When the first democratic Government of South Africa took office in 1994, it inherited a legacy of deliberate neglect.
Henrik Verwoerd, the architect of the apartheid system, was brutally clear; "…If the native in South Africa today, in any kind of school….is being taught to expect that he will live his life under a policy of equal rights, he is making a big mistake….There is no place for him in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour." The result was forty years of educational deprivation for black South Africans.
Ten times as much was spent per capita on white students as on black students. Black African students' classes were more than twice the size of white students’ classes, 15 million South Africans were illiterate and school buildings were virtual slums.
A culture of protest against apartheid by school pupils had burnt down schools and paralysed the entire education system. Some students hadn’t attended school for years. The last available figures for matriculation (high school diploma) pass rates, based on race were published in 1993. They revealed a pass rate of 38% among black students as opposed to 98% in white schools.
The new Government was facing an enormous challenge. The first and foremost obligation was to provide comprehensive and compulsory education for all South African children.
To achieve this, the Government needed to:
- Introduce a modern curriculum for the 21st century; the old curriculum was designed to make blacks economically and psychologically inferior.
- Fund and train 4000 new teachers a year to meet critical shortages in formerly disadvantaged areas.
- Construct thousands of new schools in previously neglected rural areas.
- Reduce class sizes. In some former black schools class sizes were between 70 and 100.
- Significantly raise levels of adult literacy.
- Shift teachers and resources from formerly privileged white schools to underprivileged villages and townships.
- Feed children who were too hungry to benefit from the education being offered to them.
The challenge was immense but the feeling was that South Africa could not afford to fail. "Education" said President Mbeki in an address to the nation in 1999, was crucial in "our effort to build a winning nation".