The education reforms instituted in South Africa since the end of apartheid are arguably some of the most profound attempted anywhere in the world in the last few decades. To give the reader an idea of the comparative scale of the attempted transformation, and to defend this statement, here is a quick description of what the system is attempting: a) the merger and reshuffling of some eighteen or ninetheen apartheid, racially-based administrative ministries or departments,2 into nine geographically-based decentralized ministries or departments in nine new provinces (with a national policy-setting ministry and department), where each province is inheriting some four or five and sometimes as many as six of the previous racial ministries or departments, and where personnel, payroll, school resourcing, exams, procurement, accounting, information, policies and procedures, have had to be merged and unified; b) shifting the resourcing and funding system from one which was pro-rich and racial, in that whites traditionally had per-learner expenditures ten times greater than Africans,3 to one that is pro-poor in distribution, and based on income rather than race; c) attempting to do all this while preventing spontaneous privatization and flight of the (increasingly non-racial4) middle class to private schools, i.e., attempting to maintain public schools as a center of community life; d) attempting large-scale reforms in curriculum and teaching methods, both to remove apartheid content and ideology as well as for the sake of pedagogical modernization; and e) attempting to do this across all key sub-sectors, including making sub-sectors that were previously only for the privileged accessible to all (schools which encompass grades 1 to 12, Early Childhood Development, Further Education and Training which comprises at this point mostly technical colleges not requiring a secondary leaving certificate, Adult Education and Training, inclusive education or education for learners with special needs, and a tertiary sector consisting of both universities and technikons—essentially degree-granting polytechnic institutes).
In short, the system is attempting a set of reforms that is much larger in scope than what was attempted in, say, the desegregation of school systems in the USA, in that it is starting from a much greater level of inequality, starting from a situation where the poor and disadvantaged are the majority rather than the minority, where there is a simultaneous modernization and quality agenda at the same time as an equity and justice agenda, and while attempting to prevent, for the country as a whole, the sort of white-flight privatization of education common in American cities. South Africans themselves are frequently relatively unconscious of the scope of the tasks they have set out for themselves.
The African National Congress (ANC), the decades-old national liberation movement, came to power in 1994 under the first universal-suffrage democratic elections. In that sense the reforms have been under way some eight years. But one could argue that these reforms had been under way for some years prior to that. In some respects one could argue that the reforms were under way even before the formal end of apartheid, as key racial restrictions on various segments of schooling were relaxed at least four to five years before the ANC came to power (National Department of Education, 1992; National Education Policy Investigation, 1992). Similarly, the reforms were under way on paper as the ANC had considerable time to deliberate and prepare policy papers based on progressive islands of experimentation within the country (private schools, or public schools where NGOs developed interesting experiments) and an enormous amount of consultation, negotiation and deliberation with the then-government and the social groupings it represented (African National Congress, 1994). The accession of the ANC to power was hardly an un-deliberated surprise. On the other hand the reforms have been under way, in a serious fashion, for less than eight years. The South African reforms have been extremely deliberative, and have been based on legislation and regulation to a degree perhaps unusual around the world. This means they were not rushed, and took some time to design (Department of Education, 1995a). Thus, for example, even though the new government came into power in April of 1994, the basic schooling law, the South African Schools Act, was not signed by the President and gazetted5 until late 1996 (Republic of South Africa, 1996a). The permanent Constitution of the new republic was not certified until late 1996 (Republic of South Africa, 1996b). The school resourcing reforms were deliberated between 1996 and 1998, but did not start being implemented until 2000 (Department of Education, 1998). (Improved resourcing of provinces as opposed to schools within provinces, on a post-apartheid model, started much earlier.) It may be possible to question the need to base policy so firmly in legislation, and to deliberate and consult on the legislation for so prolonged a period, but, given that the history of struggle has created a society with a proclivity to contestation, it seems likely that such deliberativeness during the policy-making process sets a foundation less likely to be continually questioned later.
Given the depth and ambition of the reforms, and given that in reality they have been under way some time, one would have expected these reforms to have received more international attention than they have. The reasons for this relative lack of attention are not clear. Two hypotheses suggest themselves. First, the fact that the reforms are to a large degree home-crafted. They have paid considerable attention to international literature and best-practice, but they have not been designed with much formal, large-scale, well-structured donor assistance or fanfare. They have been led and structured largely by South Africans themselves. Second, and partly in explanation of the first reason, South Africa was quite isolated by apartheid itself. It has not been until relatively recently that “normal” intellectual exchange between South Africa and the rest of the world has come back to a reasonable level. It could also be argued that both white and black South Africans have traditionally had, for quite different reasons, a tendency to try to deploy their own inventiveness and ingenuity to solve problems; the whites out of a distant colony’s sense of isolation; the Blacks out of a sense of self-sufficiency and inventiveness during the anti-apartheid struggle, which led to a pride in originality and inventiveness. In any case, the reforms have not received much international attention until very recently, and what little attention has been received has often been naively critical (in the author’s view) of government effort, in that it tends to underestimate the nature of the task facing government in 1994 (see for example Weber 2002). This paper attempts to bring some of these reforms to the attention of an international audience, and to add some balance to the commentary.
On the other hand, since it is also true that the reforms have not been fully under way for very long, and since the focus is on system reforms rather than controlled experiments, it is too early and difficult to judge in what sense the reforms are a success or not.
Thus, this essay attempts to simply describe the reforms more than it tries to formally test hypotheses or closely argue any particular point of view or make technical policy prescriptions. It does attempt to make some judgment, where possible, as to success or failure, though this judgment is usually limited to whether the policies are actually being implemented, and must hold back on how much progress there has been on learner achievement. It is important to emphasize, for the sake of full disclosure of points of view, that the author was and still is involved in many of the reforms being described. Whether the degree of resulting personal knowledge and historical memory are worth the possible biases and lack of academic distance this might result in, is of course hard for even the author to decide.