On 3 January, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga announced that the matric pass rate had risen by 3%. But critics said many students still drop out of schools and learners continue to perform badly in maths and reading tests.
These early January disputes have a much longer history than most people assume. In 1993, an editorial in the Natal Mercury opined that matric results had “reached a point of excellence so suspiciously high” there is reason to wonder whether the qualification “is really a passport to life”.
And if you go back another generation, you can read prominent educationist EG Malherbe making a similar complaint. A high school student, he said, could now attain a matriculation pass to enter university (the original meaning of “matric”) with the same ease as someone who had once passed the basic school-leaving exams (the current usage of “matric”). Thus, criticisms today that a student only needs 30% in some subjects to acquire a matric pass are part of an enduring anxiety about dropping educational standards.
What is new to the democratic period is the symbolism of matric results. After the horrors of Bantu Education, South Africans want to see the “doors of learning” opened, in the words of the 1955 Freedom Charter, and improved matric results signal that this is taking place.
Yet the persistent emphasis — by the government and critics alike — on exams and learner “throughput” (note the industrial terminology) can hide other ways that schools protect privilege. It bears remembering that the full sentence of the Freedom Charter states that the “doors of learning and culture” should be opened.
Here we need to recognise the basic maths of qualifications: The more people who have them, the more they are devalued. It follows that “non-qualification” attributes gained at school are more relevant when 400 000 people pass the matric exam every year. English language is especially important because of the shift from industrial to service work. To get a job in a call centre, for instance, you need the right English accent.
That English is given the most value in society despite being only the fifth most-spoken home tongue is an example of how cultural practices are organised hierarchically. This principle helps explain why the schooling system has partially desegregated but not deracialised. While most of the country’s top schools now admit a large proportion of black learners, formerly white schools that account for only 7% of public schools remain at the pinnacle of South Africa’s public schooling system. The pecking order is seen daily when thousands of learners travel from townships to attend schools in formerly Indian, coloured and white areas.
When the middle class pays for Model C or private school education, they are placing a child on an easier road to not only qualifications but also, crucially, cultural resources: accent, old boys’ clubs, a taste for rugby and cricket, and socialisation into business norms. Although prestige is never static or unchallenged, many of South Africa’s most privileged institutions are part of a network of Anglophone schools established in the British colonial world. Today, they still school Springboks and CEOs, who go on to help define what counts as prestige in society.
Frantz Fanon, the anticolonial activist widely evoked in South Africa today, theorised much more than colonial violence and the psychology of oppression. The Wretched of the Earth, published in the early 1960s, pioneered the study of how a “national bourgeoisie” overthrew colonial rule but upheld capitalism through preserving the prestige of whiteness.
Around the same time that Fanon was writing, and liberation leaders were drafting the Freedom Charter, Afrikaner nationalists were engaged in their own ambitious cultural project. It is well recognised that the National Party subordinated black society, but less discussed is how it raised the prestige of Afrikaans. Afrikaner nationalists targeted what they saw as British imperial dominance by boosting the status of Afrikaans through establishing separate schools and promoting Afrikaans literature and culture. This is what lies behind scholar Mahmood Mamdani’s remark at the University of Cape Town in 2017 that “Afrikaans represents the most successful decolonising initiative on the African continent”.
In contrast, the post-apartheid government’s cultural project — its attempt to give value to certain cultural expressions — is modest at best. The Constitution raised the status of African languages, and from time to time the government censures Afrikaans-medium schools that use language policy effectively to bar black students. However, the middle class, including politicians, is heavily invested in elite English schools that remain important incubators of whiteness in society. Here, it needs to be noted that whiteness is a concept that is related to but also different from white people. While always changing, it talks to how notions of civilisation, education and acceptable speech are more likely to be coded as white than black.
Consider, for a window into cultural privilege, why the term “model C school” has stuck around so long. It was introduced as a bland administrative concept in the early 1990s (along with models A, B and later D) to refer to schools built for whites that could admit black students. But its perseverance signals how whiteness has become anchored not in racial classification but in middle-class English cultural forms. It has come to symbolise a school’s white tone, including its preservation of high standards and white, native-English teachers, but not necessarily its admittance of only white learners.
Recent struggles to decolonise schooling reveal that the corridors of whiteness can be hostile places for students with black phenotypic traits, be it hair or skin colour, or those who vocalise too freely in African languages. Yet model C schools remain powerful launching pads for careers in business, media and politics.
In sharp contrast, and far from this urban world, rural schools are often derided for their low matric pass rates. Yet African languages commonly spoken in rural schools continue to be devalued in society, just as they were under apartheid. Unlike the middle class, poor South Africans often leave school without being able to speak acceptable English, that is, English with the right accent.
English is here to stay and a society whereby only poor people are monolingual African-language speakers is hardly a decolonised one. This wasn’t the model promoted at mission schools that harboured South Africa’s political leaders, from Nelson Mandela to Oliver Tambo, nor at the small but understudied cohort of excellent public schools that, through great determination, achieved remarkable results in apartheid’s townships and rural areas. Many of these schools recognised the importance of African languages while encouraging English usage in a way that didn’t simply parrot white society. This was multilingualism or, as linguists call it (recognising the artificial nature of language boundaries), “translanguaging”. So why today are some black schools that pioneered these practices mentored by model C schools, and not the other way around?
The overriding attention to the matric exam is only half the battle: The doors of culture must be opened through schooling.