Education Reform in South Africa: Pedagogical or Political?

education weapon

From the very inception of the institution of mass schooling in England during the Victorian era, a public education system has been expected to be the cure for everything that was wrong with society. Not only was it going to be “the chief instrument of nation building” but it would also “educate the poor, bolster morality and citizenship, [and] reduce crime and vagrancy.1 A century and a half later, these expectations have expanded far beyond nation building and now encompass broad social and economic goals. As Andy Hargreaves states in Teaching for a Knowledge Society:

Since the emergence of compulsory schooling and its spread across the world, public education has repeatedly been expected to save society. Schools and their teachers have been expected to rescue children from poverty and destitution; to rebuild nationhood in the aftermath of war; to develop universal literacy as a platform for economic survival; to create skilled workers …; to develop tolerance among children in a world where adults are divided by religious and ethnic conflict; to cultivate democratic sentiments in societies that bear the scars of totalitarianism; to keep developed nations economically competitive; and to eliminate drugs, end violence, and to make restitution for the sins of the present generation by reshaping how educators prepare the generations of the future. 2

While academicians may debate the validity of ‘education for social reconstruction’, or ‘education for human capital’, these uses of education have been embedded in recent and current system-wide reforms in both developed and developing countries. Reforms in developed countries have a ‘education for human capital’ focus as governments seek a competitive edge in the global marketplace, while those in countries just emerging from war or imperialism have a ‘education for social reconstruction’ focus. The inherent danger of these goals is that, not only can the resulting reforms focus more on political and economic expediency rather than on pedagogical principles, but they often are incompatible with the realities of the average classroom within the education system. This incongruity between reform goals and classroom reality can create situations that weaken the education system and undermine reform attempts. The current state of education reform in South Africa is a case in point.

On the 31st of March, 2005, the Human Resources Research Council of South Africa (HSRC) released a comprehensive report of research that had been commissioned by the Education Labour Relations Council (ELRC), a consortium of all major stakeholders in education, including unions and various levels of government. The researchers had conducted a survey of 21 358 educators in 1714 randomly selected schools. The report, entitled The Study of Demand and Supply of Educators in South African Public Schools, revealed that 55% of educators surveyed have considered leaving the profession due to dissatisfaction and low morale3. This is an extremely high potential attrition rate at a time when the reformed education system is charged with the reconstruction of a South African society still recovering from the inequities of Apartheid. The possibility of losing a significant number of experienced educators, would be a crushing blow to a government for whom the education system is a critical component in the post-Apartheid development, begun 11 years ago.

In 1994, soon after the first democratic elections in South Africa ushered in a new era for a nation still deeply divided after decades of living with legislated racism and Apartheid, the new Government of National Unity began legislating fundamental changes to the education system, completely restructuring it. 19 education departments based on race were collapsed into one national and nine provincial departments. The Bantu Education Act of 19534, Coloured Persons Education Act of 19635 and the Indian Act of 19656, all designed to deliver grossly inferior education to South Africans who were not white, were repealed. To create a new architecture of the education system, the government introduced the South African Qualifications Authority Act in 19957; the National Education Policy Act of 1996 8 and the South African Schools Act in 19979. To accompany this new structure for education was a new curriculum, Curriculum 2005 (C2005) also introduced in 1997. The ‘social reconstruction’ and ‘human capital’ goals are clear in this statement from the Department of Education about the vision that guided the curriculum’s planners:

The vision for South Africa encompasses a prosperous, truly united, democratic and internationally competitive country with literate, creative and critical citizens, leading productive, self-fulfilled lives in a country free of violence, discrimination and prejudice. 10

C2005 had three distinct features. The central feature was that it was outcomes based, in direct contrast to Apartheid era curricula that was prescriptive and content driven. The second feature was that it included an integrated knowledge system that abandoned traditional subject divisions in favour of subject clusters called learning areas. And the third feature was that it was learner centred, the antithesis of the teacher centered, information delivery model of the Apartheid era. The new curriculum was to be phased in progressively, beginning with Grade 1 in 1998, followed by Grade 7 the following year.

Launched amid great fanfare, the new curriculum was not without its critics right from its introduction. In an article that was considered almost blasphemous and that deeply divided the education community, Jonathan Jansen11 pointed out inherent problems with the feasibility of an outcomes based education, given the situation in South Africa. He claimed that “the current status of education in South Africa militates against sophisticated curriculum reforms such as OBE [outcomes based education] and that the C2005 is “primarily a political response to Apartheid schooling, rather than one which is concerned with the modalities of change at the classroom level.” His ten criticisms of the curriculum focus on the extent to which policymakers had quite ignored the realities of the average South African classroom, and the capacity of teachers within those classrooms. In other words, there was a complete mismatch between curriculum goals and classroom reality.   The following summary of some of his criticisms illuminate this point:

  • The language of the document was inaccessible. In a country of 11 official languages with English as a second language for most of the population, the fact that the document was written in English using a complicated vocabulary, was an inherent difficulty. “A teacher attempting to make sense of OBE [would] not only have to come to terms with more than 50 different concepts and labels but also keep track of the changes in meaning and priorities afforded to these different labels over time.”
  • It is based on a theory of education for human capital even though “there is not a shred of evidence in almost 80 years of curriculum change literature to suggest that altering the curriculum of schools leads to or is associated with changes in national economies”.
  • Jansen believes that the C2005 is “based on flawed assumptions about what happens inside schools, how classrooms are organized and what kinds of teachers exist within the system.”
  • Even though recent research indicates that major educational reforms increase the administrative tasks of teachers, the architects of C2005 have not provided for adequate support to enable teachers to do what is necessary to manage the curriculum.

What Jansen did was the equivalent of what the child did in the fable of The Emperor has No Clothes, and any review of the literature on C2005 will reveal how his criticisms struck quite a raw nerve. But, unlike the villagers in the fable who agreed with the child, policy makers in South Africa have refused to even consider that there is anything wrong with the fundamental characteristics of C2005. But they could not ignore the problems that kept arising in schools, and the complaints coming from teachers.

In 2000, when it became increasingly clear that there were problems with the implementation of C2005, a review committee was assigned. Known as the Chisholm committee, after Prof. Linda Chisholm of the Department of Education at the University of Natal who chaired it, the committee came up with recommendations that sought to address many of the very problems highlighted by Jansen.

‘… the committee concluded that the complexity of the structure and design of the curriculum had compromised the implementation of C2005. Furthermore poor departmental support for teachers, weak support for teacher training, tight timelines, the lack of enough learning support materials, and the general lack of resources had negatively affected the implementation of C2005. 12

Responding to the recommendations of the committee, the government established a Ministerial Review Committee which, among other things, reported in 2001 that:

  • Follow-up support for teachers and schools was inadequate.

  • There were basic flaws in the structure and design of the policy.

  • There was a lack of alignment between curriculum and assessment policies, with insufficient clarity in both areas. 13

The culmination of this work was the publication of National Curriculum Statements in July 2001 that were meant to “simplify the structure, redefine outcomes, and provide more guidance on progression and content”. 14

Clearly these revisions did not go far enough in adjusting curriculum requirements to classroom reality as is clearly indicated by the HSRC report that reveals widespread dissatisfaction amongst teachers. The report consists of 7 sub-reports on many aspects of the work of teachers in South Africa.

In one sub-report, researchers looked at the impact of the AIDS pandemic on educators. In 2004, 4000 educators died as a result of AIDS, and the report suggests that the government is not doing enough to support the 13% of educators who are HIV positive. The findings of The Mobile Task Team on the Impact of HIV/AIDS on Education 15 formed part of the report. This team suggests that the existence of HIV/AIDS in education should be seen “as an erosive and systemic management problem, exacerbating existing problems of attrition and mortality.” It is clear that policymakers will have to address the impact of HIV/AIDS on the teaching and learning environment, especially since

“prolonged illness associated with HIV and other chronic diseases is likely to erode the gains made in improving quality of education by the effect it will have on educators’ productivity. This suggests that healthy educators will be forced to take additional teaching responsibilities, which might create more stress”. 16

Though the report provides details of stress-related diseases amongst educators, and also mentions that the level of stress amongst educators is higher than that of the general population, nowhere is there any analysis of how the implementation of education reforms may be linked to this stress. Researchers do however highlight the link between job-related stress and potential attrition when they suggest that the government together with the unions, should work to help educators “manage job stress”. Perhaps one of the ways that education policymakers can do this would be to look in detail at the expectations that they have about educators’ capacities and whether or not those are feasible given the teaching and learning environment of the average teacher in South Africa.

In many black schools in South Africa, there is simply a breakdown of a culture of learning and teaching. This situation is a lingering remnant of student resistance to the Apartheid education system.   In her article, “Schools as (dis)organizations: The breakdown of the culture of learning and teaching in South Africa”, Pam Christie17 outlines some of the work of the Committee on the Culture of Learning and Teaching, a project of the Gauteng Provincial Ministry of Education. The committee’s purpose was to intervene in schools that were simply not functioning as places of learning and teaching. The intervention was aimed at helping to build functional relationships between students, staff and administrators. Common characteristics of these mostly secondary schools located in poor communities were:

“ …disputed and disrupted authority relations between principles, teachers and students; sporadic and broken attendance by students and often teachers; general demotivation and low morale of students and teachers; poor school results; conflict and often violence in and around schools; vandalism, criminality, gangsterism, rape and substance abuse; school facilities in a generally poor state of repair.” 18

As Christie explains, this breakdown “may be traced back to … the resistance struggle waged within schooling from 1976 onwards” when schooling was deliberately disrupted as a protest against Apartheid. Now that that struggle has been won, it is not clear how to recreate a culture of learning and teaching in schools that were formerly sites of resistance.

The violent characteristic of this resistance lingers in the prevalence of violence in schools. This was one of the factors cited by educators as a reason they were considering leaving the profession19. While the nature of the violence included weapons found on both educators and students and gangsterism, there is a gendered element to it as well. 4% of educators surveyed were at a school were someone had been raped; 5% were aware of sexually harassment at their school. With the bulk of the teaching force comprised of black women, and keeping in mind all the attendant variables related to a violence-ridden patriarchal society, an analysis of the impact of violence on the work of teachers in South Africa from the perspective of gender politics might yield significant information for policymakers.

Another sub-report, Factors Affecting Teaching and Learning,20 revealed that it will take more than a change of legislation to eradicate the Apartheid legacy. Researchers found that black educators are still teaching classes of 50 students or more, while white teachers have classes of 25 students or less. The report also revealed that the teacher who is most likely to have little or no resources, and feel unsafe at work is a black teacher whilst the opposite situation exists for white teachers. Overall, researchers found that black educators were still being disadvantaged by the remnants of the Apartheid system. With black teachers comprising 80% of the teaching force, this is a serious indictment of the reformed system.

Not only does this racially based gap exist but it is widening. As Ken Harley and Volker Wedekind point out in “Political Change, curriculum change and social formation, 1990 to 2002”21, teachers in historically advantaged schools(white) made a very smooth transition to teaching C2005 whereas teachers in historically disadvantaged(black) schools did not. The authors claim that, far from working to level the educational playing field, C2005 has in fact widened the gap between communities in South Africa, because students in former white schools are well on their way to meeting or exceeding curriculum goals whilst black schools have not yet even begun to implement the curriculum. In a reference to Jansen’s article, they note that his criticisms of the inappropriateness of C2005 fit more with the situation in historically disadvantaged schools (black, coloured, Indian), than with historically advantaged schools. In these schools, “the new curriculum merely formalized long-standing practices that had been the norm, the formal ‘Apartheid’ curriculum notwithstanding”. In other words, historically advantaged schools had the capacity, both in terms of physical and human resources to smoothly adapt to the requirements of the new curriculum. In fact, they agree with Kgobe and Mbele who declared that “the design of the new curriculum seem[s] to have a particular educator and school in mind” 22 which is a white educator and a historically advantaged school. The new curriculum did not change many of the goals of historically advantaged schools but for historically disadvantaged schools, it created goals almost impossible to attain, given their circumstances. How does one fulfill the rather sophisticated requirements of the new curriculum when one is working in a school with no electricity (67% of schools), no library (83% of schools), no running water (34% of schools) no toilet facilities (21% of schools), no computers at all, including in the ‘office’ (70% of schools) or without any telecommunications at all (34% of schools)? 23

This failure of policymakers to be cognizant of the realities within which teachers work is not uncommon, according to Margo O’Sullivan. In “Reform Implementation and the Realities within which Teachers work: a Namibian case study”24, O’Sullivan maintains that failure to take into account teachers’ classroots realities, “was responsible for numerous failed reforms” and that “it is surprising how consistently one can find examples of reforms which ignore the real conditions in which teachers have to work across decades and countries.”   Part of the reason for the lack of understanding on the part of policymakers could be because “[t]he teacher’s role in the reform process has received little empirical research attention”. Or perhaps not the right kind of attention as Shirley Sebawkane suggests in   “Controlling Teachers’ work: the South African state and curriculum control”.25 She says that although “research on teachers and teachers’ work is currently emerging as an important field of social and educational enquiry in South Africa”, many studies “do not analyze the experiences of teachers themselves … Nor indeed do we know about teachers’ work and the ways it is constrained by a multiplicity of controls … or about teachers’ ability to respond to and resist these controls.”

One can imagine that this blindspot with regard to the capacity of teachers to implement the reforms could have been avoided, had teachers been more involved in the planning of the reforms. But they were not. Instead, the largest labour union in the country, COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions), to which the biggest teachers’ union, SADTU (South African Democratic Teachers’ Union) belongs, was more centrally involved in curriculum reform than were the teacher unions individually. Some analysts see this as the reason for the centrality of outcomes based education in the curriculum.

The COSATU Education Desk began to strive for recognition from the education community for what workers knew and were able to do. In many ways, these early concerns are what brought about an interest in OBE. 26

As Harley and Wedekind 27 point out, “there is a story that the literature has not yet told” about why C2005 has the features that it does and how it became a political rather than a pedagogical instrument. This factor should also be a focus in the search for reasons for the deep dissatisfaction of South African teachers, as revealed by the HSRC report.

One startling fact may account for the incongruence between the expectations of the new curriculum and the reality of the average classroom in South Africa: no needs assessment or situation analysis was done before the planning or implementation of C2005. It seems that everyone “knew” what was wrong with Apartheid education so the solution was simply to replace it completely. In fact, so little was known at the government level about the situation in schools that for a few years after the democratic elections, the new national department of education had no idea how many teachers it employed,28 let alone the details of the circumstances under which they worked. One can imagine that a completely different curriculum would have been developed if the planners kept in mind the resource-poor typical classroom in South Africa.

One can also imagine that, had the architects of C2005 looked at education reforms being undertaken in regions or countries emerging from years of civil war, they would have devised a curriculum that was more suitable for the kind of conditions existing in South Africa. They seemed to have been unaware that “[e]ducation systems are part and parcel of the fabric of the societies in which they operate”, as Cross et al point out.29 Instead, South African policymakers looked at the reforms of already developed countries such as the U.S., Canada, Britain and New Zealand where social and economic conditions are vastly different to what exists in South Africa.   One of the places that they could have looked at is South Eastern Europe, a region that has just recently emerged from decades of war and Communist occupation.

Currently, teachers in South Eastern Europe are being expected to do what decades of diplomacy have failed to do: weave peaceful stability in a region frequently riven by war. Entitled The Graz and The Enhanced Graz processes 30, this is a massive undertaking involving stakeholders from UNESCO and the European Union, as well as the governments of several countries. The role of education is seen as critical to the integration of former communist societies into a capitalist system. Although an in-depth analysis of this undertaking is beyond the scope of this paper, it would be interesting to compare the planning and implementation of educational reforms in South Eastern Europe and South Africa given the similarity of the ultimate goals for the regions. In both cases teachers are expected not only to prepare students for participation in a global economy but also teach students how to view people, formerly regarded as enemies, as fellow citizens in a democracy. A quick overview of the process of planning and implementation in The Enhanced Graz Process reveals that policy makers are acutely aware of the role of teachers and the realities within which they work. One of the first steps that were undertaken was an analysis of the classroom situations in all the countries involved in the process. Although the reforms are politically motivated, the planners are developing reforms on a pedagogical platform. The same cannot be said for the process of educational reform in South Africa.

Another place that South African policymakers could have looked at, much closer to home, is Namibia. It is quite interesting to note the very different curriculum planning routes of Namibia and South Africa, given the fact that these neighbouring countries were both subjected to Apartheid and its iniquitous education system, and that both became democratic countries within 4 years of each other (Namibia in 1990 and South Africa in 1994).

SWAPO, (South West African Peoples’ Organization) began planning their post democracy education system while they were still engaged in the struggle for independence from South Africa. According to Dahlstrom, Swarts and Zeichner 31 teachers were “viewed as active participants in all aspects of educational decision-making and as contributors to educational policies”.

Teacher education had been a priority to SWAPO during the liberation struggle. The liberation movement sent many of their teachers to other countries for their education and training as well as organizing their own teacher education programmes. For example, it set up teacher education programmes at the United Nations Institution for Namibia in Lusaka, Zambia, and at the largest civilian refugee camp for Namibians in Kwanzu-Sul, Angola. 32

The work done in the refugee camps during the liberation struggle was extended when the first wave of educational reform in a democratic Namibia included a version of action research. Entitled Critical Practioner Inquiry it was meant to

“…empower Namibian practitioners and educational institutions to become significant contributors to the educational discourse and help transform education and implement a broader reconstructive agenda in Namibian society.” 33

In Namibia, teacher education at independence was thus developed from actual educational experiences combined with “critical pedagogy and reconstructive ideologies of education”,34 yet another example of a functional fit between political and pedagogical goals.

If policymakers are going to attempt to marry political and pedagogical goals, it would be useful to have an answer to the question ‘What is education for?”. One of Jansen’s35 criticisms is that C2005’s architects did not have a clear answer to this question, despite their philosophical statements. And this is dangerous. If one does not have a clear idea of the purpose of a public education system, it will be built on a weak or false foundation with predictable results.

No doubt education policymakers in South Africa will seriously consider the HSRC report’s recommendations to spend more money, to conduct more standardized testing, and to train teachers in new methodologies. Hopefully they are aware that none of these recommendations, in and of themselves, have any record of sustained success anywhere. One hopes that, instead of relying on these recommendations to stop the flow of educators out of the system, education policymakers now do what they should have done before they planned changes to the curriculum: analyse classroom realities of the average school in South Africa so that changes to the education system are grounded in pedagogical needs rather than political expediency.

(This paper was written in fulfillment of requirements for my Masters in Education degree at Simon Fraser University in 2005)

I notice that this paper is being accessed quite frequently from South Africa. I’m curious as to why this is so. Please leave a reply below if you know. Thank you.


  1. Thomas Fleming: Beyond School Reform, class handout
  2. Andy Hargreaves, Teaching for a Knowledge Society: Education in the Age of Insecurity (New York: Teachers College Press, 2003) 11
  3. For detailed information on this report, visit
  4. Bantu Education Act of 1953.       This legislation created a separate and inferior education system for all black people in South Africa
  5. Coloured Persons Education Act of 1963. This legislation created a separate and inferior system for all people of ‘mixed race’
  6. Indian Education Act of 1965. This legislation created a separate and inferior education system for all children of South Africans of Indian descent.
  7. South African Qualifications Authority Act in 1995. The purpose of this legislation is to integrate education and training at all levels and in all educational institutions.
  8. National Education Policy Act of 1996. This purpose of this legislation is to set national policies for assessment and quality of education
  9. South African Schools Act in 1997. This legislation imposed compulsory schooling for children between the ages of 7 and 14 for all races (unlike the Apartheid system)       and also created school governing bodies.
  10. For more details on the framework and mission of C2005, visit
  11. Jonothan Jansen, Curriculum Reform in South Africa: A critical analysis of outcomes-based education (Cambridge Journal of Education; Nov 1998, vol 28 issue 3)
  12. S. J. Howie Renewal of Secondary Education Curricula and Assessment in South Africa: strategies for renewal in Secondary Education in Africa: Strategies for Renewal. World Bank Presentations at the UNESCO/BREDA-World Bank Regional Workshop on the Renewal of Secondary Education in Africa (Mauritius, Africa, December 2001). Africa Region Human Development Working Paper Series.
  13. S. J. Howie Renewal of Secondary Education Curricula and Assessment in South Africa: strategies for renewal
  14. S. J. Howie Renewal of Secondary Education Curricula and Assessment in South Africa: strategies for renewal
  15. See Fact Sheet 10 of HSRC media release of 31 March 2005 at
  16. See Fact Sheet 4 of HSRC media release of 31 March 2005 at
  17. Pam Christie Schools as (Dis)organizations: The ‘Breakdown of the Culture of Learning and Teaching’ in South African Schools (Cambridge Journal of Education, Nov 98, Vol 28, issue 3, p383)
  18. Pam Christie Schools as (Dis)organizations:
  19. See Fact Sheet 1 of HSRC media release of 31 March 2005 at
  20. Factors Affecting Learning and Teaching (HSRC, Cape Town, 2005). Can also be viewed at
  21. Ken Harley and Volker Wedekind Political Change, curriculum change and social formation, 1990 to 2002 in Changing Class: Education and Social Change in Post-Apartheid South Africa, (Cape Town, HSRC 2004)
  22. Quoted by Harley and Wedekind in Political Change, curriculum change and social formation, 1990 to 2002
  23. See School Register of Needs Survey 2000 at
  24. Margo C. O’Sullivan Reform Implementation and the Realities within which Teachers work: a Namibian case study (Compare, Vol.32, No.2, Jun 1, 2002, Pages: 219-237)
  25. Shirley M. Sebakwane Controlling Teachers’ work: the South African state and curriculum control       (International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education Vol/Issue: 10 (2), Apr 1, 1997, Pages: 191-206)
  26. Michael Cross, Ratshi Mungadi, Sepi Rouhani From Policy to Practice: Curriculum Reform in South African Education (Comparative Education Vol/Issue: 38 (2), May 1, 2002 Pages: 171-187)
  27. Ken Harley and Volker Wedekind Political Change, curriculum change and social formation, 1990 to 2002
  28. Linda Chisholm Teachers and Structural Adjustment in South Africa ( Educational Policy, Vol. 13, No. 3 1999, pages 386 – 401)
  29. Michael Cross, Ratshi Mungadi, Sepi Rouhani From Policy to Practice: Curriculum Reform in South African Education
  30. For a detailed update on this process see The Graz and The Enhanced Graz at (
  31. Lars Dahlstom, Patti Zwarts, Kenneth Zeichner Reconstructive Education and the Road to Social Justice: The Case of Post-Colonial Teacher Education (Namibia International Journal of Leadership in Education Vol/Issue: 2 (3),: Jul 1, 1999, Pages: 149-164)
  32. Dahlstrom, et al
  33. Dahlstrom, et al
  34. Dahlstrom, et al
  35. Jonathan Jansen, Curriculum Reform in South Africa:

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