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Constitutional & Legal Foundations

Education in pre-colonial Namibia was an integral part of everyday life rather than a specialist activity carried out in a particular venue with a set curriculum. All the adults in the community were involved in the education of the young as knowledge, skills, values, and the understanding of roles was transmitted by means of conversations, imitation, stories, games, songs, and ritual ceremonies.

In 1909 the German authorities introduced organized education for the white population; however, little changed for the indigenous population who were not yet seen as being necessary for the country's economic development, so were not provided with any education. Like the German authorities, the missionaries did not wish to risk giving the indigenous population an education that might result in the development of ideas of democracy and equality. However, in order to establish Christian communities, the African people at least had to be taught to read and write. Primary schools were founded in small, scattered communities around the country from the late nineteenth century onwards.

In 1921, under the South African mandate, education for whites in Namibia between the ages of 7 and 17 became compulsory. The government until 1940 built only two primary schools for Africans, both in the central region of the country. In the northern part of Namibia, where the majority of the African population lived, no state schools were built. After 1945 changes in educational policy were gradually introduced. Putting "native education" on a sound basis was seen as a key to a positive relationship between the races.

In 1949 the Eiselen Commission was set up in South Africa. Its report in 1951 and the Bantu Education Act of 1953 formed the basis of education both in South Africa and later in Namibia. As the economy required an increasing number of literate people, state education for Africans was increased. However, as H.F. Verwoerd, South Africa's leading architect of apartheid, declared, education would always be separate, unequal, and designed to let Africans develop exclusively within their own communities. Christian National Education, the underlying philosophy of the apartheid system of education, was geared to ensure that all nations would guard their own identity by educating their children in the mother tongue and fostering in them a strong national and cultural identity. Because of what they perceived to be their racial superiority, whites considered themselves the trustees of black education, and therefore the ones to enforce the policies of Christian National Education.

In 1958 the Van Zyl Commission introduced the system of Christian National, apartheid-based education into Namibia. Black education was to be expanded so that by 1988, approximately 80 percent of black children would have a basic four-year primary school education. However, only 20 percent were to go on to higher primary level. Thus, only one secondary school would be provided for each ethnic group. Education was taken out of the hands of the missionaries who could not be trusted to transmit apartheid ideology correctly. Initially education was administered along racial lines with a different system for white, black, and "coloured" (people of mixed racial descent, usually black and white) students. Eleven separate education authorities were set up in 1980, one for whites, one for "coloureds," and nine for different African ethnic groups. German language schools were also supported, with the high school in Windhoek administering the German Abitur school-leaving and university entrance examinations.

During this period before independence in 1990, education for whites was compulsory and paid for by tax. Black people paid directly for their education in the form of fees. In 1981 the expenditure per black pupil was 232 South African Rand, for "coloureds," it was 300 South African Rand, and for whites it was 1,210 South African Rand. One in three black pupils who attended primary school did not complete their first year of schooling. Of those who reached their final year of primary education, less than 30 percent went on to secondary school. Poverty, large classes, and poorly qualified teachers all contributed to the high dropout rate. Teacher training during this period was totally inadequate. Only 200 students availed themselves of the facilities offered by the only teacher training college in Namibia, which was situated in Windhoek. Hundreds of black students could not gain entrance to colleges, and those who did complete their education were pressured by the government to transmit apartheid policies, of which the communities increasingly disapproved. Textbooks proposed a Eurocentric and fundamentalist Calvinist Christian view of whites as the carriers of civilization and blacks as warlike, ungrateful, and culturally inferior. History books ignored the rich African background, which was still being transmitted orally to children of the different African nations living in the then South-West Africa. A teacher-centered rote learning, with the teacher transmitting knowledge and the students not questioning, as well as obedience, were the pillars of classroom education.

Towards the end of primary school, African children and their white counterparts were taught in their mother tongue. Secondary education was in English or, more usually, in Afrikaans. In practice, however, even primary education was in Afrikaans as classroom material in the Namibian languages had not been sufficiently developed. In South Africa as in Namibia, the high dropout rate and the use of Afrikaans, which by 1981 had become the main medium of instruction in junior secondary schools, caused increasing hostility amongst students.

Resistance & Independence: After 1971, when the International Court of Justice in The Hague confirmed South Africa's occupation of Namibia illegal, strikes and mass expulsions of pupils became a regular occurrence. School boycotts, which in Ovamboland in the north were particularly marked by militancy, became the order of the day, especially after 1976 when events in Soweto, South Africa, inspired widespread student strikes in Namibia. Students considered ringleaders were expelled, and teachers and students who boycotted school were arrested and taken in for questioning by the authorities. A number of alternative schools, calling themselves "schools of resistance," opened during the 1980s. By 1988 there were 10 of these schools. All used English as the language of instruction and several introduced curriculums from Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland. Although the police and the army harassed the staff and students of these schools, they were not closed down. These schools were involved in political education and taught history from an Afrocentric perspective. However, because the teachers were themselves products of the apartheid education system and used teaching methods and administered examinations they themselves had learned, traditional didactic forms of education continued.

In order to counter the effects of the liberation struggle, the South African Defense Forces (SADF) began their "hearts and minds" campaign, which was aimed at gaining control of the local population through improving quality of life. SADF personnel took over positions in hospitals and schools. However, this policy backfired because of the accompanying dependence on military structures. Violence against teachers and pupils became widespread, resulting in the flight of many Namibians into neighboring Angola, Zambia, and Botswana. By the mid-1980s, more than 70,000 Namibians, numerous of them school age, were in exile. Many of these young people were intent on gaining an education and went to schools in Cuba and East Germany. Others were sent to other African countries for education. The majority remained in SWAPO refugee camps in Angola and Zambia.

Two of the refugee camps, the SWAPO health and education centers at Nyango in Zambia and Cuanza Sul in Angola, were particularly important in providing education to Namibian refugees. With English as the language of instruction, these centers emphasized literacy and a non-South African version of history. They also reinforced the ideological and practical motivations of the fight for independence, and prepared young freedom fighters to make contact with people back home and educate them in the ideology of the struggle. The weaknesses inherent in the education offered stemmed from the fact that, on the one hand, SWAPO enforced its theme of "no questions" throughout the liberation struggle, and, on the other hand, it was intent on obtaining international support for its liberation struggle and thus had to match its rhetoric to the ideology of benefactors. Unlike the ZANU camps in Zimbabwe's liberation struggle, where discussion and democratic dialogue were paramount to political education, teachers in SWAPO camps replicated the authoritarian attitudes of the colonial system.

When the SWAPO government took office in March 1990, the 11 separate ethnic education departments were merged into one. By 1994 to 1995, the South African Cape syllabus was replaced by the Cambridge Local International GCSE. English became the medium of instruction for junior secondary schools in 1991, and black access to education was addressed, with a new generation of students needing education for a future of democracy and equality of opportunity, where tolerance and understanding were key issues. Often the efficiency of the bureaucratic structures, rather than the relevance of education and the transformation of educational structures, was stressed. Some areas that needed to be addressed were the underqualification and lack of accountability of teachers; poor discipline in schools; inadequate textbooks, classroom equipment, and facilities, especially in rural areas; and the need to motivate and educate the general public to support SWAPO's vision for educational reform.

During Namibia's political struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, other countries hosted Namibian refugees. Namibia has since become a first asylum country. Its policy of continuing to permit asylum-seekers to enter the country has resulted in more than 8,000 refugees and asylum seekers residing at the Osire camp. Ninety percent of the refugees are from Angola, with the rest from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and other African countries. Schools have been established at the Osire refugee camp, but resource constraints make meaningful education problematic.

Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineGlobal Education ReferenceNamibia - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education