the complexity of the processes of inclusion and exclusion. Former African schools are included in the study, despite the fact that they have not become sites of ‘integration’. The approach taken in the article is that as subjects of social forces and as agents able to generate their own social constructions, all people, irrespective of their colour, race, class or gender, are as susceptible to oppression as they are to oppressive behaviour. It is important, therefore, to see African schools as places where inclusionary and exclusionary processes are playing themselves out.

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This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 35.1 (2004) Integrating South African Schools?

Cite this publication

Soudien, C. and Sayed, Y. (2003) Integrating South African Schools?. IDS Bulletin 34(1): 29-42


Crain Soudien
Yusuf Sayed

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IDS Bulletin, volume 35, issue 1


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South Africa

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