“During the 1960s and early 1970s Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto had its most successful years. It produced good-quality education and graduated numerous students who went on to university and became professionals. It was among the top two most prestigious high schools in Soweto.”
“This project attempts to explain how Morris Isaacson High School managed to be so successful in spite of the newly implemented Bantu Education system which was designed to provide mass schooling but blunt black aspiration.”
Clive Glaser of the Department of History at the University of the Witwatersrand and STIAS fellow was outlining some of the initial findings of his project which involves writing a history of one of Soweto’s most historically important secondary schools.
“It is a remarkable school in many ways,” he said. “Not only did it feature prominently in the 1976 uprising but it produced a significant chunk of Soweto’s professional and political elite for 50 years.”
“I believe the school provides a fascinating lens into the broader history of public secondary schooling in South Africa,” he added. He also believes the story holds some lessons for current challenges in education in South Africa.
The project uses extensive oral history research. “There is a limited archival presence,” he said. “Many of the records were destroyed in fires in 1977 and 1991 so we are dependent on oral history specifically interviews with alumni – many of whom are remarkable people who are eager to co-operate. We have done about 50 interviews thus far.”
“But obviously oral history is complicated and one has to be cautious. There is a great deal of nostalgia in people’s memories. Most of the interviewees are former students and have tended to be the more successful ones – it’s hard to track down those who have dropped out of the system. But there is a great deal of consistency in the story they tell.”
The school was built in 1958 with money from the philanthropist Morris Isaacson, and was the last high school to be built in Soweto for a number of years. In 1953 the Bantu Education Act replaced the former missionary education system.
“It was a very uneven system,” said Glaser. “There was actually more investment in black education by the government but it was based on massification and lower quality with the aim of creating a semi-skilled labour workforce. By the mid 1970s there was an 18 to 1 ratio in spending on white and black education. It facilitated intensive intervention by the authoritarian state and was linked to the establishment of Bantustans.”
However, despite the restrictive system, the school managed to produce good-quality education during the 1960s and early 1970s.
“At the height of apartheid Morris Isaacson achieved a high level of success – it produced substantial numbers of university graduates. From our findings thus far, it seems the students were highly motivated and competitive; there was a powerful culture of discipline, and the school had strong leadership and good teachers,” said Glaser.
“At this time, ironically due to the restrictions of the Colour Bar, teaching was the key professional outlet for the black intellectual elite. And many of the school’s best-achieving students returned as teachers.”
But, by the mid 1970s, the system was taking strain. The ascendance of the so-called Verligtes in the National Party government led to increased investment in black schooling but there was also a huge increase in the number of pupils needing access.
“Staff/student ratios were severely stretched,” said Glaser.
“And, with the relaxing of the Colour Bar, many were lost to teaching as they had the opportunity to pursue other careers in better paying fields.”
“Politics also became significant with the growing influence of the Black Consciousness Movement.”
“1976 saw the beginning of a youth-driven rebellion which led to the fall of apartheid.”
“In 1977 the Soweto Teachers’ Action Committee organised a mass resignation of teachers who could no longer support the education system,” added Glaser. “This caused massive damage – most of the best teachers did not return to the profession – causing a huge dent in the quality of teaching and in institutional cohesion.”
“After 76, under PW Botha, there was a ‘win hearts and minds approach’ from the government, with increased spending on education in an attempt to defuse militancy. But student numbers were rising and, although the teacher training colleges were pumping out more teachers, they were of very low quality.”
Liberation before education
“In the 1980s student politics blurred into broader political resistance. There were mass boycotts and closures, the emergence of the comrade culture and concerted efforts to make the townships ungovernable. The ‘Liberation before Education’ slogan characterised the period and there was violent confrontation between the state and students.”
“The biggest casualty was the teaching profession,’ continued Glaser. “There was a collapse of respect and authority, with many teachers being seen as collaborators. Many of the unskilled teachers were dependent on severe corporal punishment to instil discipline”
“Township schools went through tremendous psychological and physical damage in the turbulent and violent 1980s and early 1990s. Morris Isaacson survived, although battered and bruised.”
“After a series of closures the school regained some stability in the 1990s but never really achieved the success or prestige of the previous era. It was only after 1994 that Morris Isaacson was able to leverage its fame to attract some state and private sponsorship, and to begin to rebuild.”
“High schooling declined dramatically in effectiveness in Soweto from the late 1970s until the early 1990s. There is obviously huge pride in the generation that stood up to the system but there is no doubt that institutional damage was done. There was political success but educational disaster.”
Glaser also pointed to the establishment of Model C schools during this period which offered an outlet from the townships for aspirational and middle-class families. “Although the Model C system was problematic in many ways,” he said, “it did act as an initial funnel for good-quality non-racial schooling.”
Glaser also indicated that the emergence of student and teacher unions proved to be disruptive and even arguably obstructionist.
“Township schooling is still battered today but there are pockets of excellence,” he added. He believes that it’s important that we understand the role of institutions in defending and promoting education and that looking in detail at the history of one school can provide important information.
Offering some potential policy proposals from this initial work he said: “Teachers need to be paid more. Someone has to face down the unions and put in place proper evaluation systems which make it possible to fire teachers who don’t do their jobs. In South Africa spending on public education is quite high but there is no bang for the buck.”
“We also need to find a way of getting better-qualified students into education training. Teaching no longer has status and we need to change that perception.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw