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South Africa

History & Background

The Republic of South Africa is a constitutional parliamentary democracy of many years standing, which was dramatically transformed in 1994 when the previous Apartheid system of racist segregation was formally abolished. Situated at the southernmost end of the African continent, South Africa measures 1.2 million square kilometers. Bordered by Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe to the north and Mozambique to the northeast, South Africa's southern half is surrounded by water: the Indian Ocean to the southeast and the Atlantic Ocean to the southwest. In its own northeastern region South Africa almost entirely encircles Swaziland; in its central eastern region South Africa territorially surrounds Lesotho. South Africa has a semi-arid climate, except for the east coast, where the climate is subtropical. The country's terrain consists of a large interior plateau surrounded by sharp hills and narrow coastal plain.

Cultural Background & History: Poised in a geographically strategic location, South Africa for centuries was the object of battles fought between European invaders and the indigenous Africans. South Africa today is a rich kaleidoscope of people, languages, and cultures. The first census of the post-Apartheid era, which began in 1994 with Nelson Mandela's election, was conducted in 1996 and indicated that South Africa had a population of 43 million people, 22 million of them women. While the next actual census would not be taken until October 2001, statisticians estimated South Africa's population in July 2001 to be approximately 44.6 million (not taking into account possible additional deaths due to HIV/AIDS), with the following composition of 'races' (i.e., socially determined categories invented by the European colonizers): 78.8 percent Africans/blacks, 8.7 percent "Coloureds" (i.e., persons of mixed 'race'), 2.5 percent Indians/Asians, 10.2 percent "Whites" (i.e., persons of European ancestry), and 0.1 percent "Others and unspecified." Regarding religious affiliation, 28.5 percent of South Africa's population at the turn of the millennium adhered to indigenous and animist beliefs while 68 percent of the population was Christian, 2 percent was Muslim, and 1.5 percent was Hindu.

With its extremely ethnically diverse population, South Africa has 11 official languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Pedi, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu. Of the original African peoples who lived in the southern African tip, only a few members of the San ('Bushmen') and Khoi Khoi communities (Hottentots) have survived. Anthropologists describe the majority of South Africa's indigenous people as Bantu-speaking people. (However, since aBantu refers to people and Isintu to language, this group of Africans should more accurately be designated Sintu-speaking people.) The Bantu include the Nguni, two-thirds of the African population who speak closely related 'languages' (more accurately, dialects of the Nguni language—isiZulu, isiXhosa, isiNdebele, and siSwati). The second largest group of indigenous South Africans is the Sothospeaking group, while the Tsonga and the Venda are smaller groups. The "Coloureds," along with the Afrikaaners (descendants of mainly Dutch, French Huguenot, and German settlers), speak Afrikaans, a language developed from Dutch by Khoi Khoi and Malaysian slaves as a pidgin language. South Africans of British and other European descent (notably, Jews from the Baltic states) identify themselves as English-speaking South Africans, while the Indian South African population mainly speaks Tamil, Hindi, and Gujarati.

Archaelogical sites in South Africa contain evidence of very early human settlements, invalidating the notion of terra nullius so beloved by the European colonial settlers who liked to consider themselves the first humans to inhabit the region. In the summer of 1995, geologist Dave Roberts discovered a set of fossilized footprints 117,000 years old in the sandy slopes of Langebaan Lagoon, on the Atlantic coast of South Africa, dating back to the period when the first anatomically modern humans emerged. For most of the past 100,000 years, the southern African region has been host to nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers living in nuclear families—the San. These groups lived in delicate ecological balance with their environment and knew, for example, how to aggregate and disperse in response to ecological necessity. They left posterity the benefit of their beliefs and rituals, outlooks, and activities in rock art found throughout the region. Some 2,000 years ago a group of agro-pastoralists, the Khoi Khoi, also took up permanent residence in the region. About 1,500 years ago, the iSintu-speaking people, who had migrated from the Great Lakes region of Africa, began to cultivate the soil, mainly in the summer rainfall river valleys of the southeastern part of Africa, introducing and developing techniques of growing edible crops such as millet and gourds. The domestication of cattle approximately 1,000 years ago in southern Africa created new possibilities for societal development, and political systems arose among the decentralized kingdoms of the region.

The arrival of Europeans in southern Africa was by far the most traumatic experience the indigenous communities had ever experienced by the 1600s. In 1652 the Dutch set up a mainland base in the territory of the Khoi Khoi for their East India Company (VOC) as a victualling station for their own passing ships. Observing the building of a stone castle and the settling of farmers on their land, the Khoi Khoi realized that the Dutch intended to stay and thus resisted bartering with them by withholding their own livestock and fought off the attempts of VOC expeditions to take their livestock by force. Thus began the systematic dispossession of indigenous populations that sparked off the Wars of Dispossession (the "Kaffir Wars") in the 1770s which lasted 100 years in the region—or more accurately, more than 3 centuries, terminating only with the establishment of South Africa's democratic government in 1994. Gradually the Dutch settlers overwhelmed the indigenous Africans by seizing their streams, land, and cattle and by incorporating the Khoi Khoi as farm laborers and into their militia, destroying the Khoi Khoi's political economy. The urgent need for labor experienced by the Dutch was reinforced by the 1688 arrival of French Huguenots, escaping religious persecution in Europe, and within the first decade of their arrival the Dutch brought in slaves from their Asian colonies, mainly from Malaysia, and from eastern and western Africa. These slaves became the nucleus of the subsequent "coloured" community.

The British occupied the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa in 1795 during the French revolutionary wars to prevent the southernmost part of Africa from falling into French hands. They returned it to the Dutch in 1803, only to reoccupy it in 1806. In 1820 British settlers came to live mainly in the eastern Cape, 1,000 kilometers east of Cape Town. As the original European settlements expanded from the coastal area into the interior, the Europeans inevitably came into conflict with the indigenous populations they encountered, due to the newcomers vying for the land and livestock of the original owners. The Kaffir Wars gradually gave the Europeans the upper hand, as the Europeans had more effective weapons of mass destruction than did the indigenous Africans. By the late 1800s they had managed to control all the territories previously belonging to the African people.

Although the British and Dutch shared a common purpose in oppressing and dispossessing the indigenous peoples of southern Africa, certain tensions between the European settlers soon resurfaced. In consequence, beginning in 1836, the Dutch settlers embarked on a more deliberate emigration to escape British colonialism. This event, called the Great Trek, moved them from the Cape Colony into the interior. The interior land, however, was not empty; rather, it already was inhabited by Africans, fertile and well watered, and provided a potentially cheap supply of labor, as the Dutch Voortrekkers soon discovered. This led the incoming Dutch to establish two republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, while the British took possession of the Cape Colony and Natal.

The discovery of diamonds in 1867 near the place where the Orange and Vaal Rivers meet and of gold in the Tati area, then in the eastern Transvaal in the 1870s, and in Witwatersrand brought the arrival in 1886 of European prospectors, mainly from Britain, and drew in African migrant workers as well. Resolving to extend their control to the new Boer republics of the Dutch settlers, the British eventually engaged the Dutch in the Anglo-Boer War, which lasted from 1899 until 1902 and ended with British victory in the battlefield, though the Boers officially won the peace—a compromise to ensure the unity of the Europeans against the African indigenes to foster European control of the region. Agreement between the British and the Boers was reached in 1909 to establish a single country by combining the territories each group controlled into one nation. The Union of South Africa, known today as South Africa, came into being in 1910.

Racial differentiation in education took root from the beginning of European colonization in South Africa, with separate schools established for the different 'racial' groups. Essentially, the education system was designed to elevate Europeans above all other groups, who were programmed and socialized for subordinate roles in the European-dominated commercial and administrative systems to further the goals of South Africa's colonial overlords. As most of the early schools established for Africans were missionary institutions, an added objective was to proselytize to the Africans and assimilate them into Western culture and especially into Christian values of obedience and subservience to those in authority. By 1945 approximately 4,400 church-related schools were offering instruction in South Africa, compared with only 230 government schools. African culture, history, religion, values, botany, zoology, medicine, and so on provided no points of reference for African education, whether in the secular system or in missionary schools. European-administered education for Africans was designed for alienation and underdevelopment with all genuine educational opportunity reserved for the Europeans themselves.

To contest European domination, including in the schools, indigenous Africans established the South African Native National Conference (which later became the African National Congress) in 1912 as the first pan-tribal organization on the continent and resolved to gain their country back politically. Determined to master European learning as a tool to win the contest against the Europeans for control of southern Africa, the African poets and authors of the period, notably Citashe and W. B. Rubusana, voiced their new aspirations in their oft quoted slogan, Zemk' iinkomo magwalandini ("Your cattle are gone, you cowardly countrymen"). Their new call to arms favored the pen over the spear.

The uneasy coalition of the British and the Boers persisted further into the twentieth century and led to the formation of the National Party by the Boers, who by then were calling themselves Afrikaaners and their language Afrikaans. Organized politically in 1933, the National Party came into power in 1948 on a ticket of Apartheid—a policy of complete separation between Europeans and all others. This began the most intensive period of anti-African legislation South Africa had ever experienced. During the period of Apartheid, a system of so-called "Homelands" was established that relegated particular ethnic groups to separate parts of the country, and a pass system was set up that was strictly enforced to maintain official segregation shaped by the racist ideology of the National Party's adherents. By 1961 the National Party was withdrawing South Africa from the British Commonwealth. Over the next several decades South Africa witnessed its own increasing exclusion from world bodies and international fora, including representation in the United Nations, in response to its deliberate insistence on an unrelenting course of racism and the abuse of the majority of its citizens' human rights.

Resistance to segregation and Apartheid among Africans after the collapse of African kingdoms toward the close of the nineteenth century essentially emerged in several phases. During the first phase, the ANC, since the time of its formation, tried to petition the British crown against African exclusion from power and sent delegations to Britain to lobby the British government. Internally, the ANC sent the South African government similar pleas and even participated in Native Representative Councils set up as advisory councils to the South African government. All pleas to ameliorate the oppressive and exploitative conditions fell on deaf ears, however. When petitions and delegations failed to produce the desired effect, a group of powerful future leaders arose in 1944, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Robert Sobukwe, to form the ANC Youth League. Calling for a Program of Action to challenge European state control directly through protest, they launched the Defiance Campaign Against Unjust Laws in 1951-1952 and employed passive resistance to make their mark on the government and history of education in South Africa.

In 1960 the state outlawed the ANC as well as an ANC splinter group, the Pan African Congress (PAC), led by Robert Sobukwe which had been formed a year earlier to protest the inclusion of Europeans in the liberation movement, whom PAC members accused of watering down the demands of the oppressed African masses in order to safeguard the interests of whites. The broad liberation movement went underground and embarked on guerrilla warfare. The government had hoped that it had completely fragmented resistance from the disadvantaged and oppressed and that it had separated these downtrodden groups from their white liberal sympathizers, especially those from the "open universities." In reality, these universities became hotbeds of revolution. Calls for a "Black Consciousness" rose in the late 1960s from every segregated campus that were at first welcomed by the government because they seemed to accord with the government's own policy of complete separation of the races. The emergence of the South African Students' Organization in 1968, a breakaway group under the leadership of Steve Bantu Biko from the multiracial and patronizing National Union of South African Students was the harbinger of a new revolutionary spirit among the oppressed that was to sweep across South Africa and eventually bring Apartheid down to its knees. The students at the segregated universities, along with students in primary and secondary schools, far from being socialized to accept Apartheid and its design for them, offered what increasingly became the most potent challenge to white domination in South Africa.

Overt African resistance inside South Africa was mounted largely by the Black Consciousness Movement in its various formulations with a base among students mobilized to rise against Apartheid through such actions as the "Soweto" uprising of 1976. The following year, however, the Apartheid regime outlawed Black Consciousness just as it had done to the ANC and the PAC. The Movement's most eminent leader, Steve Biko, was murdered in police detention, an event that created a fresh outburst of anger. A final push began under the umbrella of the United Democratic Front formed in 1983, the labor movement that had been legalized in 1979 only "to bring the unions out into the open and crush them." Notwithstanding brutal repression under a State of Emergency first proclaimed by the South African government in 1985, the strategy to undermine workers failed and resistance on the ground swelled as never before with growing international support and economic sanctions, eventually leading to the capitulation of the Apartheid state. In February 1990 President F. W. De Klerk, South Africa's last non-indigenous head of state, removed the ban on the ANC and the PAC and announced the release of all political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, as well as an amnesty on exiles associated with the liberation movement. This set the stage for a negotiated settlement finally reached in 1994.

The Homelands system was abolished with the end of Apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as president. However, the social and economic disruptions caused by the Homelands Act and the brutality of South Africa's official structures during the years of National Party rule—not to mention the resultant fragmentation of African families and communities—are likely to take generations to overcome. The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa during the 1990s and beyond has focused in large measure on repairing the extensive damage done not only to the physical integrity of South Africans and their country's social infrastructure but also on mending the South African soul, seeking the means to help heal the trauma caused by years of torture, murder, and abuse at the hands of a racist state that previously would not permit individuals of different 'races' even to legally marry.

Social Conditions: In 2001 approximately 52.7 percent of South Africa's population lived in urban areas. The major cities of the country include Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Pretoria, the national capital (though Cape Town is the legislative center and Bloemfontein the judicial center. With an average population density of about 34 persons per square kilometer in 1999, South Africa has experienced rapid population shifts and changes in the age structure of its population with the demise of the Homelands system of the Apartheid era and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. With the spread of this disease magnified by relative government inaction until the turn of the millennium, harsh discrimination and mistreatment often meted out by society to those infected with the disease, and certain dangerously mistaken beliefs and abusive practices concerning protection from the disease, the scale of infection and deaths in South Africa from HIV/AIDS exceeds that in most other countries, including those in the developing world.

South Africa had an infant-mortality rate of 62 per 1,000 live births in 1999 and an under 5 years child-mortality rate of 76 per 1,000 the same year. The total fertility rate was about three (i.e., a woman bearing children for her entire childbearing years at the current fertility rate would produce three children). Nearly one third of the population (32.5 percent) in the year 2000 was 14 years old or younger, more than three-fifths of South Africans (62.8 percent) were between 15 and 64 years of age, and less than 5 percent was 65 or older, although these figures varied markedly by racial group. The life expectancy at birth of the population in the year 2000 again varied significantly by race and was very difficult to estimate accurately due to South Africa's extremely high HIV/AIDS infection rate (by some counts, one person in eight in 2001) and the accompanying loss of life. The estimated years of life expectancy at birth for the population of the country as a whole in 1997 was 54 for males and 58 for females. Examining specific racial groups and gender categories separately, however, the following life expectancy figures for 1997 were obtained: Black men, 52; Black women, 55; Coloured men, 59; Coloured women, 68; Asian men, 65; Asian women, 72; White men, 70; and White women, 77. Life expectancy also differs considerably depending on income level and on the area of the country in which one lives. In 1999 the adult literacy rate for South Africa was estimated at 87 percent, although literacy actually varied widely, depending on income level, racial group, province, and gender.

Economic Status: South Africa has been both blessed and cursed with an abundance of natural resources—blessed since the potential exists for rich development and the sustenance of a large population at adequate if not high standards of living, but cursed because the wealth endemic to the land attracted European invaders who subjugated the indigenous population for centuries, creating wide economic disparities and vast suffering for most of the country's population. The country's abundant natural resources include precious and industrial metals (including platinum, gold, and chromium), gem minerals such as diamonds, and valuable energy sources such as coal and natural gas. In 1999 about 25 percent of the labor force was employed in industry, 30 percent in agriculture, and 45 percent in services. The GDP at market prices was estimated at US$131.1 trillion with about 5 percent of the GDP derived from agriculture, 35 percent from industry, and 60 percent from services. Annual per-capita income in South Africa was US$3,170 (using the Atlas method of calculating GNI per capita). The unemployment rate in South Africa was roughly 30 percent, although again, as in nearly all population measures, wide discrepancies exist in unemployment rates across population groups.

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Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceSouth Africa - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education