A Publication for the faculty, staff, administrators and friends of California State University, Chico
September 9, 2004 Volume 35/Numberr 1

Page One Stories
Tales from Africa...

Tracy Butts, English, was part of a study tour of South Africa designed to train teachers in diversity. This is the first of three pieces on the summer 2004 trip.

Change, Cultural Diversity, and Secondary Schools

Before leaving for South Africa, I feared that, in an attempt to create a unified nation, to forge a collective South African identity, the various ethnic and cultural groups would be forced to sacrifice their individual identities for the sake of the larger group. After having spent five weeks in South Africa, my fears were laid to rest. While this fear may be actualized at some point in the future, it does not appear to pose any imminent threat at the moment. In fact, based upon what I have seen, it could be argued that Nelson Mandela’s statement, "We are truly diverse, yet we are bound together," is a romantic ideal that has yet to be realized. Certainly, individuals like former president Mandela and current president Thabo Mbeki are making efforts to bring about a unified nation, but there are too many other factors at work that continue to undermine the best of their efforts—economics, language, and race being, from what I observed, three of the leading inhibiting factors.

Nowhere was this more evident than during our visit to two of the secondary schools we visited in Cape Town. The first school we visited in Cape Town was not unlike Letsibogo, a girls’ school we visited in Soweto, Johannesburg. The students milled about the campus, greeting us with polite hellos, responding to those of us who engaged them in conversation, kindly posing for photos, and watching us out of curiosity. It wasn’t until we arrived at the second school that we realized that something was a little different. Like the first two schools, these students were black, but nearly all of the students, with the exception of maybe two or three, were light-skinned. This, we soon learned, was a school for colored students.

Similar to the Jim Crow South, where blacks and whites were segregated, under the system of Apartheid, which means "segregation" in the Afrikaans language, a person’s race determined where he or she was allowed to live, work, attend school, as well as the quality of education, housing, and medical attention he or she received. The purpose of apartheid was twofold: (1) to separate whites and non-whites, with blacks, Indians, and coloreds composing the latter group, and (2) to create a division between the various ethnic groups within the black, or Bantu, population. The black and Indian racial classifications are self-explanatory, but the term colored is a little more difficult to grasp. Colored people are individuals of mixed ancestry—usually the offspring of an African and a white settler or an Indian. Although many of the colored people look black, they identify themselves as colored and will take exception with individuals who try to classify them as black. The coloreds lived in their own communities and dated, married, and socialized within their own group exclusively, and many of them continue to do so to this day. A person is not considered colored because his or her skin is light in complexion, but because his or her parents were colored, as were their parents and their parents’ parents. In other words, one has to descend from colored parents in order to be considered colored.

Gone are the pass laws which kept South Africans immobile—physically and socially. The old beliefs, attitudes, and prejudices remain, however, and have joined forces with economics, language, and race. Poverty and unemployment continue to force many blacks to remain in the all-black townships and send their children to neighborhood schools because they cannot afford to pay private school tuition. Thus, the colored children go to colored schools and the "black black" children, what the coloreds call blacks who are not colored, go to black schools. Should a black family have access to funds and be in a position to send its child to a private school, often times language will serve as a barrier to the child’s admittance. For example, the colored school we visited was an Afrikaans medium school, meaning classes are taught in the Afrikaans language. Therefore, if a black-black student wanted to attend the colored school, he or she would, in addition to having to find a way to school, which by public transport can be a long and arduous task, have to be fluent, or functional at the very least, in Afrikaans.

Although the South African government is run by the black majority, whites continue to control the country’s finances, businesses, and commerce. During apartheid, a hierarchy existed within the racial caste system—whites were at the top, followed by Indians, then coloreds, and then blacks. What is interesting is that the principals of both schools cited the overcrowded conditions (student–teacher ratios could be as high as 55 to one in some classes), behavioral problems, lack of resources and funding, teacher shortages, and socioeconomic conditions (i.e., poverty, hunger, disease/illness) as the main obstacles to providing the best education possible for their students. Depending upon your point of view, we can see this either as blacks moving up the racial hierarchy or coloreds moving down. That’s change—I guess?

–Tracy Butts, English



University Publications
California State University, Chico
400 West First Street
Chico, CA 95929-0040