Opportunity Knocks For Poor School Children

but apartheid legacy continues to prey on black children

In a teachers’ shortage crisis, learners work in a study group at a high school in Khayelitsha. Picture credit: Joao Silva

In Brief

  • African Scholars Fund’s scholarships have been life-changing for thousands of poor children in ill-equipped schools in South Africa
  • But the education system is failing the children who are depending on it to escape poverty
  • Dissatisfied groups are increasingly questioning why so little is being reaped from government’s huge investment in the education sector
  • As we celebrate the #FeesMustFall movement at universities, it is time to put basic education in the spotlight until the problems are fixed

*Nosipho, a grade 11 beneficiary of the African Scholars Fund (ASF), knows the most important condition attached to her bursary - she must excel in her academic work. Her report card wasn’t up to scratch at the end of 2015, and she feared the scholarship would be terminated. Below is an extract from the letter she wrote to the ASF, explaining her poor performance and motivating for another chance:

“…I tried my best but unfortunately I didn't make it at the level you needed from me. We have shortage of teachers, but that is not an excuse because we have textbooks to read from. In Mathematics, we are teaching ourselves most of the time, because our Mathematics teacher is the principal. He doesn't have time for the class because he is always attending meetings, and so we usually fail Maths. Our physical science teacher is old. Sometimes he forgets to give us investigation assignments. He usually teaches the physics part, but the chemistry part we usually fail. But I promise I will do better next year. I will try to find help from people such as my junior Maths teacher who helps me sometimes… These problems beat me up in my studies, when we don’t have teachers to explain. We have study groups, but we don’t have mentors. I don’t have enough time and space to study at home, but I give myself some privacy to catch up sometimes on somethings…” 

“Nosipho’s story is the reality for all the learners that ASF supports. They face hardships at home and lack proper resources and facilities in schools. And we have first-hand information about the challenging conditions,” says Eliza James, the director of the Cape Town-based organisation.

Nosipho is among 55,054 secondary school learners and Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET) students that have benefited from some R28 million awarded by the ASF since 1970. The Fund operates predominantly in the Western Cape, Free State, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape.

The organisation annually supports 2,500 learners in Grade 8 to 12 through a R1000 award a year per child attending predominantly no-fees school. ASF also supports around 50 students registered at public TVET colleges in the Eastern and Western Cape (course fees and books).

Eliza James, director of African Scholars Fund

“At ‘no-fees’ schools parents are not under any legal obligation to make a financial contribution, but that is unrealistic because many schools lack basic infrastructure, resources and teachers. Inevitably the governing board appoints teachers and parents fork out for additional teachers. So, there is always a School Fund to contribute to - which could be anywhere upwards of R300 per child per year,” says Eliza.

To qualify for an ASF bursary, a candidate must be bright, be attending a school where fees are less than R4000 a year and come from a family whose monthly income is less than R8000 per month. The R1000 is paid in two tranches - the first at the beginning of the year to buy necessities such as stationery or uniform. 

“We hold the children accountable. We tell them they must keep their grades up to receive the balance in June. If a child doesn’t reach the set academic criteria, we try to find out why. Depending on the response we reconvene and say, for instance, this child had a parent that passed on or this young man went for his initiation and missed classes, so lets give them the rest of the money. Or we will say, you didn’t do your best, apply again for next year.”

Depending on whom you ask, education in South Africa is a tale of two systems and more so at the basic level. Some people believe significant gains have been made since 1994, while others think apart from a small minority; black children still receive sub-standard education that does not develop their talents and abilities while opening their prospects for better economic futures. Commentators within the latter school of thought believe racial and class divide in the education system is firmly entrenched even in post-apartheid South Africa. The high school drop out rate is indeed alarming. Many learners who graduate from township and rural schools are ill educated, fueling the dismaying rate of unemployment.

Since 1994, government’s spending on education has consistently increased (R297.5 billion was allocated to the education sector in 2016/17 budget, compared to last year’s R265.7 billion. Basic education will get R205.8 billion of the total amount), yet the level of cognitive achievement of the majority of learners is very low especially in reading, mathematics and science. Consequently, a dissatisfied population of young people, parents and activists are increasingly asking why we are getting so little out of the huge investment in the sector.

“Our constitution calls for immediate realisation of basic education, as it was a hallmark of discrimination during apartheid. That's what the Soweto youth uprising in 1976 was about. The implementation of policies is lackluster, and the individuals responsible must be made accountable,” says Eliza.

“I forwarded Nosipho’s letter to the National Department of Education in the hope that they would recognise that their records reflect that her grade 11 class has a mathematics teacher, but this is the kind of teacher there – he has multiple responsibilities. So, how then can Nosipho compete with well-taught counterparts in well-equipped schools?”

Dr. Margaret Ellsworth founded the philanthropic organisation in 1968 after observing how apartheid was systematically crippling non-white schooling.

Born in the UK, Dr. Ellsworth came to South Africa as a young child. She graduated from the University of Cape Town as a medical doctor.

While working in townships, she found out that her children got plenty of free educational materials, but black children had to buy such. She started collecting excess materials from her friends and distributed to needy school children.

According to the book, Elusive Equity: Education Reform in Post-apartheid South Africa by Edward Fiske and Helen Ladd, the amount the apartheid government spent per learner in a white school was two and a half times larger than on black children in urban areas and five times larger than learners in the most impoverished homelands. 

The first recipient of an ASF cash award (about R26.28 circa 1970) was a young boy whose farm labourer parents died in a truck accident. 

The African Scholars Fund has since grown tremendously, with generous contributions from sponsors and donors comprised of individuals, trusts and companies. 

“In the past, someone else determined what was best for you depending on your race. Unfortunately, many people still have a mindset that the colour of your skin or the area from which you come somehow determines what you can achieve in this world.”

Eliza told this journalist about the short experience at University of Cape Town of a former ASF beneficiary from Khayelitsha, a black township at the edge of Cape Town.

“That was a huge jump considering that many of these learners have no real clue what it is like to go to university. Consider also that they come from schools where they are often taught the English language in their mother tongue and don’t have access to libraries or computers. This girl went to UCT and soon realised she lacked in basic computer and electronic communication skills, yet she was now expected to access, write and email assignments to lecturers. For many such learners, the first six months to a year is all about orientation and integration into the university system. When the language barrier and workload is added, it is little wonder that many simply cannot cope.

“She was awarded a bursary for fees and accommodation. But, she knew her parents and siblings were struggling back home due to poverty, and their needs weighed so heavily in her mind that she was unable to focus on learning. When she wrote to me she said she wanted to commit suicide, so we called her in for counselling.” 

The team helped her to explain to her benefactor why she couldn’t cope at the university; that she needed to downgrade to a mid-level college and get a part-time job to support her family.

She is now thriving and coping with her studies and has plotted a practical and manageable road map for her learning journey, which includes going back to the university.

Of the 284 beneficiaries who sat for matrics (national examinations) in 2014, 117 sent their results to the ASF, of which 100 achieved bachelor passes and 15 achieved diploma passes. [The postal strike impacted hugely on the reports being received and there is the added challenge of receiving results from especially rural areas]. Unfortunately, most of the beneficiaries who qualify for university cannot afford even the registration, let alone course fees. From the matric class of 2014, there were those who were fortunate to join various universities to study for degrees ranging from medicine, actuarial science, law and engineering to finance, marketing, mathematics, and information technology. Others typically enroll in TVETs.

“We explain to them that it is a starting point. They use the technical and vocational skills to get employment as fast as possible, and some proceed to university later.

“I believe it is important for learners and parents to get out of this mindset that the only way to be successful is to go to a university. All of life is a journey. There’s no need to hurry to get to some kind of end point. In this journey one should learn, grow and get empowered to become a fuller individual. You are not lesser because you attended a TVET.”

ASF’s success stories reflect the full circle of many of their beneficiaries who have made it because of some 300 loyal donors - the catalysts to this transformation.

“We have bursars that come from difficult circumstances and under-resourced rural schools who have succeeded largely because of their attitude and willingness to go the extra mile and to say; ‘I will not wait for government anymore, with less I can do more’.” 

The ASF team recently visited schools in Eastern Cape Province, “We completely underestimated just how rural some of these schools are,” says Eliza.

“It felt as if we had stepped somewhat back in time…there are gravel roads literally over valleys, hills and numerous little villages. We were surprised at the actual size and resources available at the schools. It is at these schools where the ASF impact is felt the most and truly appreciated.”

In these communities, Nelson Mandela’s sentiments on the power of education as an equaliser resonate deeply.

“I think the misperception about young people not valuing education is there because of the current upheaval happening in the education sector. Education is incredibly valued in the communities we visited in Eastern Cape. It is evident in the fact that parents take that very difficult step of sending their children to other provinces just to get a better education.”

The in-migration of learners into the Western Cape is a controversial issue. In 2014, Western Cape premier Helen Zille sparked a backlash when she told journalists that the provincial government was spending an additional R1.2-billion to cater for ‘education refugees’

Due to her deep knowledge of the harsh conditions faced by such communities, Eliza expects more empathy from political leadership and individuals.

“We have so many schools in the Western Cape that say; ‘they come, and they fill up our schools…’ But if you read the letters we receive and step into the shoes of these children, then you must open your doors for youngsters that are forced to leave their families in quest for decent education that can hopefully break their cycle of poverty.”

The work for Eliza and her team doesn’t end with the disbursement of bursaries. They monitor and follow up on issues affecting the beneficiaries at homes and in the schools. The team has gained innate knowledge of how to deal with the challenges.

“Our bursars regard us as family and share everything with us. We hear stories of abuse that are so horrendous that we can’t fathom how they manage to continue getting up to go to school everyday. For instance, we understand what it is like to go to a school in the Manenberg township, which is a hotbed for gang activity. We are amazed at the stories of abuse young girls are subjected to, and our hearts ache for those who are so impoverished yet their hunger for knowledge overrides all other discomfort." 

“My greatest hope is that these children will one day be able to sit at the table where important decisions about the future of our country and the world are made. That they will grab the possibilities life offers and that they discover and develop their gifts and skills to the greatest heights. Education can make it all possible.”

*Her name has been changed to preserve her privacy.